The sector has a new sustainability concordat

James Coe summarises the sector's new concordat for research and the environment

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

The Concordat for the Environmental Sustainability of Research and Innovation Practice, co-developed by UKRI, hosted by Wellcome, and supported by a range of universities and research organisations has launched.

In its scope it covers everyone that is involved in research; organisations, funders, and individuals. It asks signatories to sign up to six broad areas which include:

  • Leadership and system change: This is that organisations and individuals will play their role in meeting the UK’s wider sustainability ambitions.
  • Sustainable infrastructure: Organisations, including funders, will support organisations that reuse existing facilities, contribute to net zero and biodiversity, and carry out their activity in an environmentally friendly manner.
  • Sustainable procurement: Organisations and individuals will encourage sustainable activity right through their supply chains.
  • Emissions from business and academic travel: An explicit encouragement of environmental conscious and inclusive travel.
  • Collaborations and partnerships: Signatories will work with others to encourage more sustainable activity.
  • Environmental impact and reporting data: Individuals and organisations will “agree to providing transparent and consistent reporting to deliver this change.”

Each of the areas has a set of associated actions, some of which are more specific than others. It would not make for an interesting blog to list every action but there are some interesting tensions and implicit trade offs within the concordat.

For example, while there is a desire to continue using facilities in some cases in other cases facilities will need to be replaced or rebuilt entirely to meet scientific demand. Some research is inherently more carbon intensive with less opportunity to share facilities. And some areas are likely to generate widespread agreement but there is little shared sense on how to achieve the stated aims. For example, everyone recognises that transport for conferences is carbon intensive but conferences are seen as important to academic promotion.

Organisations that sign up to the Concordat are expected to report data, act transparently in the promotion of their work, and share the practice of others. The Concordat is the beginning of a significant piece of work where providers will be asked to come together to develop work and share best practice. There will be a review in 2029 to understand progress toward some of the ambitions within the Concordat.

The impact of the Concordat is dependent on the work of its signatories. The Concordat is cognisant of existing activity but the extent to which it will be additive to the work going on at universities, reflective of existing activity, or a genuine strategic shift in sustainability will emerge over time.

It isn’t mentioned explicitly but it would be surprising if some reference to the Concordat did not emerge in the final REF decisions given a commitment to “build on current sector level work on research culture, including the Concordats and Agreements Review,” was included within the initial decisions.

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