University Takes Significant Climate Action Despite Not Declaring Climate Emergency

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The University of Leeds announced today that it plans to take “bold” action to tackle the climate change crisis, including a full divestment from significant fossil fuel companies like Total, BP and Shell.

Announcing the principles that were agreed to at the University Council meeting in July, the Vice-Chancellor of the University Sir Alan Langlands said that global warming is the “most demanding global challenge we all face” and argued that the University has “a strong commitment to sustainability on campus”.

He also went on to point out in the post that the University of Leeds has a “proud academic record as a leader in the field of climate research”.

This climate research has included data studies into the effects of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest to a study led by Professor Andy Shepherd from the School of Earth and Environment that discovered 24% of ice in Antarctica is currently unstable. The University previously took steps too to reduce emissions. By 2017/18, it had reduced its carbon emissions by 28% since 2006.

The commitments made by the University are to a net-zero carbon footprint by 2030 and achieve no direct carbon emissions by 2050. The University will also reorient its research and teaching away from any focus on the fossil fuel industry.

It will also work with Leeds City Council to make Leeds a net-zero carbon city by 2030 and transition Leeds to a sustainable transport system, thereby helping reduce the University’s indirect carbon emissions as well.

The move comes after several months of public pressure on the University to take more significant action on climate change. This has included successive climate strikes in the centre of Leeds attended by both lecturers, students, and local school children. As a result of the strikes, Leeds City Council declared a Climate emergency.

Leeds University Union has been campaigning on this issue for several months. Policy was passed by the Union through their “Better Forums” in May to both support the actions taken by Youth Strike for Climate as well as to lobby the University to declare a climate emergency. The PhD student who submitted the forum, David Barns, when speaking to the Gryphon said “University has taken a huge and important step and this needs to be recognised”

The University has recognised the vital civic role they play in helping to tackle climate breakdown and we applaud that, but of course the commitments announced this week are only the first steps

David Barns, speaking to The Gryphon

However he argued there were still issues that the University would need to address in the future. He pointed out that some “students will begin a 4 year course on Petroleum Production Engineering “to up-skill graduates for a career in the oil and gas industry”

The University should make a firm commitment to end this and other courses which are completely opposed to our future life on this planet and end research and placements funded by and for the fossil fuel industry – David Barns

Courses like Petroleum Production are still available for students starting in 2020 but they will be unlikely they can continue into the future given the University’s pledge to reorient its research and studies away from fossil fuels.

When it comes to the university campus and buildings we should have much greater ambition and we want to see a ‘biophillic’ campus with mass greening of  green walls, vertical gardens, rooftop farms and water-centric design – David Barns

Lauren Huxley, Union Affairs Officer at LUU, in a statement to the University welcomed the move arguing it was “a much more extensive step in the right direction” and that they were pleased “to see the University acting on such an important topic”.

Speaking to some students about the announcement, Owen Harding-Best, an International History and Politics student, noted how the announcement puts the University “two decades ahead of the UK government’s own objective. He also went onto add that the move “serves as a strong indicator that the University is taking the climate crisis seriously.”

Amelia Cutting, a Gryphon News editor and an English and Music student, described the move as “incredible” and “that the University is listening to the demands [of students] regarding the climate crisis”. She hoped the move would “encourage other Universities to think about climate change and what they can do too.”

However, it is important to note that the University has not divested from the fossil fuel industry entirely. They will continue to invest in the sector in a limited capacity. 

This will only be with companies that are either making the transition to alternative energy sources like wind and solar power as well as contributing to a low-carbon economy in the future. These are companies who at a minimum manage their affairs in accordance with the 2015 Paris Climate Accord. These decisions will also driven by the University’s Climate Active Strategy that seeks to drive behavioural change through investment towards decarbonisation.

Despite not declaring a “climate emergency” themselves, the University has now endorsed the Council’s decision to call on Westminster to provide the funding and powers to make this possible. When asked about why the University didn’t use the term “climate emergency”, a University spokesperson said:

“The term ‘emergency’ symbolises an acute temporary threat and the University has chosen to focus on principles for action which are comprehensive, ambitious and enduring […] Whether it is called a crisis or emergency, the world faces one of its most demanding global challenges, which requires a long term, sincere and authentic commitment to action.”

The University has also not announced any specific new policies that will be implemented on campus to reduce carbon emissions in order to achieve the new targets in 2030 and 2050. However, the Climate Plan, currently being developed, will explore ways in which the University can reduce carbon emissions on campus both immediately and in the future. 

The Climate Plan will engage with students with more opportunities throughout the rest of the term. Students can follow the University’s sustainability web page or find out in the student enewsletter. Students can also share ideas with the Sustainability team by emailing sustainability@leeds.ac.uk.