New research looks at how UK universities tackle their food and flying emissions


New University of Manchester research highlights the various ways UK higher education institutions are beginning to tackle emissions associated with business travel and catering.

According to the researchers, these are two substantial contributors to emissions in this sector, and difficult to decarbonise.

Lead author on the research paper Professor Claire Hoolohan, The University of Manchester commented on the findings: “Many universities omit, or only partially account for, business travel and food within their carbon management reporting.

“However, the importance of emissions in these areas is widely recognised and there is evidence of pioneer institutions setting targets and taking action to reduce emissions in these areas.

“Across the sector more action is required to reduce emissions. To support sector-wide action, this briefing note focusses on targets and actions that should be implemented to rapidly and substantially reduce emissions in these two areas, and contribute towards a low-carbon workplace culture.”

The new study, from The University’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change and the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST), analysed publicly available policies of 66 UK universities to identify strategies related to long-distance business travel and catering.

For each university, documents including Carbon Management Plans and Annual Reports, Travel Plans and Sustainable Food Policies were downloaded, catalogued and reviewed.

According to the researchers, long-distance business travel and catering (particularly meat-based meals) are substantial contributors to the carbon footprint of universities (and many other organisations), but are typically under-accounted for in carbon management planning.

The collaborative research team set out to understand the extent to which university plans and actions in these areas are commensurate with climate emergency declarations, and make recommendations to support setting sufficiently ambitious targets and actions.

According to the research, published in Climate Policy, action on climate change in universities is ‘extending beyond the familiar focus on energy-related emissions to engage in more complex workplace practices’, including long-distance business travel and catering.

However, the researchers conclude, increasing sector-wide effort is ‘unavoidable’ if universities are to fulfil their climate emergency declarations and align emissions reduction strategies with the UK Government’s net zero ambitions.

Professor Alice Larkin, Head of Engineering at The University of Manchester, added: “Higher education’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that rapid, deep and widespread changes are possible.

“The shifts in our academic activities that we’ve all experienced, as well as changes to how we’ve started to operate in new ways, present significant opportunities to establish alternative, more sustainable, practices.”

The full research article is available on the Climate Policy database.