We recently attended the annual EAUC conference, held this year at the University of Manchester and centred around the theme of influence.
A well-timed event
The conference came shortly after the Prime Minister announced the UK’s target to be net-zero by 2050 and at the time of writing 12 universities have made net zero pledges and four have declared climate emergencies. The influence that Higher and Further Education can have on the climate change conversation over the next crucial few decades cannot be understated.
The student demographic has an increasingly louder voice fuelled by the rise of eco-anxiety. Students are demanding climate action from their universities and they must listen.
Will Jenkins, Associate Director at Carbon Credentials, spoke during the plenary opening session for the conference to remind the audience why we were all there in the first place and to shed some light onto the meaning of net zero.
This infographic put into plain terms what it will take to get to net-zero and the drastic changes that will have to be made. The need for 100% of non-residential buildings heated from low-carbon sources will be a factor that universities can directly influence.
But with this clarity on what the UK needs to do, universities now have a huge responsibility to ensure their campuses are heading in the right direction. The audience were asked if the existing and planned buildings on their campuses are going to be zero-carbon in operation? Are they going to help or hinder the country hitting the net-zero target?
Will Jenkins’ ended with a stark reminder that time is running out, and fast. There needs to be less talking about how we’re going to achieve net-zero, and faster and more ambitious change. 2050 is the date for the UK’s net-zero target, but to show leadership the tertiary education sector needs to be planning to achieve it much sooner.
Greater Manchester’s Carbon Target
The session then moved onto a panel session on Greater Manchester’s Carbon Target, made up of a selection of sustainability professionals, students, academics and the Mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham.
The chair of the session, Phil Korbel, asked the panel whether the current times, that is of increased climate action, are here to stay. The responses were varied but all pointed to ensuring the progress that is being made wouldn’t regress. The wave of action within universities will not regress, it was discussed, due to the power of the student voice demanding action. However the Mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham, called for universities to louder in their protests saying that primary and secondary school students are currently showing them all how it’s done.
Professor Kevin Anderson wants the conversation around climate change to go back to being about scientific integrity, not just what is politically convenient or palatable. He also responded to the doubts around net-zero being too ambitious or too difficult to achieve, “net-zero is ambitious but far less ambitious than trying to live a prosperous life with 4C of warming”, a statement that received an applause.
Kevin Anderson then raised the question of why the equity dimension of climate change is not being addressed aggressively enough. He solemnly said that “equity is at the heart of climate change, 50% of emissions are produced by 10% of the population. If we don’t address climate equity, then we will fail”.
How can the tertiary education sector use its influence?
As the central focus for the conference was influence the panel were then asked to give advice on how universities and colleges can best use their influence to fight climate change, which we’ve summarised below:
- Lead: Universities need to lead the debate. As central points of research and collaboration these environments have to step up, be louder and lead the conversation.
- Partner: Build strong partnerships to help enforce the policies you want to see made. Increase your institutions involvement with the local community, policy makers and councils.
- Collaborate: Collaborate as much as possible, we can’t do this on our own. Collaboration will amplify your voice.
- Be blunt: Academics need to deliver their research bluntly and not be influenced by politics.
- Be demanding: Demonstrate leadership by demanding buildings to be zero-carbon and demand that your university divests from fossil fuels.
- Crisis mode: Ultimately universities and businesses alike need to treat the climate crisis as a crisis