I cannot think of a single issue in my lifetime that has so rapidly achieved a dominant position in the public conscience and the media discourse than the current climate emergency movement.
Significantly, at the end of a summer which was dominated in equal measures by record temperatures and the seemingly endless political stalemate surrounding Brexit, a Christian Aid survey showed that a majority of Britons feel that climate change is a more important issue for the future of the country than Brexit, and two-thirds of the public feel that it should be the government’s top policy priority.
This Friday’s climate strike, which the University fully supports, is the latest expression of the public’s (and in particular the younger generation’s) anger and impatience with what is perceived as a lack of urgency in dealing with the causes of climate change.
The University of Bristol was the first British university to declare a Climate Emergency, and we have been taking a broad range of actions to ensure that we demonstrate real leadership in the university sector in responding to the climate crisis. This response will be overseen by our new Sustainability Council (which I will be chairing), composed of staff and student representatives, which will hold its first meeting during the week of 23 September. The Council’s terms of reference and work plan will be made available to staff and students, and there will be opportunities for the University community to engage with and advise the Council throughout the year.
A significant amount of engagement with our student community is already under way, and specific discussions have been held with the Extinction Rebellion group to create a forum which will generate ideas, create agency for change and involve constituents across the University. One outcome is the upcoming ‘People’s Assembly’ scheduled from 1 to 4pm on 23 October. Further details will be circulated nearer the time.
Over the summer, over 900 staff members took part in our ‘Be the Change’ initiative, and together saved an estimated 59 tonnes of CO2 by making behavioural changes that included travelling more sustainably and adjusting their consumption habits. During the course of the 2019/2020 academic year we will be working with all of our academic Schools in the development of School-specific climate action plans. The University has already allocated £5 million of expenditure for its Sustainable and Efficient Buildings programme, supporting low-energy lighting, greater efficiency in our laboratories and the use of renewable energy on our estate. In addition, the new BREEAM Plus environmental building standard will be applied to all our new projects.
Other key initiatives under way include the exploration of carbon offsetting opportunities and a critical review of our business travel behaviours. As someone who regularly travels overseas as part of my role, I will of course need to take a critical look at my own behaviour as an individual and as a leader within the University.
Throughout this process we are eager to share our experiences with the rest of the higher education sector both nationally and internationally, and recently our Head of Sustainability, Martin Wiles, held a webinar with 20 other universities explaining our decision to declare a climate emergency and outlining the steps that we are taking as a consequence.
Finally, as ever, a wide range of research groups across the University continue to progress hundreds of projects that have the potential to lead to a more sustainable future for all of us. Much of this activity falls under the auspices of our own Cabot Institute.
I encourage all of our staff and students to participate in the climate strike this Friday. Standing together in our resolve to see real change affected will put us in the strongest possible position to make a real contribution to the sustainability movement.