Oxford University’s Student Union (SU) has released their sustainability demands tracker, after giving colleges until the end of March to update accordingly. Using a traffic light coding system, each college was assessed on their target, strategy, and enablers to reach net zero carbon and improve biodiversity. Out of all the colleges, only Somerville managed to fully meet two of the three demands; a third of all colleges didn’t show any progress on any demand and were coded entirely in red.
Originally proposed in November last year, the sustainability tracker addresses “the need to visibly see what progress is being made” by each of the colleges. Although the University itself intends to reach net zero carbon by 2035, only ten colleges have committed to this so far. “[W]e can’t really claim the whole University is committed to this since the colleges make up such a huge part of the University,” the SU told Cherwell.
The criteria proposed by the SU requires colleges to adopt a target for net zero carbon and biodiversity net gain by at least 2035, in line with the university’s target. They also request that colleges publish strategies on improving biodiversity and tackling scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions (which includes emissions caused indirectly through the colleges’ activities, such as travel and investments). These would need to be reported on annually, and colleges must display a policy commitment to divest from fossil fuels, in order to achieve a ‘green’ grade. Whilst 20 colleges either have or are working on a strategy, no college has met this demand fully so far. In order to meet the enabler criteria, the SU asked colleges to administer appropriate governance procedures, such as a sustainability committee, to enforce the sustainability strategy.
When asked why the results were solely based on publicly available information, the SU explained that “[t]his is because what we are asking for – a target, strategy and enablers – are things which when developed, should be publicly available, as they are for the central University (and have been since 2021). Thus, we really encourage those colleges who are doing sustainability work but haven’t yet articulated this on their website, to do so.”
St Peter’s Environmental Rep, Luke Vernon, commented that the SU’s decision to use publicly available information was “fair” but that the tracker “places too much emphasis on setting a net zero target, which encourages Colleges to set an optimistic target which might dishearten students if it can’t be met.
“St Peter’s got an amber for the ‘target’ section which again is completely justified given that St Peter’s hasn’t set a concrete goal for net zero yet,” he said, “but I don’t think it reflects on how much is being done behind the scenes by the College to work towards net zero and in reality is part of an approach by those at St Peter’s to only release a net zero target when they have complete confidence it can really be met.”
Balliol’s Environment & Ethics Rep, Andy Wei, also told Cherwell that many of Balliol’s sustainability initiatives, such as food waste recycling, are not directly acknowledged on the tracker. However, he says, “incremental change, while important, is not enough and needs to be part of a larger, publicly accountable strategy to achieve lower and net-zero carbon emissions”.
Each college received the coding before publication, allowing them to send in updates or amendments before the final version was released. According to the SU, around 15 colleges “productively engaged” with them and updated their websites in response. Worcester, for example, outlined various measures to improve their sustainability, including measures related to food, water, waste, and investments and procurement. They intend to release a net zero strategy.
The tracker will also be updated on a regular basis. One change that is currently being pursued is adjusting the methodology for coding ‘dedicated staff time’ (part of the enabler demand) as green, since some colleges don’t employ a specific sustainability officer but still dedicate significant amounts of staff time towards sustainability. It is proposed that these colleges will be granted green if they explain their reasoning for doing so on their website. “We are finalising a slightly shifted methodology from this which will be made clear on the website,” the SU told Cherwell. There are also talks of a potential group hire across colleges for sustainability decisions.