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People and Planet this week published their league table of the UK’s greenest universities, with Sussex coming in at number 43. The University seems to be publicising this as a roaring success, after climbing from 65th place last year. But in a town such as Brighton, Sussex should be doing so much better.
The headline in a recent Sussex broadcast reads “Sussex named among greenest universities”. However, being ranked 43rd out of 115, the word ‘greenest’ seems a touch hyperbolic. Sussex just about creeps into the top 40%.
The People and Planet Green League rated universities according to 14 indicators of environmental friendliness. Sussex scored 51.7%, which once again doesn’t actually seem like such a huge success story.
Sussex scored particularly well on their environmental policy. However, having an environmental policy and being environmentally friendly are two very different things.
Sussex scored below 50% for 7 out of 14 indicators, including carbon reduction, waste reduction, workers’ rights and energy sources:
Importantly, this poor showing occurs within a historical and political context which should logically have seen much better scores all round from this University. We are situated in the relatively affluent county of East Sussex, and we benefit from various perks which tend to make the South-East of the UK a good performer on environmental metrics: good public transport links, a lack of heavy industry, high incomes, high aspiration etc. Moreover, the local city of Brighton is famed for having the only Green MP in the UK, and for having the only Green-led council (whilst lacking an overall majority, the Greens have 20 councillors, with the Conservatives in second place with 18).
The location has always been a major factor in the University’s intake of both students and staff; in fact, most of the promotional material produced by Sussex shows pictures of sunny Brighton, not of the University itself. Many people choose to work or study at Sussex because of Brighton’s green credentials. This is certainly the case for me personally; I will always cite Brighton as one of the main drivers of my decision to stay at this University.
Therefore, with such a locational advantage, why does Sussex University not perform better in the Green League? There are numerous environmental indicators on which Sussex needs to improve, but there are two indicators on which Sussex scores 0%. One of these is ‘ethical investments’, and is worth looking into in more detail.
The University has an ethical investment policy – like other Universities, it doesn’t invest in arms, tobacco, oppressive regimes etc. So why have People and Planet given it 0%?
Well, one thing that the University does invest in is fossil fuels.
The University’s investment portfolio includes investments in BP, Shell and Rio Tinto, amongst others, and every year it invests hundreds of thousands of pounds – around 5% of its £8 million endowment fund – in fossil fuel companies.
What’s more, the University’s investment policy itself has very little transparency or accountability. The University relies on a number of investment managers to look after its fund. However, the exact proportions of the fund given to each were only obtained via a Freedom of Information request in early 2014. Even with this information, one can still only account for around two-thirds’ of where the fund money actually goes (i.e., to which companies and how much). This lack of transparency, combined with the inability of students and staff to engage with the policy, also accounts for the 0% ethical investment score.
The University’s failure within this category illustrates the increasing impatience of environmental groups with public organisations which invest in fossil fuels. The evidence is mounting that oil, gas and coal mining companies hold far more carbon within their reserves than can be burned whilst staying below a 2°C global temperature increase. An investment in fossil fuels is therefore evidently not an ‘ethical’ investment, assuming that protecting the environment and mitigating climate change is an ethic we choose to hold dear.
Clearly, the University is stretching the truth somewhat when it claims to be “among the greenest Universities”. It is stretching the truth in both a statistical and an ethical sense.
Sussex should be performing much better considering its locational context; indeed, many of the students and staff naturally expect the University to perform well on environmental metrics, and would be surprised to learn about the areas in which it is failing. There are clearly numerous areas in which they could improve their environmental standing; one of the most glaringly obvious is to stop investing in fossil fuel companies whilst making their investment policy completely transparent.
There is a petition calling on the University of Sussex to end its investments in fossil fuel companies: http://campaigns.gofossilfree.org/petitions/sussex-university-ethical-investment-campaign
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