University of Oxford: Researchers assess Oxford University’s impacts on biodiversity and how to mitigate them

Researchers used Oxford University to carry out the first quantitative assessment of both the environmental impact of a large organisation and feasible options for compensating for them, in order to reach Net Gain in biodiversity.

In 2021, Oxford University adopted a world-leading Environmental Sustainability Strategy, which committed it to both Net Zero carbon emissions and Net Gain in biodiversity by 2035, and set out key actions to enable it to achieve these goals. Other organisations are adopting similar strategies – but as yet there have been no analyses of what it would take to reach the goals, and even whether this is actually feasible.

Working closely with the University’s Estates team, researchers from Oxford’s Department of Zoology and the University of Kent conducted a comprehensive assessment of the broader environmental impact and biodiversity losses associated with day-to-day running of the University, including factors such as purchasing data, travel bookings and utility bills, from the 2018-19 and 2019-20 academic years.

The researchers also considered how the University’s activities and operations impact greenhouse gas emissions, and how those emissions in turn affect biodiversity by driving climate change. They then grouped the activities by type, such as research or teaching, as well as how the activities impacted the environment, such as greenhouse gas emissions, land use and water use.

They found that the absolute size of the University’s greenhouse gas footprint is comparable to that of a small island nation like St Lucia. By comparison with other large organisations, it is two orders of magnitude smaller than Microsoft’s publicly disclosed greenhouse gas footprint, but one order of magnitude larger than that of the London Stock Exchange.

However, the research revealed that most of the University’s impacts on biodiversity are tied to activities that are not under its direct control, such as the supply chain for research materials like laboratory equipment. This requires for instance the extraction and industrial processing of hydrocarbons, often from areas of high biodiversity value, and can have far greater impacts on biodiversity in sum than international flights — and even the day-to-day running or construction of buildings.

The study, published in Nature, modelled three options for the University – pursuing actions already agreed within its recently-adopted Environmental Sustainability Strategy, focusing more heavily on preventing harms to biodiversity, or focusing more heavily on compensating for the impacts that its activities and operations have on the planet by taking steps to increase biodiversity in other places.

A key finding was that, regardless of the option chosen, major changes to current practice are required in order to limit the impacts of the university’s operations on biodiversity. Even then, however, the majority of the impact can only be compensated for by taking steps to restore biodiversity in the places where the damage is being done (generally overseas).

Senior author E.J. Milner-Gulland, Tasso Leventis Professor of Biodiversity & Head of Oxford’s Department of Zoology, said: ‘It’s critical for large organisations to set bold targets for climate change and biodiversity restoration if we are to tackle the climate and ecological emergencies. However, these targets require far more than just reducing impacts – environmental sustainability strategies need to include bold actions to support the recovery of nature in the places where it is being harmed.’

First author Dr Joseph Bull said: ‘If large organisations are going to deliver real gains and thereby support global nature conservation efforts – and we think they must – they first need to determine which of their activities have the greatest impacts on biodiversity. Our study has shown that this can be in often overlooked areas, and particularly in supply chains.’

Harriet Waters, Head of Environmental Sustainability at Oxford University, and a co-author of the study, said: ‘Oxford has a wealth of world-leading expertise in climate and environmental science, and a major strength of the University’s Sustainability Strategy is that it was developed and evidenced in collaboration with our own researchers.’

Oxford’s pro-Vice Chancellor for Planning and Resources, David Prout, who led on the development of the university’s Environmental Sustainability Strategy said: ‘Our strategy is ground-breaking not just because it includes both carbon Net Zero and biodiversity net gain within an ambitious timeframe, but because we have committed substantial resources to achieving these targets and we are committed to full and transparent annual reporting – this study provides us with a baseline and an understanding of what we need to do in order to achieve our goal.’

Oxford University’s Environmental Sustainability Strategy was approved by Council on 15 March 2021, and it sets two ambitious targets: to achieve net zero carbon and to achieve biodiversity net gain, both by 2035.

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