From a climate emergency to a plan for sustainability

Might I politely ask, when did you fossilise? When did you give up your role in contributing to solve the biggest problem facing the world: climate change? I mean you, the professional, educated, Wonkhe-subscribing, ineffectual fossil over there.

Most of us fight the minor signs of fossilisation in our everyday lives. We try not to refer to stored music as “tapes”. We try not to refer to favourite TV shows that were made before anyone else in a conversation was born. And for the most part the younger generations are amiably forgiving about our funny ways: they know they are on the same inevitable conveyor belt.

But on climate change…forgiving? Why should they be? The next generation of students is just weeks from our doors, and on climate change they aren’t forgiving at all. It isn’t them who has overseen a loss of rainforests equivalent to 30 football pitches…per minute, or the development of country-sized plastic islands in our oceans. The coming generation is that of Greta Thunberg, Swedish climate change activist, who refuses to believe that our only response to the damage we’ve caused is to sit, fossil-like, and watch the disaster unfold around us.

A climate emergency

Exeter is by the sea, or close enough at least for flood defence to be a live issue. It’s far from the first UK city to drown under any prediction of the worst potential effects of rising sea levels, but far from the last.

The University of Exeter declared a climate emergency on 20 May 2019, joining over 90 UK local authorities (including Exeter on 23 May, Devon on 22 May and Cornwall on 19 June), universities including Bristol and Newcastle, and the UK Parliament. But what next? The attitudes and activism of our students demands a step-change in response to climate science. The scale, quantity and urgency have to date been like a single strawberry at Wimbledon: insufficient.

The University of Exeter fully supports these declarations and is at the forefront of environment and climate change research presenting the evidence and potential solutions, influencing governments, businesses and communities. It is working with policy makers and will continue to work to make a difference in partnership at every level from local councils to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change at the United Nations. In September 2018, the University also announced a new carbon reduction target with a commitment to achieving a 50 per cent reduction in energy-related carbon emissions by 2026 in comparison to 2005-06.

However, it recognises that simply declaring an environment and climate emergency is not enough. The challenges we all face require brave leadership, financial investment, organisational and structural transformation and human behaviour change on a scale we have never seen before.

The university is bringing together Exeter’s world leading experts on climate change and the environment, sustainability professionals and students so that the university moves from declaring a climate emergency to a plan of action that we can start to measure by the autumn.

Scoring strong on sustainability

For others who have not yet gone down this path, I have this call to action for every university leadership team and every estates director in the country: engage with and use the free Sustainability Leadership Scorecard (SLS) tool that AUDE have developed in partnership with the EAUC and Arup. Launched in summer 2018, roughly a quarter of the UK’s universities have adopted it into their practice and AUDE have recently been able to report on the sector’s experience of the tool in its first year of use.

AUDE’s sustainability lead and incoming chair, Stephen Wells, Director of Estates at the University of Surrey highlights that “we need to grab the opportunity provided by the SLS in both hands – to co-ordinate, to learn and share with each other, and to provide a united front in facing the biggest of common challenges.” He explains that “the SLS doesn’t set out to name and shame anyone, and instead it is wholly constructive and collaborative in nature, providing multiple ways to benchmark performance and identify learning opportunities with similar institutions across the sector.”

At Surrey, they have used the SLS to compare who uses less energy, be that water, gas or electricity, drawing on best practice strategies in sustainability. With the support of the SLS, the institution has reduced its energy consumption, saving scarce resources but also saving money which has been used to support other services at Surrey.

Best course of action

The Sustainability Leadership Scorecard has an underpinning structure based on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. That has been core in terms of messaging for me at Exeter: teams like the idea that our activities are structured within such internationally accepted guidelines. It feels like we’re doing our bit on a global challenge.

The SLS is our sector’s best current chance to respond to the urgent demands of climate science. Don’t fossilise: adopt and use the SLS tool as your tool of choice and support your university community to drive change across the entirety of the sustainability agenda.

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