Sustainable research requires collective action – and the concordat is an important next step

Christina Boswell and Chris Pearce explain why the University of Edinburgh and the University of Glasgow have adopted the environmental sustainability concordat, and how the sector can go even further

Christina Boswell is Vice Principal for Research and Enterprise at the University of Edinburgh

Chris Pearce is Vice Principal for Research and Knowledge Exchange at the University of Glasgow

The University of Edinburgh and the University of Glasgow are proud to be early adopters of the environmental sustainability concordat, which we see as a vital next step in galvanising action across the sector to ensure our research and innovation activities address the climate and environmental crisis.

At a time of extraordinary environmental change, the academic research and innovation sector has a crucial role to play to help deliver and go beyond local and global net zero goals.

As a sector, much of our research activity is aimed at understanding and limiting the impact of the changing climate. But are we doing enough to understand and improve the environmental impact and sustainability of this activity?

It is now time to increase our efforts to ensure sustainability in the way we conduct our research and innovation, as well as supporting efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change through our research findings.

A framework to guide action

For this reason, the University of Edinburgh and the University of Glasgow have committed to fully adopting the Concordat for Environmental Sustainability of Research and Innovation Practice, launched today.

The concordat will provide a much-needed framework for guiding action across key areas of research practice: ensuring the efficient use of our infrastructures and facilities; promoting sustainable procurement; and limiting emissions from travel.

Each of these areas carries its challenges. Some of the changes, such as reducing the carbon footprint of our buildings, will require investment in a difficult fiscal context. For others, there may be trade-offs to navigate – for example, cutting international travel in a way that does not adversely affect our early career colleagues. We will need to share approaches to addressing these challenges across the sector. Helpfully, the concordat also provides sufficient flexibility for every institution to tailor action to its local context.

Building traction

Aside from the substantive measures around sustainable research practices, the concordat contains two cross-cutting dimensions, both of which we see as crucial. The first concerns reporting. The concordat will require signatories to publish robust data on their activities and impacts – ensuring it is going well beyond virtue-signalling. This rigour and transparency is vital to motivate sustained action, ensure accountability and promote learning across the sector.

We think the sector could go further. One way to give the concordat more traction would be for funders to require adoption as a condition of awarding grants. Another option would be to include it in future REF exercises. The evolving People, Culture and Environment component of REF 2029 will require us to describe how we do our research, not just what we do. Engagement with the concordat could provide a helpful framework to show how we are taking meaningful steps to minimise the environmental impact of our research.

The second cross-cutting aspect is leadership. The concordat recognises that meaningful sector-wide change requires bold action – and, crucially, cross-institutional collaboration. And our two universities are keen to step up and help drive such cross-sector activity.

Net zero and beyond

Earlier this year, we jointly founded Scotland Beyond Net Zero, aimed at mobilising research, data and innovation from across Scotland to accelerate transition to (and beyond) net zero. Scotland Beyond Net Zero is building on and amplifying the many great initiatives that are already under way in Scotland’s universities. It will help convene our research and innovation to maximise our collective impact, working in partnership with government, industry, the third sector and local communities.

The initiative will also help researchers build sustainability into their research. One of the new resources we are supporting is the development of a climate toolkit. This toolkit will help researchers understand the impact of their work, as well as how to integrate broader climate concerns into their research. It will help our researchers directly contribute to the concordat’s aim of research that is sustainable, circular and low carbon in its activities, and which is transparent about its climate impacts.

Scotland Beyond Net Zero also provides a forum for us to convene institutions, sharing good practice in sustainable research, and also fostering collaboration and networks across our earlier career colleagues – the next generation of leaders who will drive the transition to net zero.

So far, the response to Scotland Beyond Net Zero from across the Scottish HE sector has been overwhelmingly positive, with seven universities joining us, and more to come. This clearly demonstrates that the sector is already motivated and taking action.

We welcome the opportunity, through this concordat, to work collectively with our colleagues across Scotland and the UK, to enable and deliver a sustainable research and innovation sector for the benefit of wider society.

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