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The Climate Emergency and Universities: Our Chance, Our Challenge, Our Change

  • 9 November 2021
  • By Susan Lea

This blog was contributed by Professor Susan Lea, University of Hull Vice Chancellor.

COP26 aims to unite the world to tackle climate change. Surely nothing can be more important: ‘A code red for humanity’ is how UN Secretary General António Guterres described the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which makes for damning reading on the state of global climate efforts.Indeed, the predictions within the report indicate that humanity has one last chance to avert the worst of the coming climate crisis and the attendant consequences for our planet and its people. This is not a warning to be taken lightly.

Unfortunately, much about climate change is political.  Undoubtedly, this has slowed progress and lessened resolve.  However, in what can seem a daunting landscape, universities offer hope. They are seizing the challenge and playing a strong role in positively sculpting the climate agenda at home and internationally.  Our research provides clear evidence of the impact of the climate emergency and provides solutions to effect change across multiple sectors and spheres. Our education is training the next generation in the skills to work in a net zero economy. Our experts are informing policy and advising governments and big business.

And, we are embedding positive green practice within our own organisations. At the University of Hull, for example, we are ahead of our target to become a carbon neutral campus by our centenary anniversary of 2027. While we have set an ambitious target, reflecting our commitment and expertise in climate, energy and the environment, universities across the UK are increasingly echoing this carbon neutrality pledge. Numerous universities are demonstrating their commitment to change through, among other things, reducing waste and water usage on campus, increasing recycling and eliminating single-use plastics. Of course, such changing practice is underpinned by research and innovation, enabling universities to become ‘Living Labs’. The University of Keele’s radical decarbonisation plan or the ‘Living Labs’ at the University of Edinburgh offer examples.

At my own University, a raft of similar work is in train with opportunities for research and both formal and informal student engagement.  As but one example, a biodiversity audit of our campus conducted in collaboration with a local nature trust, contributes to both undergraduate and postgraduate laboratory and project work and includes student volunteers. Data obtained from the audit will be integrated into our rewilding project, contributing to estates plans to enhance the biodiversity of our campus. 

Alongside addressing their own practice, UK universities play a vital role in garnering public support for climate initiatives and informing people about the dangers of continuing on our current trajectory. Recently, researchers from the University of Cambridge, University College London and Imperial College London have found that taking a transatlantic flight could cost more than $3000 globally due to its negative impacts on the climate. Such research is vital if we are to illustrate the real cost of everyday actions, inspiring further changes in lifelong habits which will contribute towards global carbon reduction.

Unfortunately, individual responsibility can only take us so far. Multifaceted approaches are required to bring stakeholders from academia, industry and politics together to address the climate crisis. Beyond their own campuses, researchers at UK universities have contributed to sustainable development in various spheres, continuing to innovate despite the pandemic. At Hull, we have established Aura, a consortium including the Universities of Sheffield and Durham and key industrial partners, in recognition of the Humber’s status as the offshore wind capital of the UK and the role of such partnerships in fostering ideas and turning them into reality. One of the key partners in this project, Siemens Gamesa, has recently announced that they will be investing £186 m in Hull, to double the size of their wind turbine factory, a clear statement of intent for continued green investment in the region.

Collaboration across the public sector is important too. Low carbon heating (and cooling) is ‘one of the world’s most important net zero challenges’. A partnership between Hull City Council and the University’s Centre for Sustainable Energy Technology is seeking to demonstrate the potential of low-carbon heating technology through the establishment of a full-scale low-carbon domestic house. 

Indeed, such partnerships are not exclusively the domain of hard science. The University of Manchester’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research has recently worked with the band Massive Attack to create a low carbon roadmap for the music industry to ensure its compatibility with climate targets.  At COP26 itself, a production co-created by the University of Hull and the National Youth Theatre will be performed live affording the voices of young people from marginalised communities facing rising sea levels and increased flood risk to be heard on an international stage.

And of course, then there are our students – at the heart of our universities and, critically, the next generation. Their passion for and commitment to tackling the climate emergency is both refreshing and inspiring. Ensuring our education equips students for the future is vital – as is ensuring that we collectively leave a legacy they can be proud of and not disappointed in.  Climate fears are increasingly affecting students’ current lifestyles and future career choices, and the majority desire further action on climate change from businesses, government and their own universities. Even in this last year, students view climate change as a more urgent priority for world leaders to address than the COVID-19 pandemic.

With COP26 upon us, and the findings of the IPCC report reverberating in our minds, we have no excuse but to accept that this is our chance to address the challenges that are of our own making – and set them right through substantial commitment and change.  Universities are playing a critical role through their education, research and knowledge exchange – informing policy, providing evidence, developing innovative solutions, educating students, and supporting communities. This is particularly vital in understanding the consequences, including those that are unintended, of our actions. Finally, we should not forget the lessons we have learned during the pandemic (and this discourse seems to be waning in the desire to return to normal). The planet ‘breathed’ during lockdown; together we need to focus on ensuring that it continues to breathe for a long time to come.

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