A university ranking organisation has rated Newcastle University seventh globally for “climate action” and top for the United Kingdom.
Times Higher Education (THE) has produced a ranking which assesses how universities are making efforts to reduce climate change by measuring energy use, the presence of a university-wide climate action plan, and cooperation with public bodies to establish climate change planning.
The publication of these rankings has made many question the relevance of these rankings, and in particular the ambiguity of what commendable “climate action” should be.
Climate change is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore; the manifestations of our drastic impact on the planet are devastating, and require imperative action. With this knowledge being ever more so in the public consciousness, people are becoming increasingly responsible for their choices. This is leading to the popularity of seemingly easy fixes to environmentally relevant issues. With McDonald’s banning plastic straws as an example, corporations are either starting to genuinely care about these worries, or rather maintain their public image by allowing the consumer to still buy their products without feeling guilty. Regardless of what the motivations might be, it is necessary to question the reason behind the need for organisations to appear sensible to climate change, and whether that should make a difference in how consumers support them.
In this regard, universities should be held under close observation. Reflecting a progressive representation of the academic world combined with a genuine will to improve the planet are the main reasons why the criteria of “climate action” is becoming increasingly relevant to a university’s reputation. Especially in the field of scientific research, the perception of being part of a truly revolutionary institution can help draw numerous motivated scholars. Given the importance of such research in this topic, the legitimacy of the commitment to “climate actions” is highly relevant.
For instance, Newcastle University has been ranked top in the United Kingdom and seventh in the world for “climate action” by Times Higher Education. Their methodology appears logical at a first look. In fact, the ranking takes into consideration not only research, but also the institutions’ low carbon energy use. While these two factors account for half of the metrics, the other half is occupied by one category: environmental education measures. Because these are widely defined, their inclusion in the criteria is reasonable: education policies assume particular relevance in the context of an educational institution. The work done by Newcastle University in these areas is remarkable, and should be rewarded.
However, it is notable how the ranking does not seem to be considering investments. Although the university aimed to “divest its £60m of endowment funds from thermal coal and oil/tar sand companies” by 2021, as of October 2018, 4.4% of total endowment funds are still going towards oil and gas. Although this is a notable reduction from the 8.8% of September 2017, it is still not ideal, if acceptable at all.