The University of Oxford has today released its draft Environmental Sustainability Strategy, with plans to reach net zero carbon emissions and a net gain in biodiversity by 2035.

The Strategy will be open for student and staff consultation until 6 December.

The target of net zero carbon emissions by 2035 is a significant shift from the University’s previous targets, which were to reduce emissions by 50% by 2035 from their peak in 2009/10.

Whilst the Strategy does not bind colleges – as they are separate entities from the University – the draft expects colleges to “implement similar measures and targets.”

In her foreword to the draft Strategy, Vice Chancellor Professor Louise Richardson said: “The University of Oxford is committed to leading the way on environmental sustainability through its research and teaching. This strategy extends that commitment to our operational impact, our supply chain, our investments, our daily working lives.”

Richardson added: “Just as we have had to challenge all aspects of business as usual in order to be resilient during the pandemic, dealing with the consequences of climate change will require significant, often unwelcome, changes in our daily lives.”

She also indicated that student and staff pressure has resulted in the adoption of a more ambitious carbon emissions target, noting that the conclusion from a 2019 consultation, asking whether the University was doing enough to address the climate and ecological crisis, was a “resounding” no.

The targets also have the support of the Student Union, whose President, Nikita Ma, wrote in a foreword: “As a Student Union we are very proud to endorse this strategy and its targets and commitments. We were consulted throughout development of the strategy and it is a direct reflection of a shared vision which the community of environmentally concerned students brought to the administration.”

The Environmental Sustainability Strategy focuses on nine priority areas:

  1. Research.
  2. Curriculum.
  3. Carbon emissions from University buildings.
  4. Biodiversity.
  5. Sustainable food.
  6. Sustainable resource use.
  7. International travel.
  8. Local travel.
  9. Investments.

In addition, the Strategy is underpinned by what are called four ‘enablers’:

  1. Embedding the Strategy in the University’s governance and decision-making.
  2. Developing an annual reporting system of both carbon emissions reduction and impacts on biodiversity.
  3. Establishing the Oxford Sustainability Fund to ensure the Strategy’s targets are reached through adequately-funded actions.
  4. Establishing carbon-offsetting and biodiversity-offsetting policies.

The carbon targets include those emissions from what are called scope 1, 2 and 3 activities. This is significant as scope 3 emissions, often overlooked in climate policies, include those from more indirect activities such as travel, procurement, waste, water and investments.

In its Strategy document, which can be reached using the Single Sign On access on the University’s Environmental Sustainability website, the draft explains:

“We will tackle two major sources of carbon emissions from the University: the use of gas and electricity, and international air travel. We will achieve net zero carbon from gas and electricity usage through a combination of engagement to reduce energy consumption, recovering the savings from the carbon emissions reductions from departments, changing heat sources to eliminate emissions, improving building fabric and fittings to increase efficiencies, and carbon offsetting.”

“Net zero carbon from aviation emissions will be achieved with a combination of engagement to reduce flights taken, levying a sustainability charge on business flights and international student commuting flights, and carbon offsetting.”

The University estimates that in the 2018/19 academic year, staff and student flights combined emitted 51,000 tonnes of carbon. The University is in the latter stages of producing a flying-less report, with surveys and interviews conducted in the summer.

Further, the Strategy admits that the University’s greatest impact on biodiversity is from its operations and supply chain: “These impacts will be identified, avoided and reduced. We will achieve a net gain in biodiversity by avoiding and reducing the negative impact of our operations and supply chain, biodiversity enhancements on and off the estate, biodiversity offsetting and achieving a 20% net gain on all new developments.”

The draft Strategy notes: “We all face an unprecedented threat from multiple, intersecting environmental problems. These pose an existential threat to human society as we know it across the planet, and it is vital that every individual, company and institution does their part to address them.”

“This Environmental Sustainability Strategy provides a framework for the University of Oxford to do this. We are under no illusion that putting it into practice will be easy, but we believe that the principles set out above will put us on the road to becoming part of the solution to the environmental crisis.”

Max Spokes

Max (he/him) was formerly Environment News Editor and Climate Columnist at The Blue. He is in his final year studying History and Politics at Balliol.