There would be commitments and more ambitious targets
The amount of funding universities in England receive could be linked to their reductions in carbon emissions from 2011, under new proposals.
Institutions could be asked to try to halve their carbon emissions by 2020, if the plans go ahead.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) is consulting on a proposal to make firm targets to reduce carbon emissions.
Universities UK said it supported the goal of reducing emissions.
In a previous consultation by Hefce in 2008, 70% of institutions indicated they supported a carbon reduction strategy for the higher education sector.
The Climate Change Act 2008 set legally-binding greenhouse gas emission targets in the UK - of a reduction of at least 34% by 2020 and of 80% by 2050.
The proposals contained in this consultation would bring the higher education sector in line with the UK more generally.
The key recommendations are that the sector commits to reducing emissions directly produced by the institution itself of at least 34% by 2020 and 80% by 2050.
Institutions would aspire to reduce emissions by larger amounts: of 50% by 2020 and of 100% by 2050 - but would not be obliged to meet these targets.
A reduction in emissions indirectly produced by the university, for example through procurement or commuting, would also be required, but no specific target would be set.
Every university would be required to have a carbon management plan, and its performance against this would be assessed.
Universities UK chief executive Diana Warwick said it supported the proposals.
"The pursuit of sustainable development is one of the biggest challenges facing the world today," she said.
"Universities, as educators, have been playing a vital role in moving this agenda forward and seeking a reduction in carbon emissions is key to this."
Richard Rugg, head of public sector at the Carbon Trust, said he thought the proposed targets were a "good thing".
"Hefce's consultation is valuable because it will encourage universities and colleges to focus on the practical details of how they are going to cut their carbon.
"Expecting higher education to sign up to the same commitment as the UK is only reasonable," he said.