Earlier this month on the 5th of June, the University of East Anglia declared a 'climate and biodiversity emergency'. Please find a link to this statement below.
XR UEA have today released a statement to the press in response to the University's declaration.
This is their response.
XR UEA reply to UEA press release “UEA declares a climate and biodiversity emergency”
We welcome the declaration of a ‘climate and biodiversity emergency’ from UEA. This was a very necessary step, particularly for a university that has famously been a world leader in environmental and climate change research. With the climate and ecological crisis already impacting on the lives of millions around the world,[i] now is the time to make actions follow from words, and to commit to a carbon reduction target in line with the science produced by UEA researchers.
UEA’s current proposal of carbon neutrality by 2050 aligns with the recommendations of the UK Committee on Climate Change. However, these recommendations have been heavily criticized by the expert community – including Tyndall Centre staff[ii] – for apportioning a disproportionally large share of the remaining carbon budget to the UK. Such an approach ignores the UK’s historic role and responsibility as a long-time heavy emitter. What is more, the Committee’s recommendations rely on highly speculative negative emissions technologies that as yet exist only as small pilot schemes or not at all.[iii] There is a very real chance that these technologies may not be ready to be rolled out in time or never work at scale.[iv]
Only immediate and decisive reductions in emissions can prevent further harm to the world’s most vulnerable communities and reduce the risk of moving past tipping points that would lock the world into catastrophic run-away climate change.[v] Recent findings have shown that the earth has heated much faster than predicted even by pessimistic estimates,[vi] and that some tipping points may already have been reached.[vii] We know climate science cannot predict the pace of temperature changes with absolute certainty but only estimate the likelihood of achieving particular temperature outcomes in any given emissions scenario.[viii] This means that there is a real risk that the remaining global carbon budget has been overestimated. The precautionary principle demands that we reduce to an absolute minimum the danger from acting too late or not decisively enough given that nothing less than the future of humanity is at stake.
Given the harm caused by continued emissions and the unacceptable risk it represents to all our futures, carbon neutrality by 2050 is clearly not a socially and environmentally responsible target. UEA must do better if it wants to maintain its institutional credibility and reputation as a leader in climate change and sustainability. We therefore ask UEA to commit to the target of net carbon neutrality by 2025. This commitment would not only send the right signal about the urgency of the crisis to local/regional and national policy makers and the wider public. It would also help galvanise the collective effort needed to make the necessary changes happen. UEA’s current ‘Energy and Carbon Reduction Programme’ expires in 2021.[ix] Now is the time to invest into developing a comprehensive sustainability strategy in line with UEA’s own ‘emergency declaration’ to build on the efforts made so far.
A rapidly growing number of UK and US universities are committing to ambitious carbon reduction targets and are on track to achieving them, showing that rapid change is possible.[x] These universities have successfully mobilised the expertise and enthusiasm of their staff and students to devise and implement imaginative solutions which look beyond the economic and political stipulations of the day. UEA is well positioned to join this vanguard championing transformative change given the excellence of its research, and passion of both students and staff. We call on UEA to create meaningful opportunities for harnessing this existing potential as well as to learn from those who lead in this domain.
In this regard, we welcome the University’s decision to strengthen the links between the Sustainability Board, the Executive Team and UEA academics including Tyndall researchers, but hope that the University will also create opportunities for wider staff and student engagement beyond the work of the Board, for example by allowing an audience at Sustainability Board meetings, and by organizing a visioning event bringing together UEA staff and students and sustainability leaders from other universities.[xi]
We welcome the University’s decision to allocate responsibility for sustainability to a third member of the Executive Team. However, there is a risk that shared responsibility results in reduced accountability. To ensure the best outcomes, we ask that UEA recruits a Sustainability Lead directly answerable to the three ET members with responsibility for sustainability to support the work of the ET and to implement any decisions.
Showing that UEA is taking the realities of our collective future seriously will pay off in the future. Public concern over the environment is strong and growing, especially among young people. According to recent polls, already today almost half of all 18-24-year-olds consider environmental issues as one of the UK’s most pressing concerns and more than 70% of people questioned in a recent survey wanted Britain to cut its emissions and reach net zero before 2050.[xii] The Fridays 4 Future movement and ‘climate emergency’ declarations by Student Union Councils across the UK[xiii] have made it clear that young people are increasingly unwilling to condone inaction by those in positions of power. A serious commitment to rapid decarbonization, and the promise of ‘zero carbon’ degrees would be excellent publicity for UEA and attract the enthusiastic and talented students needed both to make UEA thrive and to ensure the financial viability of its investments in sustainability.
UEA invokes the financial cost of refurbishing the Lasdun Wall as a reason for delaying necessary sustainability measures. We ask UEA to pursue imaginative solutions to this challenge. For example, UEA is yet to weigh in on the government and ‘Historic England’ to lift the ‘listed’ status of the Lasdun Wall which makes its refurbishment so costly. Acting on this issue would put UEA at the forefront of a vital conversation. We cannot preserve England’s cultural heritage if we do not preserve the planet.[xiv]
Decarbonising our campus as quickly as possible must be a priority. However, there are also other domains in which UEA must do better if it wants to be seen as honouring its own ‘emergency declaration’:
UEA does not have a coherent policy for tracking and reducing emissions from business travel, even though the ‘Tyndall Travel Tracker’[xv] sets out a compelling template for doing so. We urge UEA to lose no time implementing the ‘Tyndall Travel Tracker’ as University-wide policy, and to consider other ways of incentivizing staff to adopt sustainable travel practices, following the example set by other universities.[xvi] Further, UEA does not have a coherent strategy for measuring, reporting and reducing either supply chain emissions for procured services and products, or emissions from student travel and commutes. We ask UEA to develop such strategies without delay, in line with its ‘emergency declaration’.
We whole heartedly endorse UEA’s declaration of a ‘climate and biodiversity emergency’ but call on UEA to set out the rapid and decisive steps it will now take to address this emergency.
[i] The ‘Global Peace Index 2019’ published by the Institute for Economics & Peace finds that nearly a billion people live in areas with high or very high exposure to climate hazards today (http://visionofhumanity.org/reports/).
[ii] See e.g. the response by Kevin Anderson “Brief response to the UK government’s net zero proposal” on his blog (https://kevinanderson.info/blog/brief-response-to-the-uk-governments-net-zero-proposal/).
[iii] See e.g. the response by Joe Blakey and Marc Hudson “New net zero emissions target won’t end UK’s contribution to global warming – here’s why” in the Conversation (https://theconversation.com/new-net-zero-emissions-target-wont-end-uks-contribution-to-global-warming-heres-why-116386).
[iv] Anderson, Kevin & Glen Peters (2016). The trouble with negative emissions. Science, Vol. 354, Issue 6309, pp. 182-183.
[v] See e.g. Casey Ivanovich & Ilissa Ocko “All you need to know on climate tipping points”, Environmental Defense Fund (http://blogs.edf.org/climate411/2017/11/01/everything-you-need-to-know-about-climate-tipping-points/?fbclid=IwAR3Zj72N-AxjAeErdO9aar9IQInGm6rnlSor3D7jpqeEduvLjHuCR588lkI)
[vi] See e.g. John Abraham (2017) “Earth’s oceans are warming faster than thought and accelerating”, The Guardian, 10 March (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2017/mar/10/earths-oceans-are-warming-13-faster-than-thought-and-accelerating)
[vii] See e.g. Grant Currin (2019) “Artic permafrost melts decades early”, Live Science, 13 June (https://www.livescience.com/65709-arctic-permafrost-melts-decades-early.html?fbclid=IwAR1VwxK-d06JXuqcWGEZExResHtZDuhdK7uWP-TyCz3l01A1c75Nrye1O_M).
[viii] The IPCC for example defines a “likely” temperature outcome one that will be achieved with a 66-100% probability.
[ix] See https://www.uea.ac.uk/about/sustainability/campus/energy-and-carbon/ecrp
[x] The American University in Washington D.C. is already net carbon neutral (https://www.american.edu/about/sustainability/carbon-neutrality.cfm), and the University of California expects to follow suit in 2025 (https://ucop.edu/carbon-neutrality-initiative/index.html). The University of Bristol (http://www.bristol.ac.uk/green/pledges/) as well as the University of Keele (https://www.keele.ac.uk/discover/news/2019/may/climate-emergency/sustainability.php?fbclid=IwAR3kJW7_mrE_86720d9oDvkjnA6-PnZB5u8nNPPPHaY2QiiD0N5Dc40tcro) have pledged net carbon neutrality by 2030. Transitionally, some of these universities have achieved or are planning to achieve ‘net zero’ by switching completely to renewables for their energy supply, and by supporting ‘offset’ initiatives for remaining emissions. We warn against ‘offsetting’ as an excuse for failing to cut emissions on the ground. However, UEA may consider responsible ‘offsetting’ temporarily while transitioning to more durable solutions.
[xi] UEA could tap into these existing networks such as the “Carbon Neutral University” network hosted by the University of Sheffield (https://www.carbonneutraluniversity.org/) and the Alliance for Sustainability Leadership (https://www.eauc.org.uk/).
[xii] See e.g. Damian Carrington (2019) “Greta Thunberg effect: public concern over environment reaches record high”, The Guardian, 5 June (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jun/05/greta-thunberg-effect-public-concern-over-environment-reaches-record-high). See also Sandra Laville “Two thirds of Britons want faster action on climate, poll finds”, The Guardian, 19 June (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jun/19/britons-want-faster-action-climate-poll)
[xiii] Among others, the SOAS Students’ Union (https://soasunion.org/news/article/6013/SOAS-Students-Union-declares-a-climate-emergency/), the Student Union of Royal Holloway (https://www.su.rhul.ac.uk/news/article/surhul/RHSU-Declares-Climate-Emergency/) and UEA’s own Student Union have declared a ‘climate emergency’.
[xiv] Making sure that any new building stock conforms to the highest standards of sustainability is also crucial if UEA wants to avoid incurring significant future expenses for making upgrades. In a changing political climate where the public increasingly demands environmental accountability from policy makers, meeting the highest sustainability standards may well soon become a legal requirement.
[xv] See https://travel.tyndall.ac.uk/
[xvi] The Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München and the University of St Andrews reimburse first class train tickets to incentivise staff to make long-distance journeys by train rather than plane (see e.g. http://publicpolicy-knill.org/the-chairs-policy-on-minimizing-environmental-impact/).