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Universities and climate change: it’s time to plug the gaps

In its latest report, What are UK universities doing about climate change and the Paris Climate Agreement?,  Friends of the Earth acknowledges the significant role universities can play in responding to the challenges of climate change.

Universities play a pivotal role in understanding climate change and how to avoid its worst impacts. The UK is a world leader in academic research and advocacy on climate change. So, in March, Friends of the Earth wrote to 40 universities and 19 research councils and institutes asking them how their institutions were responding to the 1.5 degree challenge set in Paris.

The scale and breadth of action being taken across UK universities is impressive. But while most universities are doing many things, there are some major gaps.

In Friends of the Earth’s view, there is a colossal amount of high quality research and advocacy on climate change being undertaken in academic institutions, with the UK being a clear lead country in the physical science of climate change, but also in research on how countries can cut emissions and on the technological, cultural, social and economic implications of doing so.

Friends of the Earth feels that overall, academic institutions are setting a strong example to other sectors of society on the urgency of climate change, with much genuinely world-leading research and advocacy. However, the responses in many places should be stepped up and there are some glaring contradictions within institutions where often actions go against the Paris Agreement goals.

Many but not all institutions explicitly mentioned the new 1.5 degree imperative from Paris. Some have already changed their research plans or activities to address issues, others intend to. Other institutions stated that their climate change plans are already very strong and that Paris does not materially change this work.

But, there is probably universal agreement that there is always more that could be done. In a blog last December I referenced a piece by Jane Carter in the Times Higher Education. In May last year, my blog picked up on a piece published on that suggested increased tuition fees and competition among UK universities have created a generation of ever more demanding students, which is complicating the sector’s attempts to reduce emissions. Of course, it’s just not that simple.

But, as Friends of the Earth states, whether you’re a student, a member of staff or simply live nearby, you might want to know how your university can help tackle climate change.

It has outlined 10 top things a university can do to tackle climate change:

  1. Promote a strong, positive vision of how the world can meet the Paris goals
  2. Focus emission reduction research on how to meet the Paris 1.5 degree goal
  3. Move away from research leading to extracting more fossil fuels
  4. Implement a climate change education programme for all students, also available to staff and residents and businesses in the city
  5. Be part of a global network of universities committed to meeting the Paris climate goals
  6. Deliver a timetable plan to go zero carbon across all operations
  7. Divest from all funds from companies involved in fossil fuel extraction by 2020
  8. Ensure only companies with a 1.5 degree-compatible business strategy can attend careers fairs
  9. Implement a strategy to cope with the climate impacts which can no longer be avoided
  10. Embed responsibility for delivery of this strategy with the university senior leadership team

The leading institutions are doing many of these things. There is sometimes a disconnect between how universities operate and what they research and teach but the best are tackling campus, community and curriculum with equal measure. There are some very specific ‘things’ listed with the kind of prescription that tends to create difficulties within universities. It’s fair to say that many are looking at elements of the above but broadly speaking we’re all, to a greater or lesser extent, seeking to reduce carbon emissions from our operations, supply chains and investments, and to embed sustainability into our teaching. As the report rightly suggests, there is significant world class research being undertaken across the piece.

Paris sets the framework for government policy. I hope that means universities remain committed to achieving the carbon reduction targets they have set and that government seeks to direct research funding towards climate change research that will decarbonise our lives (and quickly). If there’s one real challenge, it’s turning research into learning and into policy and practice. Often that process is very long and we don’t have time.

In the meantime, universities should consider how they are preparing themselves for climate change. Climate adaptation remains the poor relation to greenhouse gas reduction and this has been illustrated in the rollout of the Green Scorecard developed by the Association of University Directors of Estates (AUDE) where there remains an acknowledgement that this is an undeveloped area. Issues of flood risk, heat islands, supply chains and international impacts remain poorly understood.

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