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Out-Law News 3 min. read

Universities urged to take action to ensure their net zero targets remain deliverable

Universities have been advised to review their sustainability-related targets and ensure they have a robust plan in place to meet them amidst a growing culture of activism and class action-style claims being brought across the world.

Chris Owens of Pinsent Masons said the action was necessary in the higher education sector since institutions there have understandably set amongst the most ambitious short-term targets across the UK economy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in response to the climate emergency – several top universities in the UK, for example, have set targets to achieve ‘net zero’ emissions in their operations by 2030 – 20 years ahead of the government’s legally-binding overall target for the UK.

Owens said that whilst those universities that are on track to deliver their targets ought to be commended, given the well-documented financial pressures many find themselves under, it would not come as a great surprise to find that delivering net zero strategies has slipped down the priority list or simply become unaffordable for some universities.

As net zero or other sustainability-related target dates move closer for organisations across a range of sectors, there has been growing attention on whether the targets are realistic and whether implementation plans are suitably aligned to enable the targets to be met.

In recent months, the Scottish government announced that while it remains committed to achieving ‘net zero’ in Scotland by 2045, it had decided to scrap annual targets set to plot progress towards that goal as well as its interim target of achieving a 75% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, accepting that the target would not be met.

Timelines for some specific UK-wide climate-related initiatives have also been pushed back. This includes the planned ban on the sale of new petrol or diesel-powered cars and vans in the UK, which will now take place from 2035 rather than 2030. UK prime minister Rishi Sunak announced the revised timeline for that policy, as well as further revisions concerning the phase-out of gas boilers in homes and on home insulation too, last autumn, citing the risk of “losing the consent of the British people” in relation to the entire decarbonisation agenda if the public is exposed to too high a cost in implementing change quickly. More generally, some organisations have pointed to a lack of progress on implementation of climate change policies as reasons for falling behind their own targets.

One way that organisations can help protect against setting targets they cannot expect to hit is by backing them up with credible transition plans. The UK government recently published an update on the UK sustainability disclosure requirements. Those proposals included an intent to consult on how entities can most effectively disclose their transition plans.

As well as growing scrutiny on progress towards overall net zero targets, the claims organisations make about the sustainability of their operations, or of specific products or services, are also coming into focus by regulators, shareholders, customers, and activists alike. 

Some businesses have been the subject of so-called ‘greenwashing’ claims in legal proceedings brought around the world – including the UK – and others have faced censure for breaching advertising rules in respect of the ‘green’ claims they have made. In UK financial services, a new anti-greenwashing rule took effect on 31 May 2024. Firms regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority are now required to ensure sustainability claims are backed up by robust, relevant, and credible evidence.

Euan McVicar of Pinsent Masons said: “If universities set themselves ambitious sustainability targets, then they need to work hard to demonstrate that they are on track to meet them. Universities should review their sustainability-related targets and put in place plans if these require amendments having taken advice on the potential consequences. Failure to demonstrate progress could create risks of increased regulatory and stakeholder intervention.”

Chris Owens said: “These risks can be mitigated or potentially avoided if stakeholders such as staff are clear on the basis on which targets are set, are backed up by robust transition plans, and reviews and amendments are well trailed. Engagement with key stakeholders, including student groups, is an important part of any amendment to targets, and any information made public needs to be carefully vetted to ensure that it does not contain any statements which could be at risk of being inaccurate or misleading. Institutions could also consider whether their targets could be met by pursuing alternative routes to decarbonisation and sustainability policies.”

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