The Role of Education Institutions in Tackling Climate Change

Contributed by Alice Litchfield on 18.05.2016

An Article about The Role of Education Institutions in Tackling Climate Change. Written by Alice Litchfield 

On Friday 13th May I attended something slightly different but incredibly informative and a worthwhile day. A Climate Change conference was held on the top floor of the Renold Building at Manchester University, put together by the UCU (University and College Union) and supported by NUS (National Union of Students). It was an academic conference focusing on ‘The role of education institutions in tackling Climate Change’. On April 21st 2016 the Paris climate agreement was signed in New York and is now legally enforceable in the UK. Education, research and finance form part of this agreement and the education sector in particular have an important role to play in delivering a low carbon economy. The conference focused on the three themes of skills and knowledge, research and finance and how these are going to impact the carbon economy.

People from all over the country stretching from London to Glasgow were in attendance at the event with different speakers from finance to heads of Universities all willing to talk about their roles. The NUS has a crucial role in engaging students and challenging the government in all different campaigns including many associated with Climate Change, such as divestment.

The conference started with a talk about Climate Change and the curriculum from Professor Julia King (the Baroness Brown of Cambridge, Vice Chancellor, Aston University). Her message stated that we have to teach Climate Change in institutions that show they care and are acting upon it. Aston University campus is crucial in influencing behaviour including having student allotments and electric car charges. The University have also turned their second year students reading week into Carbon week. This is a highly effective way to get students involved in issues where they have to create their own projects and learn of the importance of sustainability and how it will help their future career prospects. Next Dr Ken Thompson (Principal of Forth Valley College) spoke of the need to connect to people in a way they understand. Climate Change needs to be seen as something that people can actually take action against and higher education institutions role is to show students what can be done. Whole communities need to be integrated and working together. His college has signed a sustainability commitment and building your Green Future done with student association to make sure his institution is spreading the message. 

The lecture was then opened to the floor where members of UCU, NUC and other college and university staff were sat. The questions raised, brought up the issues such as measuring the carbon footprint of international students, the relevance of carbon literacy training and funding by large companies such as BP for PhD students. The questions sparked debate and topical issues that were useful in thinking about wider general issues associated with Climate Change.

Climate Change and research was then discussed with two speakers, Dr Carly McLachlan (Tyndall Research Centre) and Professor Kate Rigby (Chair of Environmental Humanities, Research and Graduate Affairs, Bath Spa University). Carly spoke about two different types of impact. One large scale, researchers working on policies and submitting them to the government and the other smaller scale working with universities and sustainability management. She also spoke about travel behaviours and was it hypocritical for researchers to be flying across the world when they are discussing Climate Change? Most people in the room agreed it was but it also depended on the context. There should be ways to address important forums and make a speech without having to travel by air. Kate Rigby then spoke about how Manchester can be the start of something with a low carbon city. Churches and other organisations are now getting involved in Climate Change campaigns and these are driving the city towards low carbon.

The next section of the event discussed climate change and finance with a finance sector speaker, Evette Prout (Sheffield Student Union’s Development Officer) and Andy Kerr (member of Edinburgh University Fossil Fuel Working Group). Andy Kerr spoke about divestment and the financial issues associated with it. He spoke about not having full divestment but still doing something. Therefore the aim was to invest back into high benchmark, low carbon companies. There has been a shift from what should we divest in to what should we invest in. The only issue is there are limited large scale low carbon frameworks and finding companies to invest in is more difficult than actually divesting. However with the carbon economy becoming more pronounced there is a hope there will be more companies to invest in in the future.

Finally the event ended up with a talk from Lisa Nandy (MP, Shadow Energy Minister). She believes the move to clean energy will be inevitable but the question is how to transition the economy from fossil fuels to renewables? China is investing more in renewables per person than the whole of Europe, therefore we need to continue to make progress and keep up with China. We need evidence and planning for energy policies that mean people won’t have increased energy bills or risk losing their jobs. It is about a change in attitudes and getting more people engaged than ever before.

Overall the event was incredibly successful with a large number of people in attendance from all different sectors in finance and higher education institutions. It was incredibly informative and bought up how to engage future generations and the need we have to do something now.