UK universities ‘sleepwalking into environmental disaster’

Joy Carter says fellow v-cs must act on climate emergency and make sustainability integral to all teaching and a ‘way of life’ on campus

July 9, 2019
Source: Getty

Universities “are sleepwalking into a major environmental disaster”, according to one UK vice-chancellor who is calling on her counterparts to take action.

Joy Carter, vice-chancellor of the University of Winchester, wants higher education institutions to put climate change at the top of their agendas.

UK universities, including her own, were doing “nowhere near enough” to tackle the problem, she told Times Higher Education.

She asked why, as “thought leaders”, vice-chancellors were not “out there campaigning and shouting and highlighting and leading by example?”

“Universities are sleepwalking into a major environmental disaster, with the future of humanity at stake. We need to be out there leading the way,” Professor Carter said.

She welcomed recent declarations of a “climate emergency” by several universities as a positive public signal that institutions were serious about addressing the issue.

However, she continued, such commitments needed to be “backed up” with action, including embedding the climate emergency in all teaching and educational programmes.

As well as informing and engaging students, universities had to “walk the talk” and make the climate emergency part of the institutional “way of life”, acknowledged and reflected in everything from staff induction to financial activities and campus sustainability.

There was much more that universities could be doing, Professor Carter argued, including building to the highest environmental standards, cutting waste, reducing institutional carbon footprints and banishing plastic from campuses.

In addition, she went on, universities could undertake valuable research into climate change and ways of tackling it, as well as performing a vital public advocacy role.

Professor Carter identified potential institutional barriers to action, among them “strategic plans being too short-term”, which made it easier to focus on, say, Brexit and the Augar review of post-18 funding than on climate change.

Some of the actions Winchester has taken include securing Responsible Futures accreditation from the National Union of Students – which encourages universities to embed sustainability into learning – and working collaboratively with other institutions as a United Nations Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) champion university. A new £50 million building at Winchester will feature a green roof and rainwater harvesting.

Chris Skidmore, the universities and science minister, has called for UK universities to lead the way in becoming carbon neutral.

Sector bodies such as Universities UK, GuildHE and the Committee of University Chairs (CUC) also had to “wake up” and play their part, Professor Carter said. She added that the CUC, for example, should ask itself “are you holding…senior leaders to account on this?”

One of the reasons for universities’ paltry efforts was “because no one quite knows what to do yet”, said Paul Chatterton, professor of urban futures at the University of Leeds.

Although small changes were welcome, they were insufficient because what was required now was “fundamental transformation”, Professor Chatterton said. “This is not a dress rehearsal; we don’t get another chance with this.”


Print headline: ‘Sleepwalking’ to climate disaster

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Reader's comments (3)

Yes, an advocacy role,and not just for the Environmental Sciences department. Socio-economists too can play a role. How about promoting,1) Cheaper subsidised public transport fares, 2)Tax rebates, to employer, for permitting 1, 2, 3 days a week homeworking, 3) Negative tax rates on healthier, or locally produced, food, along with higher taxes on beef. 4) Likewise, variable VAT rates, higher for environemntally damaging goods like conservatories, cosmetics, cars, and lower for books, gardening equipment, holidays in your home country. Can / should we try and save the planet through behavioural changes, rather than techno-fixes? Sorry, big business, probably less for you here.
Yes we can all do more 1) Higher taxes on vegan and vegetarian food that is transported long distances and are grown under hectares of plastic or sprayed with herbicides or pesticides to increase yields and so increase profit for conglomerates. 2) Support locally produced and seasonal food particularly highly nutritious grass fed lamb and beef as a government priority 3) Stop universities building on green campuses 3) Insist through taxation that universities heat and service buildings using sustainable fuel and that buildings have natural light and ventilation.
There should also be a focus on reducing air travel - I love an international conference in a great city as much as anyone, but they should be abolished and replaced with video conferencing.