The climate emergency and the new civic role for the university

As we face a climate emergency, universities must undergo radical change to lead the way in tackling the crisis, Paul Chatterton writes

June 21, 2019
Best universities for climate action

We live in troubling but exciting times. Last November, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report highlighted the need for urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero in the next 10 years to avoid dangerous level rises in global temperatures. The protest group Extinction Rebellion has been taking direct action in the UK and raising the alarm on the likely dire consequences of climate breakdown. The now global YouthStrike movement has seen thousands of schoolchildren striking for a new kind of education link to climate science. On the back of this, hundreds of cities, towns, as well as whole nations across the world are declaring climate emergencies.

This means that there is a new, radicalised civic role for the university to help tackle climate breakdown, support a rapid zero-carbon transition and ensure a safe and equitable future for all.

Several UK universities are standing up to this challenge and declaring climate emergencies. The trend was first set by the University of Bristol in April 2019, with the Universities of Glasgow, Newcastle, Keele and Lancaster following. These are significant symbolic steps that permit the institutions to embark upon a step change in their traditional functions of teaching and research, as well as practices around procurement, travel and estate management.

But what should these grand declarations look like in practice?

First, universities have significant land and building portfolios. Most already have quite well-developed sustainability plans, but climate emergency management goes far beyond this. We need to adapt all buildings so that they are net zero emissions within the next 10 years. This would be supported by a sector-wide fund to radically retrofit all university buildings and student residences.

We would need to see the mass “greening” of campuses through green walls, vertical gardens, rooftop farms and water-centric design. Additionally, landholdings could be used for carbon sequestration activities, renewable energy production and re-wilding to reverse the rapid rate of habitat and species loss.

A wholesale shift to active travel patterns among staff and students would also be needed, permitting only electric vehicles on campuses and re-purposing university car parks as micro-mobility hubs where people can share or rent electric vehicles, scooters or bikes.

Universities can also make a huge difference through their teaching and learning activities. All teaching and learning needs to focus on the emergency task of creating a zero-carbon society within 10 years. This would bring huge learning opportunities across a range of disciplines. Students would receive basic primers on the scale of the challenges ahead, the importance of embedding social justice in all outcomes, and would work in-depth on the development and rapid prototyping of practical solutions. Much could be done in the universities’ communities, especially in surrounding low-income neighbourhoods, where income generation and poverty reduction would both benefit.

This new role would also support a more activist mentality within the university, using its institutional weight to push a radical agenda within the civic sphere to encourage its municipality, large local employers and its contractual supply chains to take similar climate emergency action.

Then there is the issue of university research. A fair proportion of academic work and university research centres are based around the extractive and fossil fuel industries. To meet ambitious zero-carbon targets by the 2030s, there needs to be a complete moratorium on fossil fuel extraction and use. Part of this will involve withdrawing research and funding that supports the fossil fuel and extractive industries, including university divestment campaigns to remove fossil fuel investments from funding and pension portfolios.

One of the most significant challenges will be to reduce university-based aviation. This will touch a particular nerve around the international identity of academics and students. While aviation is currently only a small part of the global emissions profile, it is the only sector that is rapidly expanding with little international or national action to curb growth. Many frequent-flyer academics could simply gear down and only attend “must-go” conferences. Conference organisers, as well as grant-awarding bodies, can play a key role by offering discounts to those who do not fly.

But, there will also need to be a localisation of student recruitment, finding new sources of revenue to fund universities and decreasing reliance on aviation-dependent international students. Advanced digital telecoms could be better used to facilitate exchange through web conferencing.

University governance will need to change as well. We will need a climate emergency committee at the heart of university decision-making bodies. There will be a pro-vice chancellor with a dedicated portfolio. There needs to be significant earmarked funds to finance a 10-year zero-carbon action plan with a scrutiny board made up of staff and students to monitor progress.

There would also be a complete realignment of priorities of UK Research and Innovation and other key funders towards creating a socially just, zero-carbon society within 10 years.

All this may sound radical and rapid. Indeed it is, but this is a moment of great potential social transformation to a more liveable, fairer and sustainable nation, and one in which universities must take a lead. In everything our university leaders do, the words of Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish school striker, need to be at the forefront of their minds:

“I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”

Paul Chatterton is professor of urban futures in the School of Geography, University of Leeds. His recent books include Low Impact Living (Routledge) and Unlocking Sustainable Cities (Pluto Press). 

Paul will be speaking at THE Live on 27-28 November. The event will bring together some of UK higher education’s brightest minds to reimagine the role of universities. Find out more about the programme and how to get involved. 

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Reader's comments (2)

If an autistic 16 year old child is your guru, you may want to re-appraise your life choices.
The aim of (higher) education is to equip people with the skills and knowledge so that they can make informed choices themselves. A balanced and critical approach to any issue is important. Higher Education is NOT an opportunity for educators' to inculcate students to believe what advocacy they themselves believe in. Advocating this purpose for HE is akin to 'national education' in some communist countries.