Can UK Universities Lead The Way On Climate Change?

13/09/2016 10:02 | Updated 13 September 2017

Climate change can often seem a gloomy and frightening subject. But in the last year, there have been some rays of light and hope. In December, the world's nations agreed in Paris what I hope history will see as the turning point in the fight to save humanity from climate catastrophe - an agreement to try to limit global warming to just 1.5 degrees.

In just the last week, more good news: the world's biggest polluters China and the USA have shown bold leadership by ratifying this Agreement. Here in the UK there's no excuse for Prime Minister Theresa May to fail to do the same, and then for all sectors of society to get on with delivering it. Every sector with influence needs to show that they 'get' that climate change is urgent, and the most urgent and difficult challenges humanity faces.

To this end, British universities have a clear leadership role in in steering a path away from climate disaster. We already have many of the world's leading climate scientists, and our universities are well placed - with their cross-sectoral focus - to provide the multi-disciplinary co-operation needed to address the simultaneous economic, social and environmental challenges posed by the rapidly escalating climate crisis.

UK universities can lead the way. But are they, and are they doing enough?

Since Paris, Friends of the Earth wrote to 59 UK academic institutions, asking them how they were changing their plans to reflect the Paris Agreement's new 1.5 degree goal. We publish the results of that survey today.

Please do read our report and I urge you to engage your local university in taking greater steps to tackle climate change. Here are the 5 stand-out conclusions from our survey:

Universities are doing well

There is a deeply impressive kaleidoscope of different activity at all levels of UK universities - from ground-breaking research on physical climate science, the psychology of motivation and renewable technologies, to cutting emissions on campuses, education programmes and novel ways to communicate climate change to the public. Climate change is becoming a central and critical part of many universities' core business.

1.5 degrees is not yet embedded

The Paris Agreement is still new, and although some universities have reacted fast, and changed research programmes to reflect the new need to find ways to meet the 1.5 goal, this is by no means universal. We hope that the big international conference on 1.5 degrees in Oxford on the 20th-22nd September will be lead to concrete and strengthened research and advocacy on 1.5 degrees right across the UK university sector.

Some glaring gaps and inconsistencies

Although the responses we received were rightly proud of their achievements, as revealing were the issues not mentioned. A good number of universities have very strong climate change departments, but also have departments whose research leads to more fossil fuel exploration. This is in direct conflict with the Paris goals, which can only be met if the vast majority of proven oil, coal and gas reserves stay in the ground, let alone drilling for new reserves. Similarly almost no reply mentioned whether universities' financial holdings were in fossil fuel companies, or sponsorship received from corporations who are resisting shareholder pressure to act on climate. Universities need a "transition pathway" away from fossil-fuel research.

Communicating a strong, positive vision

We feel that universities can showcase and join-up their actions on climate change better. At root, this is about recognising that a central role for universities has always been about transforming society for the better. Tackling climate change will involve societal transformation at a colossal scale: universities can champion this change with a clear vision of how they are leading the way in effecting this change. This is also in universities' self-interest: institutions who are stuck in the past, or reliant on companies whose actions put young people's future at risk, or whose actions on climate are wildly inconsistent, will lose out - for the best and most talented researchers and students will over-time stay away. In contrast, a strong, visionary strategy will increasingly attract people.

An overarching strategy needed

Although every university is clearly doing many things very well, all have gaps, and some actions could be seen to be stuck in silos, not part of an overarching strategy. We consulted with academics, students and people connected with universities to ask what would be the crucial elements in any comprehensive University climate strategy. Here are 10 - our report sets these out in more detail. We welcome feedback on these ideas

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

In conclusion, climate change is more urgent than ever, but Paris has given us all hope that societies will rise to its challenge, and UK universities are ahead of most sectors in UK society. Now is the time for all UK universities to build on their strong work and adopt an even more comprehensive climate strategy.

UK universities, so often at the top of the academic table, now need to be a beacon for the world on climate.