Environmental Sustainability Strategy Q&A

Food production accounts for 25% of total global greenhouse gas emissions and is the leading cause of biodiversity loss. Oxford research shows that the most effective way to reduce the climate and biodiversity impacts of our diet is to eat less meat and dairy and more plant-based foods.

We expect measures to include:

  • reporting the biodiversity and carbon impact of our food annually;
  • making all food at University catered events vegan or vegetarian by default, with meat and fish available on demand; and
  • using an externally verified certification scheme to assess the sustainability credentials of the food sourcing.

We aim to develop a detailed action plan to reduce these impacts significantly by 2030; this will go through the University’s governance system like all interventions.

Read more about the work the University already does to reduce the impact of catering.

Carbon offsetting is a process whereby carbon or carbon-equivalent gases are removed from the atmosphere, or prevented from entering it, in order to compensate for greenhouse gases emitted elsewhere.

The strategy prioritises reducing our own emissions to minimise the need for offsets before starting to use offsetting from 2030 onwards. This is consistent with the Oxford Principles for Net Zero Aligned Carbon Offsetting. We target to reduce our direct carbon emissions by 50% by 2030, and to cap offsets by not introducing them until 2030.

It will not be possible to eliminate all our emissions, so we will eventually need to rely on carbon offsetting to balance the residual emissions and reach net zero carbon. Numerous offsetting options are available, with more being researched and developed. We will regularly review our offsetting options to reflect this.

Biodiversity offsetting involves undertaking conservation and restoration activities to enhance biodiversity, to compensate for negative effects on biodiversity elsewhere. In the University’s case, these impacts arise from its development, estate management, operations and supply chain.

Following the same principles as in carbon emissions, we will prioritise avoiding and reducing the harm we do to biodiversity in preference to biodiversity offsetting. It will not be possible to do this completely, though, and we will need to carry out proactive conservation actions to achieve biodiversity net gain.

We will develop a policy to guide our carbon and biodiversity offsetting activities, which will go through governance like all interventions.

As a global university we attract students and staff from around the world and our academics travel to international conferences and meetings as well as to conduct research. All of this generates demand for more flights that are currently essential to our business model.

In 2018/19, staff flying on University business emitted an estimated 30,000 tonnes of carbon, and international students travelling to Oxford to study produced an estimated 21,000 tonnes more. These figures exclude emissions from visitors invited to collaborate or attend conferences in Oxford.

We need to reduce flights and to address emissions from aviation.

We aim to develop and implement a Travel Policy which incorporates a travel hierarchy for all domestic and international travel for staff and students, in which reducing flights is the primary tool and offsetting is the last resort.

To do this, the strategy commits us to steps including calculating and reporting annually on emissions from staff and student flights. The strategy also suggests a levy or sustainability charge on business flights that will contribute to the Oxford Sustainability Fund. The extent of the levy and other details are not agreed yet.

The pandemic has forced us to adapt quickly and learn to work in different ways, many of which support the aims of environmental sustainability. The strategy aims to build on this experience and the potential shift to more environmentally sustainable working practices.

As we think of the future, the University has set up a project group to develop a ‘New Ways of Working’ framework to support professional services and support staff teams across the University identify priorities for more appropriate and flexible ways of working once we return to the ‘new normal’.

We will offer input and suggest policy to the emerging Estates Strategy to reduce the University’s carbon footprint and biodiversity impact. These will relate to areas like reducing the need to travel for commuting as well as international travel, using less paper and potentially operating a smaller estate to support the University’s work.

The Environmental Sustainability team is, and will continue to be, involved throughout the capital project process. We work with colleagues in this team to make new developments more sustainable.

The key tools that we use are the Sustainability Design Guide that outlines the expected standards for all capital projects worth more than £1m, and our current biodiversity strategy.

Staff and students all over the University will play a significant part in the implementation of the strategy. As we develop each of the sections of the strategy, we will publish guidelines and toolkits to support you.

This is what you can do right now:

  • Join your local Green Impact team, or start one in your department;
  • Switch it off – turn off electrical equipment when not in use. By reducing your heating temperature by one degree (and wearing a jumper), you can reduce your heating costs and carbon footprint by up to 8%;
  • Refrain, Reuse, Recycle – think before you buy or dispose of resources. Use WARP-it and follow the A-Z of recycling;
  • Build back better – don’t rush to go back to our old habits around printing, flights, travelling, shopping etc.; and
  • Travel sustainably – Avoid flying when possible, and cycle to work - we have schemes to support you if you’d like to adopt this approach.

The Environmental Sustainability team is in constant contact with the colleges independently and via the Sustainability Guild, which is part of the Conference of Colleges. Naturally colleges have their own agendas and priorities around sustainability, and many of them are already doing impressive work to address environmental issues. Students play an important role by motivating the colleges to improve their environmental performance and implement solutions to the challenges they face.

The Laboratory Efficiency Assessment Framework (LEAF) is an innovative scheme to drive improvements in laboratory efficiency. Laboratory buildings are responsible for over 60% of total energy consumption and carbon emissions across the University. LEAF offers a structured tool to improve efficiency and reduce environmental impacts in labs. Applying LEAF will help to significantly reduce energy consumption and thus support the University's carbon-reduction targets and other sustainability goals. The more labs sign up to LEAF, the more impact it will have.

The University lobbies hard for improved cycle infrastructure facilities including in places such as Botley Road, the Banbury Wood/Woodstock Road corridor, the A44 and A40.

It also strongly supports measures to reduce traffic such as Connecting Oxford and the Zero Emission Zone which will enable road space to be reallocated to walking and cycling and create safer streets.

The University is committed to helping our staff and students choose ways of travelling on a day-to-day basis that minimise the negative effects of commuting on the environment. We encourage you to cycle or walk where possible. If this is not possible, use public transport, and if there is no alternative to driving, consider using the Park and Ride or Park and Stride facilities. Read more about how we can support you in making sustainable transport choices on the Travel website.

Get in touch


+44 (0) 1865 6 14605

sustainability@admin.ox.ac.uk