On Friday 15 November, the University held an event titled the Climate Conversation.
Coordinated by the Sustainability Team at the University, the event was designed to facilitate climate change-based conversation among staff, students and the local community, including policymakers and stakeholders. The event aimed not just to encourage discussion about the current climate situation but also to inspire open conversation on what the University as an institution, as well as the nation in a wider sense, can do to encompass all aspects of sustainability and ensure that every sector of our society adopts measures to limit wasteful consumption.
The event, which was held in King’s Hall, was opened by Professor Julie Saunders, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, who explained how she was inspired to launch the event following sustained student activism and demands from the local community. Saunders explained how the University was working as part of the Russell Group Sustainability Group to lobby UKRI to implement further sustainability measures, and gave examples of how the Universities of Bristol, Sheffield, Exeter and Leeds were running similar parallel events on the same day. She explained the University’s goal to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2040, and linked the University’s Climate Emergency statement to its commitment to social justice. Saunders explained the University’s philosophy by telling delegates to “be the change both that you want to see in the world and right here on our campus”.
After this, Matt Dunlop, Head of the University’s Sustainability Team, spoke on the University’s carbon footprint. Breaking down the University’s current carbon emissions, he described how almost half of the emissions come from grid electricity, although the University has for years been using 100% electricity from renewable sources. This was followed by natural gas, business travel and other fuels. In total, the University releases almost 40,000 tonnes of carbon per year as scope one emissions; to offset this, the University would need to plant 600,000 trees and maintain their growth for at least 10 years. On top of this, the University releases 62,570 tonnes of carbon annually as scope three emissions, which are indirect emissions from sources such as services and food provision on campus, which are not covered within the net zero emissions commitment previously set out by Saunders.
Following from this, Professor Richard Dawson from both the University and the Tyndall Centre spoke on the effects that climate change will bring to the campus, the country, and the world. Dawson discussed the importance of making buildings ready for climate change, with some of the building stock on campus being “just not fit for purpose”. He outlined the findings of the 2019 Progress Report by the Committee on Climate Change, which concluded that the UK is barely prepared for climate change, with 21 of the 56 identified national risks having no formal actions in place, and 12 of 33 sectors having no plans for long-term climate change. Dawson concluded by discussing the unequal distribution of the consequences of climate change, with the most deprived communities being hit the hardest, and he spoke of the importance of making trade-offs to balance the conflicts of interest from all sectors of society and spaces on the globe.
After this was a talk on sustainable travel by keynote speaker Kevin Anderson from Manchester University, who discussed the importance of aligning UK aviation emissions with the Paris Agreement and the role that universities play in this. The key message of his talk was that we should ask not what we can do, but what we need to do. Following the obligations outlined in the Paris Agreement, the UK needs to reduce climate change at a rate of 10-13% per annum, achieving a reducation of 30% by the end of 2022, and 70% by 2030. Anderson explained how aviation contributes approximately 10% of UK carbon emissions, yet within this there are great inequalities, with 70% of international flights from the UK being made by just 15% of the population, and roughly half the population not flying in any given year. Anderson explained how this made flying a “not normal thing” which is dominated by frequent flyers. Despite this evident inequality, the UK’s Paris-compliant emissions budget allocated approximately 38% of emissions to the aviation sector, which leads to “privilege layered upon privilege”, while other sectors must drastically reduce their contributions. Anderson explained that this left universities with two possibilities: they should either explicitly reject the Paris Agreement and maintain business as usual, or demonstrate integrity and make profound changes to their running. Anderson proposed a range of solutions that universities can make to reduce their aviation carbon footprint, including introducing an immediate ban on all business and first class travel, rescheduling fieldwork by training local residents and researchers to carry it out on site themselves, reducing the number of people flying to conferences, and adjusting finances to cover the additional costs of slow travel and provide cover for the extra time away for travelling. Outlining a climate change “school report” for the UK, Anderson concluded by saying that while the UK has an ability of A+, the current attainment is D-, though he had heard much better things of Newcastle University.
After this came a talk on reducing energy use by Professor Phil Taylor and Dr Sara Walker from the School of Engineering. Walker outlined how a modern and vibrant economy can continue to flourish while we reduce carbon emissions, explaining how since 1990 the UK’s emissions have been reduced by 40% while the GDP almost doubled. She described the difficulty in reducing energy use in some sites of campus because of the variety of building stock included within the university estate, which includes roughly 100 buildings ranging from student accommodation to farm buildings and converted housing. Taylor spoke of the importance of spreading sustainable measures beyond the University’s Newcastle campus to the campuses in London, Singapore and Malaysia.
The final talk was given by Professor Phil McGowan who spoke on decreasing resource use and the current strains on biodiversity. He gave the damning statistic that one million species are currently at risk of extinction according to a report published by the UN in May, and explained how it is important to not just stop but even restore biodiversity loss. McGowan concluded by discussing the importance of the University’s two Global Challenges Research Fund Hubs, one of which is dedicated to Living Deltas and the other to Water Security and Sustainable Development. The University’s two Hubs, alongside 10 others, have been given a £200m investment by the UKRI to work across 85 countries with governments, international agencies, partners and NGOs to develop solutions to current sustainability issues.
The talks held in King’s Hall were broken up by roundtable exercises in which delegates discusses practical measures that the University could implement to reduce emissions from travel, energy use and resource consumption.
Last modified: 19th November 2019