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Universities step up efforts to combat climate change

Image credit: Kukotaekaterina | Dreamstime

Universities across the UK are taking strong action in becoming more environmentally friendly, with measures ranging from beef and plastic bans, to coaxing students into beekeeping on-site, a PA news agency investigation has found.

According to the agency’s report, multiple institutions have committed to tackling their carbon footprint by reducing meat consumption, switching to reusable straws, crockery and cutlery, and turning lights and screens off.

Other schemes found by PA Media include recycling used coffee grounds into sustainable biofuels, removing products containing palm oil, and planting native bulbs to attract birds and insects to university grounds.

Many universities have pledged to go carbon neutral in a handful of cases, with details obtained under freedom of information laws showing schemes being established at campuses across the country.

Leaders of such universities have said the higher education sector “recognises the importance” of these issues to staff and students and is committed to making progress. Student groups have also praised universities for acting to tackle the widespread issue – this is partly due to pressure from undergraduates.

Environmental issues have been under greater spotlight among younger people over the past year or so following the protest actions of Swedish student Greta Thunberg, who has joined the likes of naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough and former US president Barack Obama in calls for action.

“Universities take climate change very seriously and recognise the importance of this issue to students and staff alike,” a spokesman for Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, said. “Through their research, UK universities are leading the way in tackling global environmental challenges.

The spokesperson added: “As well as moving away from the use of fossil fuels, universities are working hard to tackle their own carbon footprints, investing in energy-saving technologies, finding sustainable supply chains and focusing on greater energy efficiency, including greener and more sustainable buildings.”

PA’s investigation, which drew responses from 144 UK universities and colleges, found that many have committed to reducing plastics on their campuses.

While most have not opted to ban single-use plastic bottles, nearly one in three (42 institutions) are considering some sort of restriction. Levies on such items – or subsidies for those who bring reusable cups – have also been found to be popular, with 58 per cent stating they have introduced such a measure.

Furthermore, a handful of universities have introduced bans on meat products, particularly beef. This is because production of the meat concerns environmentalists due to animal methane output, water consumption and effluent waste.

The PA’s investigation also found that vegetarian and vegan events are becoming more commonplace, with around half of universities and colleges disclosing they are running such gatherings or have done so previously.

Around a fifth (21 per cent) of universities have concrete plans to become carbon neutral or achieve net-zero, while many more are looking at the issue or want to put plans in place, the report added. Here, a greater number of universities said they had increased the number of water fountains on campus in recent years. 59 institutions surveyed have introduced new hydration points compared with 51 who had not.

The investigation also found some more unusual environmental measures. At least four universities – the School of African and Oriental Studies, Glasgow School of Art, Cranfield University and the Royal Academy of Music – are pursuing beekeeping or honey-harvesting schemes. Furthermore, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and Glasgow Caledonian University are among those promoting tree-planting.

“It is great to see our universities are at a tipping point and there is no doubt that this has been in part thanks to student pressure,” said Zamzam Ibrahim, president of the National Union of Students (NUS).

“NUS has campaigned for years to make our institutions just and sustainable from our divestment campaigns to our recycling campaigns,” she added. “We saw the student movement make history again with the announcement that over half of UK universities have committed to divest from fossil fuel companies.”

Last November, Bristol-based trip-hop band Massive Attack partnered with climate scientists at the University of Manchester’s Tyndall Centre to examine the key impact areas of the music industry’s effects upon the environment.

Also in August, Goldsmiths, part of the University of London, announced they banned the sale of beef on its campus to combat climate change – the first higher education institution in Britain to do so.

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