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Climate Crisis On Campus: How Universities Can Play Their Part

21 Apr Rebecca Low 0 Blog

2021 is the year in which Glasgow is set to host the re-scheduled United Nations Climate Change Conference. The conference will bring together leading global powers ‘to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’. From the launch of the 1.5°C Business Playbook in 2020, to companies like Microsoft making investments in community-focused solar power initiatives, there are plenty of opportunities for the business sector to commit to playing their part in halting the climate crisis. But what does this mean for the universities that feed into those industries?

For the students and graduates of these institutions, protecting the future of the planet is a priority. According to a recent global survey, climate change was consistently in the top three biggest issues facing this generation of students. It was the number one concern for students in the UK, Australia, Canada, France, Germany and Italy. Climate change was the second biggest issue for US students, after the widening wealth gap. A 2016 survey carried out by Cone Communications found that 64% of millennials consider a company’s social and environmental commitments when deciding where to work. We might safely assume that this interest in environmental impact also extends to their experience as students. To that end, how are our higher education institutions ensuring that tackling the climate crisis is at the forefront of academic life – both in-person and online?

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Climate action on campus

University campuses have long been a center for action. Many social and political movements of the last half-century can trace their roots back to university campuses. We are seeing that action to combat the climate crisis has also gained momentum thanks to the activity of students and young people. While their students and graduates are engaged, what are the universities themselves doing to play their part on campus?

According to Times Higher Education’s data from their University Impact Rankings on climate action, the University of British Columbia (UBC) stood out as the institution doing the most to tackle climate change. The findings, from 2019, found that UBC was leading the field in climate research, energy use, and the steps they were taking to prepare for the impact of climate change. At the time of the survey, UBC was on its way to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 67%, reaching a carbon-neutral state by 2050. In the last twenty years, it has reduced the amount of water used on campus by half.

Three UK and Republic of Ireland universities (University College Cork, University of Newcastle, and the University of Dundee) topped the table measuring ‘responsible consumption and production’. This metric took a closer look at the day-to-day actions universities can engage with; for example. introducing recycling initiatives, energy conservation, and minimizing the use of plastics. The University of Newcastle had also created on-campus conservation zones and was fully running on renewable energy sources from January 2020.

Two sides to every solution for the climate crisis

There is no one perfect solution when it comes to dealing with the climate crisis. The ways in which universities are effecting change are varied. However, there is some dispute as to how impactful these choices are.

Looking to the host city for this year’s UN Climate Change Conference, the University of Glasgow has pledged to go carbon-neutral by 2030. One way it aims to do this is by reducing staff travel and encouraging the use of online teaching and conferencing software as much as possible. While the focus of this initiative is international flights, the guidance set out by the University of Glasgow includes advice to use public transport where travel is absolutely necessary and to try to limit face-to-face meetings.

However, moving off-campus and online doesn’t always have the positive environmental impact we might think. According to findings from April to June 2020, working and studying from home generated a substantial carbon footprint. The carbon footprint of a mid-sized university may have reduced by as much as 30% during the pandemic. However, the ‘carbon intensity of online teaching and learning was found to be… almost equal to that of staff and student commute in the pre-lockdown period.’ While moving to a blended model of teaching and learning may have some positive effects for universities, it’s still unclear if a positive environmental impact is one of them.

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Climate action needs research

From banning beef to installing solar panels on university buildings, institutions will find there is a long and varied list of changes they can make to become more environmentally sustainable. As well as practical steps, universities play a crucial role in supporting the research needed to combat this global crisis.

‘Our impact on the world through our knowledge and teaching is just so much greater than what’s happening on campus.’ So says Cameron Hepburn, professor of environmental economics and director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford. Hepburn’s opinion is that while the practical actions of individual universities, staff and students is not detrimental, it is not necessarily the root of wider-reaching change. Hepburn believes that it is universities’ access to cutting-edge research and academic leaders that will make the biggest difference.

This cutting-edge research, however, comes at a cost. Sadly, that cost isn’t yet being met. According to recent findings, in the last 30 years, less than 5% of US government funding has been allocated to research related to climate change. Yet findings from research institutions, including universities, could hold the key (or keys) to mitigating the impact of this crisis. There is a need for greater investment in a collaborative approach. Universities can work directly with governments, businesses and organizations to put their research into action.

Universities can – and are – playing an important role in combatting the climate crisis. With so many factors at play, from political to financial, it can feel like a challenging process. However, we know that the higher education sector has its part to play in making both systemic and everyday change. It is change that will benefit not only its students and staff but the planet as a whole.