Countdown to global meltdown

April 14, 2006

The Government needs to invest political energy in supporting a creative climate for research into the environment before it is too late, says Sara Parkin

In January, Chancellor Gordon Brown asked Sir Nicholas Stern, head of the Government Economic Service, to examine the economics of climate change, with the given that humanity is causing global warming and that we are already experiencing the adverse impacts. Questions about the nature of the impacts may exist, but, says Sir Nicholas, uncertainty about their gravity does not. "Recent science indicates that some of the risks are more serious than previously thought."

Much of the science to which Sir Nicholas refers comes from UK universities that belong to a global scientific collaboration co-ordinated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The panel's fourth assessment, due in 2007, is expected to bring the news that not only are the global climate systems that drive the Gulf Stream and support tropical rainforests destabilised, but also that the policy implications of mitigating the worst and adapting to the inevitable are beginning to look like an impossible mission.

Fine words have been spoken and action plans written by governments and international organisations, but little is done. Five-year reports from the Millennium Ecosystems Assessment and the Millennium Development Goals make glum reading as not even watered-down targets are met. Another UK Energy Review follows a 2003 White Paper notable for how little energy was expended on its implementation. Panic permeates the new review because of worries about oil and gas supplies.

And yet it asks the wrong questions. For the right ones, we return to the Chancellor. In March 2005, he said that the market should trade in the services of energy, not energy per se. Only by asking how to provide affordable, secure supplies of low-carbon heat, power and light for people in different places do innovative answers emerge. Before the next spending round, Mr Brown will ask questions about public spending of all departments in relation to climate change.

Can universities create an enjoyable and creative climate to stimulate innovations in radical resource efficiency? If we are to achieve our environmental, social and economic goals at the same time, this nation's intellectual capital needs to be put on an emergency footing. And not just in technological innovation either. In judging the economic performance of its member states, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development recognises the role of education. But an enormous growth in human and social capital could be achieved with little or no impact on the environment but great benefit to the economy and global security. There is a big job here for the arts, humanities and media studies.

Good examples of universities rising to the sustainability challenge exist.

But getting value for money remains an issue. Optimising the efficiency of how a university teaches, researches and develops graduates has been recognised as simply good business in a globalising market. But optimising the contribution of the institution to the biggest challenge - a shift to a more sustainable path for human progress - is not yet at the heart of this process. Even so, UK higher education is admired for how far it has got.

Wales has a statutory duty to implement sustainable development and a strategy that stretches from schools to universities. The 18-institution strong Higher Education Partnership for Sustainability developed ideas and tools that have been picked up because they worked on processes that could be personalised by different institutions. The Environmental Association of Universities and Colleges has brought clarity to issues of resource and waste reduction, transport policy and biodiversity management. Bodies such as the Engineering Council have set sustainability competencies as a prerequisite for professional registration. Other universities are taking part in the Professions in Partnership for Sustainability scheme, which has a cascade effect on university departments and employer training.

But is change happening fast enough? No. The Department for Education and Skills is due to publish its Sustainable Development Action Plan, but will it mobilise political energy and resources to back it? China and India are competing on quality as well as cost for supplying business research and development needs. Employers are asking for sustainability literacy as a feature of "graduateness" - though they struggle to articulate what that means in practice. More than soaring utility costs, these are all reasons why a go-slow strategy is not an option for any UK university.

Sara Parkin is founder of Forum for the Future, the UK's leading sustainable development charity.

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