Why universities must prioritise sustainable development to fight the climate crisis

Last November, when world leaders should have been gathering in Glasgow for COP26, Boris Johnson announced his 10-step plan for a green industrial revolution - as part of the path for the UK to be Net Zero by 2050.

Why universities must prioritise sustainable development to fight the climate crisis

However, in the first instance, 2050 is still too far away. Based on the science, we need to all work towards the goal of Net Zero by 2030 and that means radically changing how we operate in the next 10 years, not the next 30. 

Universities will be key to ensuring this, and we need to set challenging targets to make net-zero a reality. This will be achieved through reviewing operations to ensure sustainability is at the front of mind, investing time and thought into the environmental practices of universities and altering curriculums to ensure students are aware of how important it is to tackle our growing climate emergency.

Creating and maintaining sustainable developments

Sustainable development is crucial to the roadmap to net-zero. From government to universities, these institutions should be role models and highlight how everyone should be working towards reducing their environmental impact. It is not enough to view sustainability as an ‘add on’ to existing activities, and it needs to be at the forefront of all we do.

To ensure environmental sustainability is at the core of decision-making, universities should have an environmental sustainability strategy – it must sit at the heart of their operations, informing all the decisions made and the direction taken from the ground up. 

For us, a considerable part of this is ensuring the University’s campuses are developed sustainably and improving the efficiency of our operations. This involves switching to clean technologies like renewables, investing in natural solutions for carbon capture and working with our wider network of staff and suppliers to dramatically reduce Scope 3 emissions.

Beyond the development itself, it’s also important that buildings are maintained sustainably, with a focus on waste reduction. For example, management teams should ensure that, where possible, furniture and equipment is reused and recycled every time facilities are upgraded.  

Education is key

As a University, our work is centred around educating future generations. Through our students, we have the greatest opportunity to influence society, and this means we have a vital role to play and a big responsibility to them and their futures. 

We have embedded sustainability into our academic programmes, launching new courses within the fields of climate change and environmental sustainability at the beginning of the 2021/22 academic year. Our offering includes a future-facing undergraduate course at Staffordshire Businesses School in Business Management and Sustainability.

In addition, we continually work to create shared initiatives between the academic community, the students and the professional services staff to ensure that the University’s academic expertise in sustainability can have an impact on the development of our campuses.

However, whether you are a university or not, it is important to educate your community in sustainable practice. By encouraging informed, positive and innovative behaviour from the ground up – both in terms of individual and institutional-wide actions and decisions – you can help to create an organisational mindset where sustainability is considered from the outset.

Driven by research

We can all play a role in realising a net-zero future by educating ourselves and adopting more sustainable behaviours but, if we are to achieve wholesale change, our collective efforts must also be reinforced by future-focused research and innovation.

My colleagues from our Urban Environment Research Group and the Staffordshire Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Engineering, for example, are conducting both theoretical and applied research to address complex real-world challenges. By aligning their activities with themes such as urban biodiversity and ecology, renewable and low-carbon energy, and sustainable manufacturing and transport, they are driving tangible quality-of-life improvements within our University’s local communities and beyond.

Of course, no institution can tackle the climate crisis in isolation, which is why it is essential for universities to collaborate with one another – as well as public and private entities – to help set the direction of travel for society as a whole. In combination with a multidisciplinary and multilateral approach, research and innovation has the potential to act not only as a facilitator of change, but also as a lens to focus global sustainable progress.

Collaborating with your community

We all know that it is no longer enough to spend budgets on planting trees in the hope of offsetting emissions for the time being. We need sustainable strategies and projects that will serve communities for the long-term.

One such project we have engaged in as a University is re-naturalising a 450-metre stretch of the River Trent with the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust, as a component of the European Regional Development Fund’s SUNRISE Project. This will provide another link in the chain for a joined-up wildlife corridor through the heart of Stoke-on-Trent and offer a diverse and dynamic habitat for river-dwelling wildlife. It will also significantly enhance our on-campus nature reserve which is used regularly as a study site for students on our degree programmes.

In addition to this, we will also be opening a new £4.4m woodland nursery and forest school which will allow local school children to explore and enjoy the outdoors in a safe and informative way. Sustainability, digital technology, and nature are at the forefront of the new build, which aims to further the University’s commitment to creating a family-friendly campus. 

Whilst the pandemic has thrown unexpected hurdles our way, we have proven over the last year that we can all adapt, and fast – from remote working to repurposing facilities for the fight against Covid-19, to grants for economic relief. By working together, pooling resources and knowledge, Staffordshire can act as a blueprint of how universities can lead the way for a green recovery.

Boris Johnson may have set a 10-step plan for the UK but we can go further. The future right now may feel uncertain yet brighter days do lie ahead. It’s a future we can all play a part in building and universities can help ensure that the future we are creating for the next generations is a better and more sustainable one.

Sally McGill, deputy chief executive

Topics: Climate change
Tags: Universities and higher education | net-zero
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