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Home   /   The fight for a sustainable future: what is the University of Brighton doing?

It has been almost two years since the University of Brighton declared a state of climate emergency. Since then, the urgency of the climate crisis has only increased, and the significant publicity of COP26 made the need for action impossible to ignore. I spoke to the University of Brighton’s head of sustainability, Ollie Swan, to ask: is the University doing enough in the fight against climate change?

“[At] the University of Brighton, we’re going to try and do something different here and engage with the student body in ways perhaps that we haven’t done so before on climate action. In our own way, we’re trying to address this. We want students as the next generation or as citizens to actually take part in a discussion in their workplace and in society to transform it in the way that they wish to see it.”

Ollie Swan

The University of Brighton has recently expanded its sustainability department from one member of staff to a team of five people, with clear aims surrounding travel, carbon management, waste minimisation and energy efficiency. Ollie explained “The university is taking it really seriously: you don’t invest in five people if it’s going to be tokenistic. We want to see real change and so we’ve got a clear brief to achieve net zero and to integrate our teaching and learning with students, so they leave with a better outlook about sustainability issues and how to make informed choices”.

Evidenced by this recent huge investment, Brighton is clear in its determination to play its part in combatting the climate crisis. But is there discrepancy between intentions and action? At COP26, climate activist Greta Thunberg charged the global north with making ‘empty promises’ that would not translate to real change. Is this happening at the University of Brighton? Despite the commitment to net zero emissions, the carbon management plan has not been updated since 2017, three years before the University declared a climate emergency. “I would accept, and I think the university also accepts, that it’s now out of date” said Swan.

“I will be looking at, effectively, a whole new carbon management plan, but much more widely than that, it’s going to be a sustainability plan. We’re going to look at some ethical procurement, we’re going to look at net zero, and really think through these things in a more cohesive way. I felt that the carbon management plan didn’t cover every aspect of sustainability that we could or should be doing, particularly in terms of education for sustainable development.”

People and Planet’s 2021 University League ranks Brighton 33rd out of 154 institutions, based on a variety of sustainability measures. The breakdown of the 56.9% score shows 70% for the University’s carbon management plan, but 57.5% for actual carbon reduction. This is significantly higher than the 2019 score of 22.5% for carbon reduction (although Brighton have dropped eight places in the ranking overall), but there is evidently still some way to go in bridging the gap between good intentions and delivery.

Swan said “Performance metrics such as People and Planet can be quite useful, but also the algorithms that they use to evaluate indicate that there are some questions about the quality of scores that we achieve. I would accept that, for example, in the carbon management plan, it identifies some gaps, but sometimes these leagues only effectively identify high level details rather than actual, tangible action. We’re not going be intentionally chasing league table performance for its own sake; however, we hope that the approach we take will ultimately be validated and reflected in an honest score in People and Planet, and for that we hope we go up.

“We are going to make those changes [to the carbon management plan] and I think we accept it doesn’t go far enough. The current carbon management plan only took us down to about 4,000 tonnes of carbon and that’s not good enough. So we need to work out how much further we can go.”

The University is working in alignment with the UK’s 2050 deadline for net zero, although this will be easier in some sectors than others. Swan acknowledges the challenges ahead for Brighton in achieving this goal, for example, the increasing carbon output associated with housing a growing student body. “We may not be able to get to net zero exactly, but we will assess in which sectors and which areas we could actually accelerate the process to achieve faster carbon reduction.” The University will also implement high-quality carbon offsetting techniques in areas where carbon management is more difficult. “We should be able to halve our carbon emissions by 2030 and all of them by 2050. If we can do it before 2050, better still.”

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