Students by a sign by Gerd Altmann on Pixabay

Universities – A New Ground For Climate Action

Universities are vital hubs of research and teaching on climate change. As large organisations, they also produce significant emissions, which contribute to our climate crisis. Universities should therefore be at the forefront of global action to limit climate change. How best can they do this?

Educating the climate leaders of the future

The growing impacts of climate change are of paramount concern to today’s generation of students. Climate change is the defining issue of our time, posing new and growing challenges we will face throughout our lives. In the coming decades, we will see significant changes to human societies, due to both increasingly dramatic changes to the Earth’s climate and efforts to mitigate climate change.

Understanding and taking action to minimise the impacts of climate change is of the utmost importance and requires highly skilled and knowledgeable politicians, scientists, teachers, engineers and professionals. Universities such as Oxford are world leaders in climate change research and are well-positioned to spread this expertise. Yet current students may study politics, economics, law or natural sciences with limited engagement with climate change, the defining issue of our time. It is the university’s responsibility to futureproof its curricula, and we expect universities to enable us to deal with changing environments and societies in the UK and around the world. Climate change, sustainability and environmental action belong on the curriculum!

Climate change is a complex and multifaceted problem, the different components of which need to be addressed in a wide range of courses. In the natural sciences, the foundations and implications of climate science need to feature more prominently. For social sciences students, the relevance of knowledge about climate policy and economics cannot be overstated. Equally, environmental law should be given greater focus within the jurisprudence course.

Certain elements of the study of climate change will be particularly relevant for specific departments. Nonetheless, we believe that there are some key topics that are relevant regardless of academic alignment, such as the globally differentiated impacts of climate change, their mitigation and possible adaptation measures. Case studies on issues like transport, food and energy can serve as windows into the broader study of climate change.

There are issues of then eliminating the core aspects of a course by replacing it with climate education. Arguably, climate change is intersectional and interdisciplinary and can be targeted for these specific subjects. But if this is too big an obstacle for universities to overcome, then promoting extra-curricular workshops, seminars, talks and more, is the bare minimum.


Oxford Climate Society has pushed for climate on the curriculum through our ‘Sustainability on the Curriculum’ campaign and is now looking at making workshops available for both students and staff.

We are making information available to all and providing the opportunity for individuals to educate themselves and take action.

Our recent workshop focused on biodiversity net gain – something integral to climate action but not something in the limelight. In the near future, development projects will be required, by law, to achieve ‘biodiversity net gain’ (BNG) using a metric calculation developed by DEFRA and Natural England. Biodiversity Net Gain is an approach to development that leaves biodiversity in a better state than before. Where development has an impact on biodiversity it encourages developers to provide an increase in appropriate natural habitat and ecological features over and above that being affected in such a way, it is hoped, that the current loss of biodiversity through development will be halted and ecological networks can be restored.

This workshop took participants through the basics of BNG for development projects and will explain that not all BNG projects are equal – developers and their partners should be aiming for best-practice in this area. Using the local case study of the Begbroke Science Park, this workshop will take participants through the stages of planning and executing a successful BNG project, how to apply best-practice correctly, and how to ensure development aligns with the University’s sustainability ambitions.

Here are our workshops for Michaelmas 2021:

From a simple google search of ‘University Sustainability Workshops’ eight different UK universities have their own individual courses. The workshops highlight our responsibility as global citizens and explore our opportunities to combat some of the world’s most critical issues, in our own lives and working environments. Alongside this, searching for sustainability societies brings an avalanche of different green spaces and hubs for students to join their ‘eco-tribes’.


Oxford Climate Society has also formulated a campaign targeting decarbonisation for specific colleges across the University. Through student body action and initiative, this is readily applicable to other University structures and systems.

Since the legislation of the UK-wide climate target, we have seen a suite of announcements from businesses, local authorities and institutions declaring emergencies and pledging their own net-zero commitments, many of which are decades in advance of 2050.

Universities are among those to have set progressive targets; however, “most are still aligned to the old sector target of an 80% reduction of 1990 levels by 2050,” says Zamzam Ibrahim, President of the NUS and SOS-UK. Regarding addressing sustainability issues, 94% of students wish to see universities do more to be environmentally sustainable. There is not only a need to lower emissions and reduce costs but also to showcase the actions universities are taking to tackle climate change. Meeting net zero ambitions will require carbon emissions reduction plans that go much further than they have before, drawing on solutions that address and overcome the challenges universities face today while unlocking opportunities for the future.

One key challenge is that most universities have their own centralised energy systems which date back to the 1980s, meaning that campus heating infrastructure is often old and inefficient. With high population density and predictable high heat demand, university campuses are well placed to benefit from heat networks, otherwise known as district heating.

Heat networks form a key part of the UK’s transition to net zero emissions by 2050 and are particularly suited to high density areas such as university campuses. They supply heat from a central source through a series of insulated pipes carrying hot water, removing the need for each individual building to generate its own heat on site and subsequently unlocking larger-scale, renewable and recovered heat sources. With the ability to heat a few small buildings or an entire city, heat networks are recognised as a cost-effective way to provide reliable, low carbon heating. They could play a strategic role in university carbon emission reduction plans whilst delivering wider benefits. The development of a heat network on campus, for example, could benefit those inside and outside the university community, extending over time to provide low carbon heat to businesses and homes off-campus.


Media coverage of climate change has had effects on public opinion on climate change, as it mediates the scientific consensus on climate change that the global temperature has increased in recent decades and that the trend is caused by human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases.

As Media Director for Oxford Climate Society, I believe media presence plays a vital role in shaping the public discourse on the climate crisis in a responsible manner, enabling the people to act and shape the green and sustainable future that they want for themselves, their children, and the future of life.

Social media, journalism, writing and other forms of information output give the opportunity for students to voice their opinions on what should and shouldn’t be done. Universities have an abundance of this.

Universities can and must do more

Many universities have made a start, but they must be more ambitious as climate action leaders. All universities can and should take meaningful and visible action. 

I encourage everyone from students, staff, university communities, to get informed. Urge your university to divest from fossil fuels, use renewable energy and commit to achieving net zero emissions – soon. Organise your own campus sustainability initiative, or get active in your university’s existing one. 

Only by acting to understand and reduce their own climate impacts can universities be credible climate leaders. Their role as platforms for climate change research and engaged political commentary, as well as sustainable institutional practices, makes them global exemplars on climate action. In this, universities are essential to all of our futures.

The Oxford Climate Society is an award-winning University of Oxford society dedicated to connecting and developing informed climate leaders.

Our membership extends from students to professionals and the general public, welcoming all levels of interest and experience. We connect like-minded individuals, inspire and educate the next generation of climate leaders, take action towards ambitious emission reductions in Oxford, and provide platforms for academic, artistic, and social engagement with climate change.

We would like to emphasise that we are not using climate change in order to make a student society; we are using a student society as a method for exploring, designing, and implementing climate solutions. This emphasis on using OCS to create impact, rather than simply adding to the conversation, is central to our initiatives.

Mia Clement

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