Should Universities ‘Go Vegan’ to Help Tackle Climate Change, The University of Cambridge announced last week that its decision to remove beef and lamb from its 14 outlets and 1,500 annual events has cut the university’s food-related carbon emissions by a third since 2016.
This follows the news last month that Goldsmiths, University of London has also made the decision to remove all beef products on sale in the university, due to the large quantity of methane that cows produce, contributing to carbon emissions.
Elsewhere in London, the University of Westminster encourages students to switch to meat-free options by offering a “part time carnivore loyalty card” in which students can get one meal free for every vegetarian meal they buy. The University of East Anglia, Ulster University, and some colleges at the University of Oxford also all participate in meat-free Mondays.
The switch to veganism is becoming somewhat of a growing trend, promoted heavily by the media as a way to tackle climate change. Given the media attention, it’s unsurprising UK universities and student societies have decided to also jump on the vegan bandwagon.
It’s a worthwhile cause too. According to a recent UN report on climate change which was cited in an article for the Guardian: “Animal products cause more damage than [producing] construction minerals such as sand or cement, plastics or metals. Biomass and crops for animals are as damaging as [burning] fossil fuels.”
However, whether students will respond positively – and whether it’s the most effective way for universities to be ‘doing their part’ – remains to be seen.
Limiting students’ choice
Some farmers are arguing that the move towards veganism is a limiting choice and an unnecessary way to approach the problem of climate change. When asked about her views on the University of Cambridge’s decision, Rachel Carrington from National Farming Union NFU in the UK told the BBC it was “disappointing the university is taking this overly-simplistic approach”.
Supporting this, the UK’s NFU released a report this month acknowledging the contribution that agriculture is making to carbon emissions and explaining how they plan to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.
“We can deliver on our commitment to NET ZERO while retaining, if not growing, our agricultural capacity,” it says. This will reportedly happen in several ways, including improving farming’s productive efficiency, improving land management, changing land use to capture more carbon, and by boosting renewable energy and the wider bioeconomy.
Given these changes, does it make sense for UK universities to turn their backs on British farmers? Students may also be disgruntled by the restricted food options available to them, especially given the cost of attending university in the first place.
What else can universities do to help combat climate change?
If veganism isn’t the answer, then what is? You can find out more about what universities around the world are doing to tackle climate change here and here are some alternative ways UK universities are choosing to cut down on their carbon emissions.
Cutting down on plastic waste
Over 50 percent of the plastic we currently use is still single use, despite many retailers putting measures in to reduce this. Plastic can take hundreds or even thousands of years to break down, resulting in long-lasting damage to the environment.
It also contains toxic pollutants that damage the environment, causing pollution to the water, air and land.
In 2018, the University of Reading cut down on plastic waste by replacing its plastic straws with paper alternatives which are biodegradable and encouraged the use of renewable water bottles as part of their Sustain It initiative.
Investing in energy efficient buildings
Energy wastage in inefficient buildings can make a large contribution to climate emissions. Old buildings, typically the 1960s-era buildings found in universities across the UK, can often have poor insulation, old outdated heating, poor ventilation and inefficient lighting. All of these release excess wasted energy.
Among other things, the University of Bath is striving to make their buildings more energy efficient to reduce their carbon emissions. According to their 2019 sustainability report they have recently installed 2,000 smart meters to monitor energy usage and invested in a gas-powered efficient form of producing energy which allows the waste heat to be ‘recycled’ on site.
Goldsmiths, University of London is also installing solar panels around its university buildings, in addition to its cut-back on beef and a 10p levy on plastic water bottles.
Many UK universities including Newcastle University, UCL, University of Sussex and the University of York are now offering courses or modules based around climate change, offering students a chance to gain a detailed understanding of the underlying science behind climate change as well as its impact on society and possible solutions.
Encouraging public transport
Transport represents around a quarter of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions and is the main cause of air pollution in cities. Universities looking to reduce their carbon footprint should invest in frequent, reliable and affordable public transport to reduce the use of cars and taxis.
The carbon output of academic staff should also be considered, especially when vice chancellors and senior members of staff will travel the world for academic conferences and to attempt to recruit wealthy international students from other countries.
What is the answer?
There is no one answer to climate change, and it’s important to remember that universities can only do so much.
However, it’s important that they still try to make a significant difference, and act as a leading catalyst for change by educating students about climate change.
By doing the above and by researching the causes and effects of climate change in order to educate and inform, universities can have a monumental impact on saving our planet.