Photo by Ma Ti

Written by Asees Kaur; Chelsea Pledge; Davina Kourdi; Elie Breton des Loÿs; Emily Godon; Joe Wilkins; Sonny Loughran. In collaboration with People & Planet Society.

Since the start of the industrial revolution, planet Earth has warmed by around 1.2°C. And according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world is on track to warm by 3.2°C by 2100 – assuming that the environmental policies that governments promised to put place by the end of 2020 are actually implemented.

Such an increase in global temperatures borders on the apocalyptic. And according to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, this level of warming will see our planet battered by “unprecedented heatwaves, terrifying storms, and widespread water shortages“.

But the truth is that we are already facing catastrophic weather events that underline the need for decisive and immediate action. 2020 saw wildfires burn a staggering 4.1m acres of Californian land in what became the state’s worst ever fire season; this year floods have claimed dozens of lives in Australia; and together, Antarctica and The Arctic have recently seen unprecedented heat waves sending temperatures soaring above what is normal for this time of year.

Art by Adam Ellis

Why do unis have a responsibility to act 

Such extremes are only likely to worsen with increased levels of warming. And to avoid the most catastrophic elements of climate change – such as sea level rises that will displace hundreds of millions of people – climate scientists say the world must keep the rise in temperatures to 1.5°C this century. This will require massive changes to our everyday lives. Including a revolutionary shift in how we produce energy, organise our industries, transport goods and people, and how we treat nature more generally.

Many young people are understandably frustrated by world governments’ failure to implement binding policies to achieve these goals. But given the scope of these changes it is not only governments who have a responsibility to act. And recent years have seen a range of institutions, businesses and organisations taking steps to mitigate their emissions, and the damage they cause to the environment. In 2021, for example, almost a third of the UK’s FTSE100 companies have pledged to eliminate their contribution to carbon emissions by 2050.

Universities also have a role to play. As centres of science and learning, it is only fair to assume that universities would be the first to implement the changes many of their own researchers have been calling for. They also have a duty of care to students – who tend to be more concerned about the impact of climate change than older generations. So much so, in fact, that a study led by the University of Bath found that environmental fears are “profoundly affecting huge numbers of young people” to the point that it is increasing the risk of mental and physical health problems.

Students have considerable power and influence to steer the institution towards its climate change-related targets.

People and Planet Society Spokesperson

What are universities doing?

As such, many universities are desperate to be seen as acting to mitigate their impact on the environment – with more than 1,000 universities committing to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

But commitments are one thing – action is another, and according to the People and Planet University League, a campaign group, more than half of the UK’s universities are set to miss their near-term climate targets.

This includes the University of Bath, whose commitment to reach net-zero by 2040 – as promised – is increasingly being called into question.

What is Bath doing? Why is this not enough?

In 2020, the University of Bath announced a climate emergency, unveiling eleven “Climate Action Framework principles” that were intended to guide the university towards carbon neutrality. But unlike Exeter University, for example, which underpinned its net-zero target with shorter-term goals and objectives, Bath’s climate principles outlined few specific targets that would allow the university to achieve such a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions.

They commit Bath to “being Net Zero Carbon in its Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions by 2040”, for example, but provide no further detail around how this will be achieved. And the University has outlined a few mechanisms through which it intends to reduce its emissions.

Bath’s carbon footprint breakdown for the year 2019/2020.

In 2020, Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Ian White said: “We recognise the clear scientific evidence and the need for urgent action across society to tackle dangerous, anthropogenic climate change and its impact on both humanity and biodiversity”.

But since then, more and more students have become concerned at what they perceive as a lack of meaningful action from the University. And recently, the People and Planet University League ranked Bath 76th out of all UK universities – 45 places behind 31st ranked Bath Spa University, and 56 places behind the University of Bristol, which sits 20th.

The University of Bath’s score and ranking on the People and Planet’s University League of 2021. UoB ended up with a 2:2 award class.

According to the campaign group’s scoring system, Bath is performing so poorly because it lacks clear and specific environmental targets and strategies relating to, among other things, construction, travel, biodiversity, and waste management. But also because Bath’s Ethical Investment Policy does not rule out investments in the fossil fuel industry – a necessary step to ensure that the university’s investment practices are conducted transparently and in an environmentally-responsible manner.

Outside of this, there are several key failures in university policy that contribute to climate change. The bus services at Bath are just one example, and any article would be incomplete without mentioning them. A lack of busses has been an issue at the university for years now. Currently, more people are using their cars to travel up to campus than ever before – contributing to the university’s overall emissions. And a big reason for this is the inconsistent and unreliable bus services.

One thing is for sure, the credibility and reputation of the university as a green actor is now at risk.

Elie Breton des Loÿs

Lack of commitment

Studies have consistently found that young people are confused by the worlds’ general failure to act on climate change. And the fact is that there is a general lack of commitment to implement climate policies – both in government and amongst the University of Bath’s leadership.

Most plainly, the Contracts for the Climate Action Framework team expire in July and have not yet been renewed. And it is difficult to see this as anything but an indication that climate policy is a peripheral issue to the University’s board. When contacted, representatives from the university have pointed out that the size of their team is relatively small compared to universities like Exeter or Bristol, thus limiting their capacity to act despite their desire to “make real progress”.

Moreover, although the School of Management building brief was developed about 5 years ago – before the university declared a climate emergency and set out its net zero targets – the University’s decision not to apply for formal Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method certification “due to the associated costs” demonstrates a more longstanding reluctance to action environmentally-conscious university policy when it impacts the bottom line.

Another example of this is related to transport. International travel is one of the biggest contributors to the increasing levels of carbon in the environment. And for universities, international student fees form a massive part of their income. As such, trying to discourage international travel means reducing the number of international students they take on. This would highly impact a major stream of income for university authorities. And the failure of universities like Bath to so represents a reluctance to action environmentally-conscious policies that are likely to reduce university profits.

Bearing all this in mind, it is no wonder that a UoB-led study found that young people are feeling increasingly betrayed, ignored and abandoned by politicians and the supposed “adults” in the room.

People & Planet: Lack of Transparency

Saying this, for the People and Planet Society, a student-led society at the University of Bath, the “main obstacle to student engagement stems from a lack of transparency and communication from the University”.

They point out that the national league table cited above relies on information available on the websites of individual institutions. And because Bath lacks a public and easily accessible communication around its environmental policy, much of the data is inaccurate.

They argue that the university’s yearly climate action report is not only made inaccessible to the student body but focuses heavily on what the university has achieved, whilst ignoring the considerable challenges it still has to face – and how it plans to face them.

The 2022 report, for example, totals 30 pages of academic writing – an impractical read for the majority of the student body. And the summary, available on the University website, consists of 8 short bullet that do little more than state the University’s CO2 emissions in 2020/21 (estimated at 103,000 tCO2e).

For the Bath branch of the People and Planet Society, this is important not only from a material standpoint – but because it is often down to students to hold their universities to account. “Students have considerable power and influence to steer the institution towards its climate change-related targets” a spokesperson told Bath Time. But without clear commitments by which to judge the University’s progress, students have few ways to steer the institution towards its climate change-related targets. “If students are not engaged in these issues, there is no one to hold the University to account”.

Protests: what can (and should) be done

Luckily for us, students are engaged in these issues. Young people are amongst the most environmentally-conscious demographic in the country. So much so, in fact, that they are often branded as “irrational” or “extremist” in their calls for action. But if you realise that your house is on fire, and you react by shouting to get everyone’s attention, nobody would think that you are acting irrationally. Similarly, our planet is currently on fire (quite literally) and we need to make people realise how serious this issue is. It is only fair to panic when all of our futures are at stake. We need to shout and we need to make our voices heard. In an attempt to do just that, People and Planet Society at the University organised a protest on Parade on April 1, 2022.

The aim of this protest was to expose the students’ concern and willingness to tackle this crisis, demanding immediate and urgent climate action from the University”, Bath Time heard. And it’s important to point out that there is much that the university can do to help in the fight against climate change.

Members of the Planet & People Society staged a protest outside the library on the 1st of April.

Transport, which we have already touched on, is amongst the most obvious examples. While transportation is only a small contributor to our overall carbon footprint, it is one that the university can easily fix by simply helping to improve the bus services at Bath. We recognise that fixing this issue isn’t all that easy, but if the problem continues to come up year after year, we expect the university to take the issue seriously and do their bit to help resolve it. 

But again, what matters most is that the university sets clear goals – and communicates them in a way that is accessible and transparent. This is a crucial step towards ensuring that the changes we are implementing aren’t a form of ‘greenwashing.’ The point of climate policies is not to virtue signal to prospective students, but to action real, sustainable changes that will last for years to come.

Quite simply, Bath has the finances, the scientific knowledge and the technological tools to transition effectively to clean energy, and to better ensure a sustainable world for its student body. It is, of course, important to understand the complexity of climate change. And Bath Time recognises that it takes a lot of time and resources to create the massive changes needed to achieve net zero. With that being said, it is important that we are doing everything we can to try and ensure we are meeting the goals we signed on to.

Zoe Paumelle, SU Activities Officer, told Bath Time that “The Climate Action Framework Principles were a great step for the University to commit and they’re a great tool for us as students to challenge the University on whether these have been implemented or not. The Climate Action Framework goals are long-term orientated. But given the climate emergency that the University has itself declared, the actions it requires are immediate. The climate crisis requires immediate and urgent action, and it can’t wait any longer“.

Fossil fuel and academia: a toxic relationship

Calls for change are however not only aimed at the SU, but also academics at the university. At the end of March, a letter signed by 500 academics, calling for universities to ban fossil fuel funding for climate change-related research, was published online. Pointing out the often dark collaborations between universities and fossil fuel giants, the ‘Fossil Free Research’ movement has tried to raise awareness about how academic integrity is hindered by donations and financial support, claiming academic research won’t be truly free until this ‘dirty money’ has been removed from the equation. The movement was not only supported by American and British academics, but also notable figures such as Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury or Michael Mann, an American climatologist and prominent voice in the fight against climate change.

As well as hindering the quality of written work, the letter makes it clear that accepting donations from fossil fuel companies will only contribute to the greenwashing of multinational corporations while making universities’ goals to tackle the climate crisis utterly impossible and cynical. The letter’s conclusion is a shocking but perhaps necessary wake up call that reads: “Academics should not be forced to choose between researching climate solutions and inadvertently aiding corporate greenwashing; our universities must provide an alternative“. Here in Bath, six academics from three departments (PoLIS; Architecture and Social & Policy Sciences) have signed the letter: Pr. Graham Room; Dr. David S. Moon; Dr. Fran Amery; Dr. Aurelien Mondon; Pr. Vaughan Hart and Dr. Galadriel Ravelli.

We reached out to Dr. Sophia Hatzisavvidou, the Bath UCU Environment Rep, who told Bath Time  “The call to end funding from fossil fuel companies for climate change-related research done in universities is more relevant than ever. Along with divestment, the disentanglement of academic research from fossil fuel funds is exactly the kind of action universities should be taking, if they are to lead the much-needed transition to a fairer climate future. The action organised by students running the ‘Fossil Free Research’ campaign is a step towards this direction and can really influence how universities fund their research activities. Given the goal of climate neutrality, loosening the grip of the fossil fuel industry on our research activities is not only a matter of climate justice, but also of financial prudence“.

Only time will tell if the University of Bath is willing to commit to a fossil fuel-free academia in line with its sustainability goals. One thing is for sure, the credibility and reputation of the university as a green actor is now at risk.

Conclusion

The most recent UN climate report, released in April, has only underlined the need for decisive climate action. And if we are to avoid a climate catastrophe, universities will have to play their part. At Bath, our university accepts that we are living through a climate emergency. It’s time they started acting like it. But given their seeming reluctance, it seems necessary that students pressure them into action.

As the People and Planet society put it to Bath Time, “Steps to mitigate and alleviate the effects of climate change must no longer require justification. Students are demanding more, and we are demanding it now”.

Action box

Given the need for immediate action, Bath Time calls on the University to action the following policies:

  • Urgency: Treat climate policy as the emergency it is. Declaring a climate emergency is a step in the right direction but it’s time we started acting on it.
  • Transparency: We need to know what the short-term goals set out for the Climate Action Group are, what the University is currently doing, and how they plan on meeting those goals.
  • Accessibility: We need a short, student-friendly document with updates on work of this group instead of massive pdf documents with terms and numbers the average student cannot understand.

Bath Time Editorial Committee

Articles written by the Bath Time Committee.

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