Universities in US and Canada beat UK in sustainability league | sustainability

British universities lag behind their US and Canadian counterparts in a global sustainability ranking, which ranks them according to their environmental footprint and contribution to society, as student climate campaigners warn nearly half are falling short of their emissions targets.

The ranking places the University of California, Berkeley at number 1 followed by two Canadian institutions, the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia, with Edinburgh University being the UK’s best performing institution in fourth place due to its strong sustainability research.

The UK’s second-highest university was Glasgow in 13th place, which according to ranking compiler QS has done well on equality thanks to a large number of female leaders and a transparent approach to governance.

Next is Oxford in 16th place, Newcastle in 18th and Cambridge claiming 19th place.

Andrew MacFarlane, the QS rankings manager, said the UK had done “extraordinarily well”, with the second-highest proportion of institutions in the top 100 after the US.

“On average, [UK universities] demonstrate good gender diversity ratios, both at staff and student levels, published commitments on diversity and tolerance, and climate action and governance, an impressive research focus that speaks to many of the UN’s SDGs, and evidence of transparent governance,” he said.

But Quinn Runkle, education director at Students Organizing for Sustainability, warned that nearly half of UK universities are not on track to meet carbon emissions targets and two-fifths have yet to commit to moving away from fossil fuels .

“While it is positive to see UK universities doing well overall, I think this reflects how far the sector has to go. Getting to the top doesn’t necessarily mean institutions are doing everything that needs to be done, it’s simply doing more than others,” she said.

She added that sustainability rankings could be a useful tool to drive change and she hoped such measures would be included in the overall ranking.

“Globally, only 3% of people go to university, but graduates fill 80% of leadership positions, so universities have an enormous duty to make sure sustainability decision-makers are right,” Runkle said.

Fiona Goodwin, executive director of the Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education, said “sustainability is a growing factor in choosing where students apply,” adding that she hopes the Department of Education’s new sustainability and climate strategy will provide the leadership and to provide the impetus for this, universities would do more.

QS’s survey of 3,000 students found that 82% of applicants researched their prospective institution’s sustainability work, while 87% considered its track record of equality and diversity. Almost three-quarters (73%) of students from Western Europe named the climate catastrophe as the biggest problem for young people.

The ranking is based on two categories: environmental impacts, which includes institutional sustainability and climate crisis teaching and research, and social impacts, which measure the equality and diversity of the institution, and how social justice is reflected in curricula and research.

Edinburgh’s high ranking is the result of its research aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, a good record on diversity, a strong environmental sciences department – including a climate institute and courses such as Msc Climate Change – and many partnerships with Universities from the Global South.

Planned initiatives include a carbon sequestration program that will capture more than 1 million tons of CO2abandoning fossil fuels completely, giving scholarships to people from the areas hardest hit by the climate crisis to explore ways to combat its impact and supporting the Scottish capital’s net-zero target.

Dave Gorman, Director of Social Responsibility and Sustainability at Edinburgh University, said the institution wants to “increase our ambition year on year”, adding that it hopes to develop this further over the next decade by increasing its focus on sustainability expanding social responsibility, biodiversity, resources and circular economy.

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