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Blog: Now is surely the time?

24 November 2020

Blog by Dave Gorman, Director of Social Responsibility and Sustainability, University of Edinburgh

In October I joined a panel on sustainable campuses as part of the Westminster Higher Education Forum’s conference on UK Higher Education and Net Zero. I wasn’t able to join for the entire day but looking through the agenda it was encouraging to see a wide range of key issues addressed.

I’ve written before that given their nature- large, long-term, devoted to research and new knowledge, as well as teaching and skills, Universities are well-placed to play a leading role in making a positive impact on society, and helping make the transition to net zero. Indeed, often Universities act as ‘anchor’ institutions for their local area- providing high quality jobs, investment and long-term commitment.

The conference itself touched on many of these aspects- from the latest progress report from the EAUC’s partnership Climate Commission to the curriculum, from the need to be a responsible investor to the expectations of a key University research funder UKRI (check out their new sustainability strategy here).

In my own session we dwelt on the role of operations in making the transition to net zero. I outlined some of Edinburgh’s progress over the last 7 years. That progress includes setting a goal to be net zero by 2040, creating a £5m fund for investing in energy reduction and waste reduction, and thinking through the huge challenge of how to decarbonise our heat supply and shift from incremental reductions in carbon when designing new buildings to the challenge of designing ‘net zero’ new buildings.

It was encouraging that others on the panel- from Unite Students to Buro Happold to Essentia Trading- were all coming from a similar view. We need to start moving, and moving quickly to zero carbon design, to much greater understanding and embedding of carbon into design, and to in due course widen the discussion to include not just operational carbon, but embodied carbon and indeed issues such as design for disassembly, and adopting circular economy principles.

So, there is a clear expectation amongst stakeholders and a building knowledge of what needs to happen. That said, Covid19 has clearly made things more difficult – by using up ‘bandwidth’ otherwise needed to tackle climate change, by putting huge pressure on budgets and teams to find savings and assist with the Covid response.

I wouldn’t want to diminish the challenges right now, and as I write we are facing new lockdowns and restrictions across the UK with no guarantee if and when we return to normal. I would say this- those of us trying to make change and deliver sustainability need to keep making the case. We need to seize the opportunities where we can to align net zero to other objectives- rethinking the nature of travel, commuting, international collaboration and even the nature of work. If we invest, we need to recognise the signals that the energy system is transforming and be on the right side of that change, and support the companies of the future with the solutions of the future. We must ensure our teaching and learning equips our young people with the skills and knowledge for a zero carbon world. The time is surely now...

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