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Collaboration on climate

Shona Smith, Alyssa Gilbert and Katrine Petersen argue for united university action on climate change

This coming week, a Universities UK conference will consider how universities can decarbonise their campuses and how higher education can work with the government to achieve this.

Climate change is a long-term challenge that requires continued, dedicated commitment to action over a long period of time, tackling complex problems in both technical and social systems and sharing progress between generations. Universities are well placed to adopt this long-term view and have research, innovation and problem-solving at their heart. That means it is incumbent on them to drive this story forward. If those providing thought leadership and education on climate change are not able to implement the changes necessary to keep global average temperature rise below 1.5C, how can they expect others to take timely action?

The COP26 Universities Network, a grassroots group of academic and professional services staff at more than 80 UK universities and research centres, came together to ensure that UK academia played its role in delivering a successful COP26, getting all players on track to deliver a zero-carbon, resilient world. To deliver on this mission, we undertook a huge programme of activities in the run-up to and during the UN climate change conference to ease access to evidence and academic expertise from across disciplines and institutions, and to support action on climate change.

From the outset, we were clear that to be credible in delivering the network’s mission, we needed to support institutions and higher education in moving towards net zero and delivering education and skills to tackle the climate challenge.

Offsetting university emissions

To help do this, we produced two papers. The first, called How Can Carbon Offsetting Help UK Further and Higher Education Institutions Achieve Net-Zero Emissions?, explores offsetting principles and estimates UK universities’ greenhouse gas emissions for the 2018-19 academic year. This work was novel in accounting for student flights to and from their studies, and it estimated that UK universities’ emissions equated to approximately 3 per cent of UK emissions (or 11 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions).

Such figures show that developing, delivering and resourcing actionable plans to become resilient, net-zero organisations must be a priority for UK universities, including revisiting hard-to-reduce emissions and responding to new innovations.

At the same time, it is clear that higher education’s efforts in tackling climate change will have most impact by using campuses to demonstrate solutions, working with others within cities and regions, sharing successes and failures openly and delivering timely research and educational offerings.

The paper concludes that further and higher education would benefit from forming a coalition to support high-integrity offsetting. In response, the Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education has set up the EAUC Carbon Coalition, a consortium of UK and Irish higher and further education institutions that have joined together to offset their emissions, leveraging their combined buying power and knowledge.

Action on education and skills

The second working paper, called Mainstreaming Climate Change Education in UK Higher Education Institutions, together with its 11 supporting case studies, presents recommendations for embedding climate change education into all university structures and directing the talent within institutions towards creating a resilient and zero-carbon future.

We have also established a COP26 education and skills working group, which brings together further and higher education institutions, government officials and industry bodies to align plans for action on building the skills needed to deliver this future. The group analyses gaps in skills provision and education for net zero to identify where capacity-building is urgent, and it showcases good practice across different sectors and within further and higher education institutions.

As we move from planning climate action to actual implementation after COP26, cross-sector collaboration is essential to identify where action on skills is most needed—and to deliver the solutions. Dave Reay, a professor of carbon management and education at the University of Edinburgh and co-lead of the COP26 Universities Network’s skills and education subgroup, will say more about this at the Universities UK conference.

Different contexts

In all of our work, we recognise that the contexts of individual institutions differ vastly, from the infrastructure of their campuses to the research they deliver, and from the makeup of their student population to the capital they have available. This provides higher education with a unique and exciting opportunity to be at the forefront of trialling and demonstrating a range of mechanisms for reducing emissions, building resilience and educating the next generation on the climate, while drawing on the skills and enthusiasm of staff and students.

Despite the considerable differences in individual institutions, they need to collaborate as a sector in order to avoid duplication of effort and, critically, to increase the pace of change.

The COP26 Universities Network has been successful on many measures, but the work does not stop here. We are developing ambitious future plans, including a working paper focused on assessing climate risk and strengthening resilience for higher education institutions.

Individual universities and the sector must come together to leverage their unique position and demonstrate ambitious and rapid action on climate change so that others can follow.

Shona Smith is research and innovation development manager for the Priestley International Centre for Climate at the University of Leeds. She leads the net-zero universities subgroup of the COP26 Universities Network.

Alyssa Gilbert is director of policy and translation at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London. She co-chairs the COP26 Universities Network. You can hear from Alyssa on day one of the Universities UK conference, in a session called Debrief from COP26.

Katrine Petersen is campaign manager for climate change narratives at the Grantham Institute. She co-leads the education and skills and the briefing papers subgroups of the COP26 Universities Network.

If you are interested in joining the network’s new iteration as the UK Universities Network on Climate, please email cop26universities@imperial.ac.uk.