What the People & Planet University League 2008 tells us


  • People & Planet’s People & Planet University League 2008 shows a remarkable improvement in environmental management and performance in the UK’s Higher Education Sector over the last year, spurred by the publication of the first ever People & Planet University League in 2007.

  • The sector has reached a critical ‘tipping point’. In a number of key areas more than half of the institutions in the People & Planet University League are achieving good environmental results. Implementing environmental management and translating this into results is beginning to become the norm in the sector, rather than the exception.

  • The most significant improvements are in the adoption of systemic environmental management policies and practices. However, there is still a long way to go to improve the actual impacts of the sector on the environment.

  • The improvements in the sector are a remarkable achievement, which in many cases is down to the hard work of committed staff and students over a long period of time. To convert these institutional improvements into truly sectoral change, this hard work needs to be complemented by government leadership and a national carbon reduction strategy for HE which supports a real culture of sustainability.

  • In the wider national context, the Climate Change Bill will commit the UK to year-on-year reductions in carbon emissions. The changes already taking place in HE create an opportunity to develop a model of sectoral carbon reduction for other sectors of the economy.

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Excellence in environmental management has not historically been a key priority for the Higher Education sector in the UK. In the early 1990s the Toyne Report represented an initial effort to raise the profile of the issue and to drive up standards. But a subsequent review (the Khan Review 1996) concluded that most of the institutions and organisations targeted in the 1993 Report, including government, had demonstrated “considerable indifference” to its recommendations. Environmental management within the HE sector was, with rare exceptions, characterised by short-lived initiatives and slow, patchy progress.

A number of factors have helped to bring about significant improvements in recent years. The creation of a dedicated organisation, the Environmental Association of Universities and Colleges, in 1996 provided a focus and resource point for institutions which want to improve environmental performance; and the growing awareness about the threat which climate change poses to our economy and society is beginning to influence the curriculum and stimulate an appreciation of sustainability which gets ‘beyond recycling’. In this context, People & Planet’s Go Green campaign — launched in 2003 — added the dimension of nationwide, student activism demanding the kind of systemic change which the Toyne and Khan reports recommended.

There is no doubt that the thousands of students who have been campaigning for greener campuses have driven systemic change within the sector. The People & Planet University League 2007 brought sustainability to the forefront of Vice Chancellors’ minds and, one year later, the People & Planet University League is a clear indicator that there have been tangible changes within the sector.

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People & Planet University League 2008 key results

  • The number of universities taking part has increased to 121 universities

    The People & Planet University League provides a comprehensive and authoritative measure of progress towards transforming environmental performance in the sector. There is now active interest on the part of UK universities in being a part of the People & Planet University League, and in that sense it is already beginning to change institutional culture towards the role and status of environmental management.

  • Universities with publicly available environmental policies has increased to 97%

    A publicly available environmental policy is a basic building block of environmental management. The best are regularly reviewed at a senior level, and include time bound targets and objectives in all areas of environmental impact. The most limited provide a statement of commitment and intent. Those institutions with no publicly available policy are serious environmental laggards.

  • Universities with full-time environmental officers/managers has increased to 70

    Experience is clear — this is the key step for universities to take if they are to bring about long-term, systemic change. There has been good progress in the last year with 18 universities creating such a post. This is a 25% increase over 2007. It also means that, for the first time, more than half of all universities now employ at least one full-time member of staff dedicated to environmental management.

  • Universities which have completed a comprehensive environmental audit has increased to 73

    Conducting a full environmental audit is critical — either as a baseline or as a measure of continuing change. The 2008 league shows that 73 universities have conducted a comprehensive environmental audit. This is a very significant improvement over last year with 31 universities doing an audit in 2007/8.

  • 66 Universities are now buying renewable energy, and 25 increased the proportion of renewable energy in their overall energy consumption.

    With our emphasis on combating climate change, we are pleased to report that just over half of all universities are now consuming renewable energy to a greater or lesser extent. Even better, 25 universities — over 20% of universities in the People & Planet University League — increased the proportion of renewable energy in their overall energy consumption.

  • 71% of Universities cut carbon emissions

    The progress towards cutting carbon emissions is even more startling — a stunning 86 universities, 71% of universities in the People & Planet University League, reduced their reported carbon emissions from energy consumption over the last year. Total carbon emissions from energy usage in the sector have reduced by 3.5%.

  • Reaching a tipping point?

    The sector has tipped the 50% mark in a number of key areas — in the creation of full-time dedicated staff; in the number of universities conducting comprehensive audits; in the number of universities consuming at least some energy from renewable sources and in the number of universities that have reduced their carbon emissions and are now on a downward trajectory.

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There are still improvements to be made

Despite the clear and impressive improvements in environmental management and performance in the sector demonstrated by the People & Planet University League 2008, there is still a long way to go on the path to sustainability.

  • While almost all universities have a publicly available environment policy of some sort, only 12 picked up full marks in this year’s People & Planet University League, for a regularly reviewed policy with specific time-bound targets in 9 areas of environmental management. The challenge now is to convince universities to set ambitious and comprehensive policies that will be the basis for changes in practice.

  • There are still 51 universities with no full-time staff member dedicated to environmental management. This means little or no capacity for policies to be developed and implemented and performance improvements to be won, in a significant proportion of the sector.

  • In terms of direct environmental impact (carbon emissions, water usage, waste etc), environmental management should be a process of continual improvement. The People & Planet University League shows some universities improving performance this year, with others maintaining or even worsening their impact.

  • The accuracy, transparency and reliability or environmental monitoring needs to improve. The environmental performance indicators used in the People & Planet University League are based on the Estates Management Statistics, which are voluntarily provided by universities with no external auditing. For example, 27 universities reported a reduction in emissions per head of 20% or more. While such step change reductions are possible, without external auditing the figures must be treated with caution.

  • This year, the People & Planet University League added the criteria of ethical investment, to assess the indirect impact of universities. In the context of climate change, it is essential to monitor and reduce ‘embedded’ emissions resulting from investments, as well as direct operational emissions. Only 17 universities have an ethical investment policy, and there is significant disparity in the scope and quality of these policies, with the majority unlikely to lead to changes in investment practice.

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A transformational vision of sustainability for the sector

The results show a sector that has begun to recognise that effective environmental management is now an essential part of running a world class university and that the HE sector has a critical role to play in enabling other sectors of the economy to make the transformation to a low carbon model.

There is no doubt that we need to do much more to ensure that the best practice of some universities becomes common practice for all. With the Climate Change Bill coming into law later this year, setting a trajectory for carbon reduction across society, we need a comprehensive carbon reduction strategy for the HE sector which will drive down carbon emissions year-on-year.

A transformational vision of sustainability for the HE sector, and a realistic yet ambitious carbon reduction strategy must have the following elements:

  • Full participation and buy-in from the sector.

  • Clear and ambitious targets for annual carbon reductions in the sector.

  • Mandatory reporting of carbon emissions.

  • Financial incentives.

  • Individual universities producing carbon reduction strategies

The results of the People & Planet University League suggest that the HE sector is ready to change. It needs leadership and drive from the government and the full-blown support of all sector stakeholders. If we can demonstrate that the HE sector can Go Green, our experience could stimulate change in the health sector and other elements of the public sector.

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