Student Union eviscerates Oxford university in new sustainability ranking

The student-made ranking attempts to understand the university's shortcomings more deeply, but questions remain about the quality of its methods.


6/29/20238 min read

Image: A power-plant spews steam behind a green field.

The ranking collects public data from 38 colleges and attempts to hold the university more accountable.

Oxford is known for its majestic spires, its world-class education, and the long line of luminaries that have graduated from its grand halls. But in recent years, the university has come under fire for its questionable track record on human and civil rights. Campaigns like Black Lives Matter and Rhodes Must Fall have added to the already fuming debate over deplatforming transphobic speakers. The Cherwell's new report sheds light on a new front for attack - sustainability.

Oxford colleges are typically housed in historic listed buildings, meaning that their energy saving credentials were never going to be stellar. But even so, the way that the Student Union has condemned the lack of greenness across the university has raised eyebrows. Their three-part ratings system grades each college based on whether they have implemented a net zero goal, outlined their plan to achieve it, or failed to disclose a net zero strategy. Each grade is represented using the traffic light colours green-yellow-red for accessibility.

With greenwashing a major concern for both the Student Union and increasingly the public, the ratings system brings new clarity to the shortcomings and virtues of Oxford's colleges by categorising climate impact more granularly based on scope. Whereas Scope 1 considers only CO2 emissions produced directly by the college, Scope 2 also considers indirect emissions, such as greenhouse gases resulting from the energy they use. This enables students to understand better how institutions are defining net zero - and limits how much the definition can be stretched.

"(There is) little concrete information on future plans and initiatives”.

- The Climate League of Oxford and Cambridge's sustainability evaluation of St Catherine's College, Oxford

However, the real surprise comes when we look at Scope 3. Scope 3 covers not just direct and indirect emissions, but also those resulting from the entire chain of activity surrounding an organisation. For example, an oil company's Scope 1 emissions would include only the CO2 it emits by extracting natural resources, like the CO2 emitted by its oil wells and drilling platforms. When the oil company buys some electricity to power its offshore platforms, that would be counted under Scope 2. But neither represents the full climate impact of the oil company, since its consumers will go on to produce more CO2 when using its products. Scope 3 emissions are an overwhelming proportion of climate impact for oil and gas companies, as economic logic dictates that these companies work by taking more energy out of the ground than they expend in order to do so.

Scope 3 emissions are notoriously hard to calculate, and even more difficult to offset - but the Student Union has placed the measure in its grading system to make a statement about the accountability of the university. If we think about Oxford University as a company rather than a charitable organisation, it "sells" education to its customers - students - in return for money. In the oil company scenario, the education would be the oil, as this is what is bought and sold between the business and the consumer. Therefore, whatever the students do with that education falls under Scope 3 emissions.

Although the notion of Scope 3 emissions might hold up very well in other contexts, like the oil company scenario, it is deeply unclear how it applies to Oxford University. When a physical product with a clear use is bought and sold, we can link how it is used to its environmental impact. If I buy petrol from a petrol station, I know that I am going to use that petrol to power my car. I can calculate how much CO2 will be produced when the engine burns that petrol, and therefore what the climate impact of the purchase was. But when the organisation sells a product without a clear use, or even worse, something that isn't a product at all, we have a problem.

“(The ranking extends to) all aspects of college life (by) covering all scopes of emissions, with topics such as buildings emissions, food, transport, and resource use”

- Anna-Tina Jashapara, Vice-President of Charities and Community at Oxford SU, in an email to The Oxford Student.

Education, for the most part, is not a product, and therefore can't be considered under Scope 3 emissions. It's a life experience - an incredibly rewarding one - and even trying to coerce it to fit into the same category as a bar of soap, or a bottle of Innocent, or an iPhone is absurd. Whilst it is true that the things we buy have an impact on our lives, and can enable us to do new things, a university education is so holistic that it is a philosophical nightmare trying to connect it to specific and measurable outcomes. For comparison, imagine trying to determine the climate impact of marrying your husband. Like an Oxford degree, a marriage lasts multiple years and absorbs much of your energies. It unlocks new possibilities, and can give you beautiful, treasurable experiences. Yet it can also block off other routes you might have taken. If you didn't get married, you might not have had children. You might have broken up, instead of staying together when you went through that rough patch. You might have dated that Spanish guy from work instead, fallen in love, moved to Spain, and be working as a Spanish-to-English translator right now. How do you determine the climate impact of living in Edinburgh, toiling away as a consultant, and having a husband and three kids, compared to living in Andalucia, working part-time as a translator, and being single (the Spanish guy cheated on you)? This is a practically impossible task. Yet this is exactly the kind of comparison the Oxford Student Union is effectively making.

Although it is incredibly important to keep organisations accountable for their environmental impact, in this case, the analysis falls flat. The impact of studying at Oxford University on your life, whilst surely positive, cannot be calculated with precision. It does not lend itself to the same downstream emissions calculations as oil products do. And why should we expect it to? The concept Scope 3 emissions was developed to prevent oil and gas producers from abrogating their responsibility for climate change, not to assess education. It's far better at assessing companies than philanthropic organisations like universities, because it interprets climate responsibility as a set of economic transactions. Its utility for understanding the impact of service-based industries is questionable, let alone arenas of life where no money changes hands. Indeed, university life is distinct precisely because it is removed from the broader economy: students can pursue their interests earnestly, without thinking about the economic value of their endeavours. A steadfastly academic environment is what makes for a thorough and worthwhile education.

"(We) hope this is something that the University and colleges can work on collectively”

- Anna-Tina Jashapara, Vice-President of Charities and Community at Oxford SU, in an email to The Oxford Student.

We should not hold back from criticising large and powerful institutions where they fail to take necessary steps, but we should be careful to appreciate where genuine commitment and progress are made. One student noted that although St Peter's college was given a poor rating, it is being remarkably proactive in reducing waste, limiting emissions, and encouraging students to do the same for themselves. The college's failure to publish a Net Zero plan was a result of the volume of consideration that was going into how they were going to achieve it, according to inside sources. It's better to do it right than to make unrealistic goals and fail, another scholar remarked, alluding to the impression that many colleges were putting together green agendas to improve their image rather than their ethics.

Indeed, the Student Union's ratings system is too simplistic to reflect the contents and sincerity of college net zero plans. A yellow is awarded based on the existence of a plan, whether or not it is achievable. To make matters worse, the system valorises colleges which are aiming for the target before the broader University's already ambitious 2035 goal. This incentivises a race to the bottom, where colleges set themselves up for failure by publishing net zero plans with impossible due dates. In the worst cases these plans are merely a marketing exercise, intended to deflect attention away from a whole roster of seriously questionable practices that the college has no intention of changing. We have seen this dynamic come to fruition already with national governments, which have begun spouting rhetoric about banning petrol cars as soon as 2025 against a backdrop of deafening paucity of policy.

Instead, student campaigners should focus their efforts on singling out the colleges that have already achieved significant reductions in environmental impact. Some colleges, such as Corpus Christi, have had sensible green policies in place for years, thanks to strong leadership and conviction at the JCR level. A timeline of when a college would be able to achieve a 30%, 50%, and 70% reduction of CO2 emissions from its peak would provide a better understanding of the trajectory that a college is taking. An analysis of which colleges were the largest contributors to the CO2 emissions of the University would not go amiss either, and help the students and public to identify in which arenas their efforts would be most effective.

"We hope colleges start work towards developing pledges if they haven’t already"

- Anna-Tina Jashapara, Vice-President of Charities and Community at Oxford SU, in an email to The Oxford Student.

A longer look needs to be taken at the environmental credentials of colleges beyond carbon contributions too. Removing CO2 emissions is helpful, but it does nothing to limit an organisation's dependence on fast-depleting raw materials. This will be an especially prescient concern as organisations move towards using electric vehicles in their fleets, which often contain rare earth elements that have a limited supply. Nor does it ameliorate broader ethical concerns around labour laws, for which both Oxford and UK Universities more generally have been heavily criticised in recent years, due to the casualisation and shockingly inadequate pay of teaching work. In fact, the very technologies that enable the green transition can also be the product of slave and child labour; lithium and cobalt being a notable example.

With that in mind, colleges need to be careful to make progress on CO2 emissions at the expense other areas. In many cases, major projects to build or renovate facilities that promise to be carbon neutral actually generate far more CO2 during construction than will be offset during their useful lifetime. On the other hand, measures such as banning cars or plastic implements can have deleterious impacts on those with accessibility issues. Organisations across the UK have also fallen under public pressure, in part thanks to the activism of Extinction Rebellion, to divest from fossil fuel companies. Some Oxford colleges have responded amicably by moving toward ESG-conscious portfolios, which are increasingly available in a pre-packaged format, from asset managers like Vanguard or BlackRock. But a stake in Shell is often sacrificed for a stake in an arms manufacturer, or a dubious pharmaceutical company, or an eCommerce giant in the process of bankrupting small businesses.

Clearly, it is not easy to get the balance right, and the Student Union's ranking does make some progress on understanding of where Oxford University is in terms of cleaning up its operations. But given the nature of the institution, an obvious trick has been missed. Oxford puts out world-leading academics on a regular basis, and the quality and quantity of its research is second to none in Europe, along with Cambridge. So why not make more room for sustainability in its educational offering? A heavier emphasis on the environment in taught courses, plus generous research funding and a broader selection of dedicated degrees, would maximise the potential of the University to positively impact society. Given its links to the British government, instilling a deeper ethical concern with the environment may generate top-down change as well. Yet only time will tell if the ambitions of the green-light colleges bring climate destruction to a halt.