The global climate emergency has not gone away

Francesco Masala is President at The SU, University of Bath

Everyone is asking the same question. Incoming and returning students, SUs, parents, teaching and support staff – they are looking up the leaders of their universities and asking “what is your institution doing to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus crisis?”.

This question is asked because coronavirus has impacted virtually every aspect of the day-to-day operation and strategic outlook of universities. It has impacted admissions, accommodation, overall income, infrastructure – and has highlighted more than ever the inequalities that affect some sections of the student population more than others.

Universities’ executives and governing bodies have faced a flurry of conflicting demands and needs from their students, up against a shrinking economy and a bleak financial scenario in the short and medium terms.

But throughout all of this – as everyone scrambles to address the crisis at hand in a cost-effective way – risk losing a big opportunity to address the one thing that coronavirus may, in the short term, have benefitted: the climate emergency.

It’s still an emergency

Before Covid-19 took over and tainted the strategic goals of universities, addressing the climate crisis was quickly becoming a topic of strategic importance in the sector – particularly due to the pressure from grassroots student societies and organisations.

As written on the site in February, a number of universities had started looking at the impact of their research, teaching and operation on the planet. A lot of them have published goals and recommendations – chiefly the University of Exeter’s white paper, with over 100 recommendations on how to reduce the University’s impact on the environment.

In a lot of institutions, even in those that appear to be addressing the climate emergency radically and swiftly, there has been a strong resistance to enact significant change due to the potential conflict with other strategic goals. Importantly, targets such as carbon neutrality require significant financial investments from institutions, the full cost of which is unknown even to experts of the issue.

The conflict between the need and the duty to do our bit to combat the climate emergency inevitably clashes with strategic goals that would also result in much-needed income for universities. This clash was apparent even before coronavirus, and in an outlook where the sector will have to ensure drastic savings to stay afloat, ambitious and therefore expensive plans to tackle the climate crisis could be the first ones to be ditched. That would be irresponsible and wrong.

Nature is healing

There have been a lot of stories in the news about how this crisis has been a breath of fresh air (quite literally) for the environment. Videos of fish swimming in the clear waters of Venice’s canals, images of mountains being visible for the first time in decades due to a significant drop in air pollution may make us smile and look at the silver lining throughout all of this.

However, there is a flaw in thinking that the future for the fight against the climate crisis is rosey. At some point in the future, we will return to some form of normality, in an economy that still relies on greenhouse gases’ emissions. If anything, as a hangover from the lockdown, people may be more likely to use private cars rather than public transport to go to work and go on with their day-to-day life.

Organisations could opt for more cost-efficient measures, policies and products in the creation of this new normality – and generally, cheap tends to mean unsustainable. Overall, if we don’t account for the climate crisis as a key factor to be considered in planning what the future will look like, the new normal risks being a setback on our fight to combat climate change. This is why I am pleased and proud to have seen the University of Bath recently declaring a climate emergency and setting ambitious targets for carbon neutrality.

What needs to happen now

Looking at the higher education sector specifically, there are a number of key things that I believe need to be considered.

First, the lockdown associated with Covid-19 has shown that the brick-and-mortar, physical campus university is not (and should not) be through. We have seen all too clearly the importance of face-to-face social interaction that is usually concentrated in our campuses: indeed, from a SU perspective, this is good news, as it highlights the importance of the extra-curricular side of the student experience and should put it firmly in the agenda of universities’ senior managers.

From a staff perspective, forced home working throughout this time has reminded to many how important the social side of the job is as well, the interaction with colleagues, and all of those enjoyable little parts of day-to-day work life that have been lost with the lockdown. Overall, the importance of social interaction for the community’s mental wellbeing has been highlighted by this crisis.

The coronavirus lockdown has forced universities to recreate the learning and teaching experience on online platforms within a short turnaround, with success being varied across universities and even across different departments of the same university.

It has shown the need of a solid framework and support for online learning, as we may need it at least for part of the next academic year – universities such as Manchester and Cambridge have already informed their incoming and returning students that virtual teaching will remain in place, to an extent, at least for the first semester of the 2020-21 academic year.

Staying online

However, there is a real opportunity here for online provision to remain a viable option even when campuses re-open and the new normality starts. Students’ Unions have been lobbying for lectures to be recorded and for acceptable material to be uploaded online for years, and that is important now more than ever.

Even when campuses reopen, the possibility for students to learn remotely rather than having to come to campus could result in a significant drop in the amount of vehicles (public and private) traveling to campuses every day, as well as granting students more control over their time and schedule. Aside from the potential positive impact on the environment, this is important in scenarios such as where students are in part-time employment or have caring responsibilities.

Additionally, the lockdown has emptied campuses not only of their students, but of most of their staff as well, with most university employees working remotely. With a lot of university staff members not being student-facing, or not necessarily having to be, this is the perfect opportunity to re-evaluate the need for full-time staff members to be on campuses all days of their working week.

Notwithstanding the importance of social interaction with colleagues, there are considerable benefits on the mental wellbeing of staff to work from home for part of the week. In turn, this would reduce the amount of cars traveling to campuses – given that indirect transport emissions are a significant part of the total carbon footprint of a university, such a reduction would be significant for the environment.

Whilst this may appear as a small drop in the ocean in the grand scheme of things, we mustn’t underestimate the importance of measures such as these on a local level: in Bath, for instance, the university is one of the biggest employers and emitters in the area, and due to Bath’s geography, pollution due to transport is likely to concentrate in the valley where the city lies, where most students and staff start their commutes to reach to the University: some areas of Bath’s NO2 levels highly exceed the national average, and EU limits.

So there could be significant improvements to the air quality of Bath if the University became more environmentally conscious of the impact of student and staff travel. A strategy around flexible working patterns would also prompt a look at how campus buildings are used and potential re-purposing of rooms and buildings usage.

A more flexible use of buildings on campuses would be key in driving a reduction of new capital projects being built. New builds, aside from requiring significant financial investments from institutions in a time where money is increasingly lacking, add substantial amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere in a time when we need to drastically cut our emissions.

Radically tackling the climate emergency presented a huge amount of financial and operational challenges even way back when, and it would be easy to let it slip from the agenda now that a more pressing crisis requires our attention. But that would be a mistake, and, if anything, taking significant steps to combat the environmental crisis is important now more than ever, and the response to Covid-19 presents a unique opportunity to start that change.

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