Is the university doing enough to fight the climate crisis?

University of Glasgow Main Building

Credit: Glasgow Guardian / Madeleine Baker

Elle Mayne

Glasgow University was the first university in Europe to divest from all fossil fuels. After over a year of campaigning led by university societies, in 2014 the University of Glasgow began to move £18m from fossil fuel investments to sustainable alternatives. In the last five years, has our university lost momentum in tackling the climate crisis? 

In 2017/2018 Glasgow University produced 61,000 tonnes of CO2. That’s equivalent to the environmental cost of feeding 23,400 meat-eaters or 58,300 vegans for an entire year. In the university’s 2009 carbon management plan they detailed a goal to reduce their annual carbon footprint to 39,000 tonnes by 2020, which was arguably not ambitious enough. In 2018 this target was revised and the 2020 goal was increased to 55,000 tonnes. The university has failed to be ambitious and proactive in regards to their CO2 emissions, they have made no advancement on the government set a net-zero goal of 2050, and have failed to meet their already unambitious targets. Other universities have set goals for their institutions to be carbon neutral: Bristol in 2030 and Edinburgh in 2040. In October 2019 a student-led petition at the University of Strathclyde called for an institution-wide referendum on whether the student union should lobby the university to become carbon neutral by 2025. Other universities are setting ambitious carbon-neutral goals, whilst Glasgow lags behind. We are being complacent. It’s time to take the initiative and set some new bold goals. 

The student-run organisation People and the Planet rank Glasgow University 85th out of 154 universities in the UK, scoring a 33.5% sustainability rating. This score is a culmination of various subsections — water reduction, workers rights, ethical investment, energy sources, and more. Glasgow fell behind in the carbon management section, scoring just 10/100. The table highlights how far we are lagging behind other institutions. Glasgow ranked 18th out of the 24 Russell Group universities, with Bristol University being the most sustainable. Glasgow has reduced its carbon footprint by 4% since 2007/2008 whilst Bristol has reduced its carbon footprint by 15%. So what more should we be doing? 

The installation of LEDs in the last year was effective in reducing electricity consumption, and the continuation of the project across all university buildings is important. The university has attempted to reduce its transport emissions by advocating for projects like journey share — encouraging car sharing — and promoting the use of public transport. Glasgow University Environmental Sustainability Team (GUEST) is a student-led group aiming to promote sustainability on campus. They run events like the bike hub, which offers bike repairs, as well as recycling initiatives and petitions for various sustainability issues within the university. Currently, only two university buildings utilise solar energy, with one using biomass as a renewable heat source.

We are living in a time of unprecedented climate change. CO2 emissions have reached an all-time high this decade and sea levels are rising at an increasing rate. Governments have a responsibility to take action and implement stricter guidelines and more ambitious goals for climate action. However, universities are regarded as centres of modern thought, and they need to take the initiative and lead by example. Instead of waiting to comply with new government policy, universities should be pressuring the government to be stricter. 

The university has a sustainable food policy, is fairtrade certified, and assures that all meat comes from red tractor sources — a logo assuring the meat comes from a farm respecting animal welfare standards, however, these are not much more strict than legal standards.. Food outlets across the university have vegetarian and vegan options, and avoiding meat and dairy is the single biggest way to reduce an individual’s environmental impact. By removing red meat (lamb and beef) from all of its outlets the University of Cambridge has substantially lowered the CO2 impact of its catering. Glasgow could follow suit and remove red meat or only offer vegetarian options. Glasgow University catering has aimed to be single-use plastic-free by 2024, and have a keep cup initiative in which students who bring a reusable cup pay a reduced price for their drink. This shouldn’t take five years — single-use plastic should not be an option in food outlets now. The keep cup initiative is great and is on par with other chain coffee shops, however, why are paper cups still offered in the food outlets? Every student in student halls is given a reusable water bottle, so why are single-use plastic bottles still sold? The university could provide students with a keep cup and bottle and then remove the single-use option to create a more drastic effect.

We are making small steps in the right direction, but the urgency of the climate crisis calls for more radical and immediate action. Young people are at the forefront of the climate revolution —  students have been instrumental in initiatives like the school strike and extinction rebellion. Students outwardly represent their university’s image and yet the university’s policies do not reflect their beliefs and values. We are calling for action but it is falling on deaf ears.


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