How to adapt universities and colleges to a changing climate

Universities and colleges need to be climate-ready as extreme weather events will likely influence every aspect of academic life in the future. Antje Lang, sustainability and resilience expert at AECOM, shares advice on initiating and implementing effective climate change adaption plans.

The UK’s changing climate will have major implications for further and higher education institutions (FHEI) in the future. Predictions of warmer, wetter winters and hotter, drier summers pose direct risks to campus and community infrastructure, as well as historically and culturally significant buildings and artefacts. Furthermore, the effects are likely to influence all aspects of academic life from the delivery of teaching, research and examinations to student recruitment, as well as insurance premiums and the profitability of investments, and finally the wellbeing and safety of students, academics, and support staff.

The results will not always be catastrophic, but unless risks are systematically assessed institutions are driving blind. How will key assets and business processes stand up to a future of more extreme weather? New investments in infrastructure may be around for decades to come – how future-proof will they be? Now is the most cost-effective time to ask these questions and ensure the UK’s institutions are climate-ready.

Taking action doesn’t necessarily mean ‘reinventing the wheel’ or spending significant amounts of money. Universities and colleges already have well-established processes for managing risk – factoring in climate change simply means applying a different lens and set of expertise.

In order to support FHEIs adapt to climate change, AECOM has developed a guide in partnership with Environment Association of Universities and Colleges (EAUC) and Higher Education Business Continuity Network (HEBCoN). The guide, Adapting Universities and Colleges to a Changing Climate, provides a jumping-off point for climate resilience strategies.

In this article, we draw from the guide to make the case for early action, and show that a variety of approaches can be taken either by an in-house team or through external consultants.

What are the risks?

Under a changing climate, the UK will see weather that tends towards the extremes: heavy rainfall, heatwaves, drought, stronger storms. In the past few years, we have already witnessed the disruption and damage that extreme weather events can cause. In June 2012, the ‘Toon Monsoon’ dropped 50mm of rain in just two hours, causing flash-flooding that resulted in millions of pounds worth of damage. Newcastle University incurred over a million pounds in damage, demonstrating that its traditional infrastructure was unable to cope with events of that magnitude. Similarly, the ‘Beast from the East’ in 2018 caused the closure of Fife College for four days. Responding to events such as these can cause disruption to teaching, research, capital projects and income, and institutions have to cope with the subsequent repairs.

Although the more extreme weather will generate entirely new challenges for the sector, most critical is how climate change will become a ‘risk multiplier,’ exacerbating risks that are already of high priority.

These risks are far-reaching. Infrastructure and business continuity risks can cover a wide range of issues from increased flooding risk (as mentioned above) to the condition of sports pitches that have been adversely affected by drought.  Additional threats to health, safety and wellbeing of students may include extreme heat impacts, as well as increased risk to those students travelling to or from overseas.

FHE institutions’ responses to climate change are increasingly a factor in their Social Licence to operate. Reputational damage is a real possibility if the public perceives conduct in the face of climate change to be lacking, with flow-on effects for funding and recruitment.

Finally, the UK is fortunate to have an independent Committee on Climate Change, as well as additional legislation within devolved nations, which helps ensure a degree of continuity in terms of climate change remaining on the government policy agenda.  However, this means that if government policy continues to move towards climate resilient and low-carbon futures, universities and colleges who have lagged behind in adjusting their infrastructure and operations will be scrambling to catch up and meet any imposed targets.

Recommended steps

Every organisation will be at a different place in the process of adapting to climate change. Therefore, as a first step, we have devised three milestones as part of a climate readiness self-assessment, namely: establishing the case for action; identifying risk and opportunities; and finally executing adaptation strategies.

By identifying the key risks, FHEIs can make the case to senior leaders as to the importance of proactively adapting and can then develop targeted solutions to address these risks.

Organisations may choose to employ an external consultant – and there are advantages to this approach, particularly if there is a lack of in-house skills or resources.  Consultants bring an objective perspective on the organisation’s risk profile and level of resilience, which may be especially helpful when there is a major pipeline of investments that could benefit from more detailed input.

However, for those that may not have the capacity or immediate need to draw on external consultant for detailed support, our guidance document provides a simple set of steps and tools to begin integrating or expanding ongoing climate resilience activities.

Effective climate adaptation planning requires the right mixture of skills and institutional knowledge though it is not necessary to be a confident and experienced adaptation practitioner to begin strengthening the resilience of an organisation to climate change. For example, its possible that FHEIs can use existing their organisational resilience framework to develop a climate change adaptation plan (CCAP). The steps involved are:

1/Build a project team with appropriate competencies and knowledge – the objective of this step is to assemble the necessary competencies and knowledge needed to undertake a CCAP process.

2/Define scope: Initial Business Impact Analysis (BIA) – the objective of this step is to understand what is fundamentally important to the organisation (i.e. its critical functions)

3/Identify significant impacts: product and service BIA – determine specific risks to critical functions over different time horizons, incorporating the effects of climate change

4/Present BIA output as a risk register – summarise BIA findings in a format that can be used to inform future decision-making

5/Determine risk appetite – assess the impacts in the risk register to determine the institution’s willingness or reluctance to tolerate risk

6/Identify appropriate adaptation approaches – using the established risk appetite, determine the appropriate adaptation actions

7/Develop Climate Change Adaptation Plan – a concise climate change adaptation plan with indicative timelines, implementation strategies, and key performance indicators to monitor progress.

Broadly, there are three types of interventions that FHEIs can take to adapt to climate change. These occur in three ways:

  • Reducing exposure: This means ensuring that key activities, resources and assets (economic, social, cultural and environmental) are located out of harm’s way. This can mean redirecting a hazard (e.g. by constructing a sea wall) or moving things of value to another location (e.g. relocating computer servers or document archives from a flood-exposed basement).
  • Reducing sensitivity: Sometimes it is not practical to eliminate exposure to a risk. In such cases, measures can be taken to reduce susceptibility to harm.
  • Increasing adaptive capacity: This simply means increasing the ability to cope with and adjust to change. This can be done by ensuring that there is a Plan B, such as backup power should a storm or heatwave result in an electricity outage.

Look at the opportunities as well

Climate change is definitely not a good news story, but for agile organisations it does present opportunities. For example, climate change has opened up a plethora of research opportunities, teaching programmes, and funding opportunities for universities and colleges. Areas of focus include the impact of climate change on food systems, hydrology, renewable energy engineering and policy, migration and security studies, and governance, among many others. Many FHE institutions have already harnessed these opportunities but now have a chance to expand them.

Furthermore, as the majority of the UK public supports urgent action on climate change, universities and colleges have the chance to position themselves as exemplars in this field by implementing bold climate-resilient practices within their own assets and operations to remain able to deliver world-leading teaching and research into the future.

Case study: Climate and Resilience Scoping Study for the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom

The University of Cambridge (UoC) has an iconic and complex estate that comprises internationally-recognised historic buildings with newly-built mixed-use communities such as the North West Cambridge development. With planning underway for further major development, decisions made now will have consequences for UoC, and indeed the City of Cambridge, for many decades to come.

Focusing on its operational estate within and immediately surrounding Cambridge, UoC commissioned AECOM to conduct a Climate Risk and Resilience Scoping Study. Using UKCP09 projections and Environment Agency flood maps, the study considered the potential impacts of both acute (surface water and riverine flooding; drought; extreme heat; extreme cold; high winds) and chronic (changes in mean temperatures and rainfall) hazards. A mixture of geographic information system (GIS), desk research and direct client consultation was used to arrive at priority risks and opportunities. In addition to built assets, consideration was also given to the university’s transport linkages, as well as university farmland, landscaping and grounds. The study also included a strategic review of the university’s key corporate risks and considered the extent to which climate change could be a key influencing factor over the coming decades.

The strategic review complemented the highly-operational estate-focused adaptation recommendations with broader recommendations for how the organisation’s leadership can help prepare the university for strategic risks in areas such as financial sustainability and staff retention, as well as maximise the opportunities that climate change will present for those who act sooner.

By undertaking a climate risk assessment, UoC now has a better understanding of where its vulnerabilities lie, and it is currently considering next steps to implement adaptation options from the prioritised ‘menu’ produced in partnership with AECOM.