Let’s talk about climate emergency

Sofia Kesidou shares her thoughts the University of Sussex’s declaration of climate emergency and asks what next

For someone like me, a sustainability advocate, an environmental practitioner and a doctoral researcher at the Sussex Energy Group (SEG), the fact that my University has declared a climate emergency is important and welcome news. In fact, it is such massive news that I have decided to take time out of my data analysis to write about it. 

The declaration is about doing things differently and faster, and in my mind the University of Sussex is progressive and innovative enough to drive change on this front.

In my view, the strongest point of the declaration is the one about the value of words in driving actions and how we should not be afraid to talk and publicise our plans and aspirations, even though we might be far away still from the target. Which is very true. As long as we know where we are now, where we need to be and roughly how we will get there, then the use of words to externalise those plans can only strengthen and solidify our commitment.

So, what is the press release not telling us? I want to ask more questions and dig deeper for the detail. I am training to be a researcher after all.

Where we need to be

In 2010, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) set a carbon reduction target of 43% for 2020 from 2005 baseline to help meet the UK’s commitments set out in the 2008 Climate Change Act . As a result, all universities in England were required to set reduction targets and develop carbon management plans (CMPs) on how they will reduce their carbon footprints. The University of Sussex has set one too and developed a CMP to achieve it

The problem is that there are no defined penalties for non-compliance. In addition, since 2011, and with the changes brought forward in tuition fees in 2012 universities have been transforming into private sector organisations; which means that HEFCE has even less influence on driving emissions reduction than before. So, whilst the University of Sussex itself is committing to a 45% reduction by 2020, there might only be few small carrots but no sticks pushing this to happen.

So, if it does one thing, this declaration definitely takes away the danger of our University ever watering down this target.

But is this enough to avoid climate breakdown?

The answer is no. Absolutely not. Much like when your appendix is close to bursting and you need to be taken immediately to A&E for it to be taken out or you die, carbon emissions need to reach net-zero in an emergency time frame of 10 years – at least this is what the climate emergency movement stipulates. Whether this is a realistic target and how it can be delivered can only be judged if we know where we currently stand.

Where we are now

The 2019 People and Planet League Table reports  that the University of Sussex has achieved a 27.33% reduction in carbon emissions since the 2005 baseline. The HEFCE target, the University’s own target and the actual reduction achieved all include only scope 1 and scope 2 carbon emissions – that is, emissions from fuel combustion, company vehicles and fugitive emissions as well as from purchased electricity, heat and steam. However, they exclude consumption: purchased goods, supply chain emissions, business, student travel and staff commuting, investments and sold products.

This means that despite the amazing work undertaken to date, including the largest PV installation in the sector, we still have some way to go towards the 45%. And it also means that we are miles and miles away from hitting net zero carbon by 2030. 

Solar panels on Sussex campus

How we are going to get there

In a recent SEG blog, Prof. Tim Foxon stresses that in order to maintain credibility in realising the net zero carbon targets, a significant reorientation towards demand-side measures is needed. This is in line with what I advise my clients as an energy consultant. So is the basic principle of sustainable energy management – the energy hierarchy. This states that in any system first you need to reduce the amount of energy you need, then you can look at the energy you are using, optimise consumption though energy efficiency measures; and then you can look at renewable energy resources that will reduce your carbon footprint further.

One can understand why it is easier to implement an upside down energy hierarchy model.  The use of renewable energy and many energy efficiency improvements are technological measures that lead to energy and emission reductions with attractive paybacks. They are also visible and tangible. They can be planned, measured, monitored and reported – and thus more likely to find their way into an organization’s balance sheet. In contrast, the more uncertain, user-dependent and long-term, cultural and behavioural changes required to minimise demand and cut unnecessary use is harder to plan, measure, monitor and implement. And therefore, harder to justify in front of senior management. But unfortunately, we cannot get where we want to go without combining all three levels and prioritising the first.

So, while I am relatively confident that my University will meet its carbon reduction target of 45% by 2020, I am more sceptical about achieving carbon neutrality by 2030; which is what we should be aiming for in the first place. This would involve radical changes in the way we think about, consume and report energy and carbon. And it will definitely need to involve ‘unlearning’ old practices and behaviours and developing new ones. These typically takes longer time spans to materialise.

Reasons to be cheerful

The existence of people that understand sustainability principles and believe in its value at a personal level accelerates and intensifies collaboration and optimises performance far more effectively than any contract or collaborative tool one could engineer into a project. These individuals are inherently problem solvers and assume ‘bridging’ roles between disciplines. They are able to drive long-term change both within projects but also within their organisations.

By creating these professionals in all sectors, universities are the ideal gateways to facilitate the long-term cultural change needed. A University thinks out of the box, creatively solves problems, brings disciplines together, dares to do things differently, influences and impacts and most of all, educates thousands of individuals every year. Integration of sustainability and climate change into the curriculum should be compulsory for all disciplines no matter how seemingly far apart their professional discipline is to the subject. After all, as well as professionals, these individuals will also be these human beings required to live and manage a world far different than the one we teach them in today.

But it is not only changes in teaching that I am talking about. It is about research impact, it is about creating space for discussion of alternatives that radically reduce our need for energy in the first place. It is not enough to think about EV charging points, we also need to think about how encourage people to consider genuinely low carbon alternatives, like cycling.

Falmer House (Image by ephemerol. Shared under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license)

The University of Sussex has historically been one of the most progressive universities in the UK, situated in one of the most progressive communities in the world. We are well placed to talk about change, declare a climate emergency and act on it effectively.

This is an emergency! So, let’s talk about it. Let’s draw a plan for it. But also … let’s do it!

Sofia Kesidou is a doctoral researcher at the Science Policy Research Unit and a member of SEG. Over the last few months she’s also been working on the Invisible Energy Policies project as a Research Assistant with Prof Jan Selby.

Sofia has 14 years experience in sustainability consulting within the construction sector.

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  1. […] Posted on August 6, 2019 by Sofia Kesidou — Published on SEG’s blog page on […]

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