Cambridge ranks 84th in sustainability table

‘There are successes here […] but those are undermined by a lack of action by the university itself’

A recent sustainability table has ranked the University of Cambridge at number 84 out of 153 UK universities, with the university sitting bottom of the table’s third category, the inhabitants of which are graded as “2:2 class universities.”

Extinction Rebellion Youth Cambridge have said that they are “not surprised” by the University’s performance, alleging that “it’s not that the University is lagging behind; they’re actively working against environmental justice.”

The People & Planet University League describes itself as the only comprehensive and independent league table of UK universities ranked by environmental and ethical performance. People & Planet is “the largest student network in the UK campaigning for social and environmental justice,” and they work with young campaigners to advocate for migrant and climate justice.

The 2022/23 league evaluated universities according to 14 criteria, including Education, Ethical Investment, Energy Sources, and Workers’ Rights. Each university achieved a percentage ranking, as Cardiff Metropolitan University topped the table with 82.3 per cent, while Stranmillis University finished bottom with a score of 2.2 per cent.

Dan Kittmer, chair of Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire Young Greens, has said of the ranking: “For a supposedly world-leading university, these results are obviously extremely disappointing. There are successes here – a 99 per cent score in Education for Sustainable Development, for instance, but those are undermined by a lack of action by the university itself. There’s a credibility gap, between the vision and promise in the education the university provides and the almost total inaction from Senate House.”

Jo Clarke, People & Planet’s Co-Director of Climate Campaigns identified universities’ relationships with oil, gas, and mining companies as a key area where “UK universities must take action,” as only three per cent of the sector had “implemented such policies in the year’s ranking.”

Clarke stated: “It is vital that we end the recruitment pipeline into the industries [linked to] the climate crisis, and universities meet that challenge urgently.”

Cambridge’s overall score sat at 40.7 per cent, and its individual scores within the 14 criteria varied greatly. The university received a zero per cent score on its Policy and Strategy, and one per cent for Ethical Investment Banking, for example, while its Staff and HR was awarded 100 per cent and its Education for Sustainable Development achieved 99 percentage points.

The University also received below 50 per cent scores for sections such as Sustainable Food (40), Carbon Reduction (22.5), Water Reduction (16.75), and Energy Sources (33).

Cambridge’s scores across the survey’s 14 criteria. Image credits: People & Planet

Looking at Cambridge’s low score for Policy and Strategy, the report notes that half of its score in this section requires a publicly available policy that had been published within the last five years, which, according to People & Planet, was not available.

The report noted that: “We wanted to see that the policy wasn’t just sitting in a dusty desktop year after year and we needed to know that the policy meant something to staff, students, and decision-makers at the university.”

Dan Kittmer, chair of Cambridge Young Greens, believes that a zero per cent score in Policy and Strategy “just isn’t good enough when this university has been a world leader in climate research for decades. This score speaks to the piecemeal approach the central university takes on almost every issue, from student mental health to bursary provision to climate action.”

Kittmer also found reason for criticism in Cambridge’s 16.75 per cent score for Water Reduction, saying: “The complacency seen in the University’s approach to water management is also deeply concerning. Cambridge is already the UK’s driest city and our delicate water systems are under enormous pressure. Local climate impacts must be considered alongside the global picture. The fact the university seems to be making no use of rainwater or grey water and has no working targets in water management is unacceptable.”

The requirements for which Cambridge received its one per cent score on Ethical Investment Banking included the report’s zero per cent score for its “commitment in policy to screen out specific sectors, such as fossil fuel companies [and] arms companies.”

In response to the 84th-place ranking, XR Youth Cambridge claimed: “The University talks big talk on the climate crisis, launching endless flashy sustainability initiatives, but refuses to walk the walk by cutting ties” with companies linked to the climate crisis.

The group claim the report shows a university that is still committed to “false solutions”: “They promote false ‘solutions’ like carbon offsets and colonial conservation, which only enable these companies to carry on business as usual at the expense of most affected people and areas.

“It’s not that the University is lagging behind; they’re actively working against environmental justice. This won’t change until the University makes a fundamental shift away from self-aggrandising greenwash campaigns and towards a real just transition by fully acknowledging their complicity.”

The University of Cambridge has been contacted for comment.

Featured image credits: Matilda Head