Green Recovery

Climate and Sustainable Development: Universities as Leaders

By Judith Petts, Plymouth University

Climate change has been a focus of research (not least amongst geographers and environmental scientists) for decades, only relatively slowly gaining serious international policy attention and fully capturing the public mind and voice. In 2005, a small ESRC-funded project attempted to identify thresholds of ‘rapid’ climate change in terms of generating public response. It suggested that climate change would need to be very real to people before their levels of concern prompted personal action as well as demands for government and industry response.  

By 2019, the terms ‘emergency’ and ‘dangerous climate change’ were being used globally. Protests on the streets had been galvanised by the rallying cry of Greta Thunberg and the media were consumed with the environment. Multiple universities in the UK had declared a climate emergency, and higher and further education sector leaders had joined together (Climate Commission) in what was planned as a year of intense work on climate mitigation and adaptation in the run up to COP26 (now November 2021). There was broad scientific understanding that the window of opportunity when climate change impacts could be limited to within tolerable boundaries was rapidly narrowing.

Then, less than a year later, everyone was consumed with a new emergency – Covid-19. Everyday living had been altered radically, under state instruction and by individuals and families both willingly and inventively. Travel had been curtailed and day-to-day social interactions become reliant on technology. University campuses were devoid of students, businesses in lockdown, supply chains fragmented, economies stagnating.  Of course, the risk of a pandemic had been at the top of the National Risk Register for many years, yet few had really understood what this meant. I questioned at the time whether now that society was enveloped in a ‘real’ emergency climate change might lose some of its urgency, immediacy, and resonance in public discourse.

Well, the last year has been instructive and perversely encouraging. Lockdown not only delivered a large drop in carbon emissions but drove a new awareness of, and appreciation for, the environment. There was time to engage in climate change messaging. Very quicky, a focus on building back better from the pandemic was articulated to local and national policy initiatives as a green and clean process that would both drive carbon emission reduction and contribute to societal and economic levelling-up.  

For universities there was a unique opportunity to learn in the face of ‘a once-in-a lifetime’ pandemic and to breathe new life into organisational action drawing on their science and expertise; promoting local self-sufficiency; driving operational adaptation; making their international operations more explicitly climate proof and being catalysts for change through behaviour support. As the plans for COP26 develop, the UK prepares to host the G7, and local authorities and Local Economic Partnerships begin to set out the fundamental structural changes (not only the immediate economic packages) that must underpin a post-Covid recovery, universities must re-assert their responsibilities and leadership.

Setting and achieving net zero emission targets to tackle the symptoms of what humans have done to the earth is essential and the Climate Commission has set targets for the HE sector and developed a Climate Action Toolkit. But, we know that climate action cannot be separated from working to deliver the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (2015-2030).

Universities can advance knowledge and response and have a responsibility to be leaders for the public good, which extends to:

  1. delivering climate and sustainable development literacy and culture change;
  2. managing their own operations and delivering institutional adaptation;
  3. driving climate and sustainable development science and innovation, contributing to international collaboration and essential interdisciplinary research; and
  4. delivering and supporting local (including community), national, and international learning and action, including through recovery and levelling-up post the pandemic.

Internally, this is not just about new forms of building materials, renewable energy sources, going local on procurement, optimising waste minimisation and recycling, reducing water consumption, supporting low carbon travel, increasing campus biodiversity etc – essential though these are. It is about building an institutional culture of ongoing adaptation and weaving this through all institutional strategies and plans – from investment and campus operations to research, education, and wellbeing. For example, university international strategies that focus on growth in international students, transnational education and overseas research and teaching partnerships must address how to do this sustainably and how to promote sustainable development, equality of opportunity and social justice. The aim must be to make a real difference to the international knowledge and experience of UK students as well as to the countries and communities in which institutions operate and partner. Carbon reduction solutions may be the easiest to voice – e.g. teach online, reduce overseas fieldwork, stop business class air travel. But need to be placed in the context of the long-term sustainable development contributions of international engagement.

Of course, whatever is put in place today will need updating and refreshing, even changing completely, over time. Critical, systems, and futures thinking are all essential and must be evident in university leaders and managers and embedded in education across all curricula to drive understanding and skills for the next generation of leaders.  There is much to do but universities have the know-how and ability to deliver leadership for global climate action and sustainability.


About the author: Professor Judith Petts CBE, FRGS, FAcSS, FRSA is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Plymouth and Climate Change Commissioner for Universities, UK. She previously held pro-vice chancellor research and innovation roles at the University of Southampton and the University of Birmingham, where she was also Head of the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, and Professor of Environmental Risk Management.

Suggested further reading

Selin, N.E., Stokes, L.C. and Susskind, L.E. (2017), The need to build policy literacy into climate science education. WIREs Climate Change. https://doi.org/10.1002/wcc.455

Burch, S.L. and Harris, S.E. (2014), A Massive Open Online Course on climate change: the social construction of a global problem using new tools for connectedness. WIREs Climate Change https://doi.org/10.1002/wcc.300

Georgeson, L., Maslin, M., and Poessinouw, M. (2017) The global green economy: a review of concepts, definitions, measurement methodologies and their interactions. Geo: Geography and Environment doi: 10.1002/geo2.36.

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