Image of earth from space
The key challenges facing our planet, as described in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, inspire all our research and teaching and our own operations. That means our world-leading researchers are constantly looking for means to develop climate solutions for our planet. They are also using their expertise to inspire future generations who will be responsible for Earth’s long-term health, along with the businesses developing innovative new techniques that could have benefits for the whole of society. Sustainability is embedded in all our operations and our teaching.

Sustainability Solutions: securing a cleaner, greener future

The University launched Sustainability Solutions at an event in London in December 2023. The initiative embodies the University’s commitment to delivering on the promise of securing a greener, cleaner future.
It also provides an avenue through which it will further its partnership working with communities, industry, policy makers and individuals to bring about the paradigm shifts and cultural changes our world needs to thrive. With its mission to advance knowledge and transform lives, a spirit of enterprise and a deep commitment to sustainability are at the core of everything the University does.
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals inform and inspire all its research and teaching, whether that is by raising aspirations through education, powering the growth of renewable energy, tackling the threat of antibiotic resistance, or driving action for clean and health oceans.

The vast array of interconnected issues facing our world require action, locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. Investing in sustainable operations is a win-win; it is good for the planet, our business partners, our communities, our students and our staff. It is also important to us that we are delivering tangible, real-world benefits through the practical application of our strategy both in the UK and overseas.

Judith Petts CBEJudith Petts CBE

Kevin Foreshaw presenting Sustainability Solutions
Deborah Greaves at the Sustainability Solutions launch

Achieving full net zero after carbon neutral verification

The University was verified carbon neutral in further recognition of its pioneering efforts in net zero innovation, research and teaching.
The awarding of PAS 2060 verification, an independent and internationally recognised standard for carbon neutrality, acknowledges the University’s ongoing work to reduce the carbon impact of its campuses and operations. It becomes only the second UK university to achieve the status.
Since declaring a climate emergency in 2019, the University has held the ambition of delivering net zero emissions from scope 1 and 2 – which cover gas, electricity and a number of other fuels – by 2025. 
Its latest Sustainability Report shows it has achieved that target three years ahead of schedule through reducing those emissions by 78% since 2005.

Playing a significant role in the United Nations climate report

Dr Souran Chatterjee was among the core research team invited to develop the first United Nations report on climate and Sustainable Development Goal synergies.
Published in September 2023, it outlines the steps governments should take to maximise the impact of their policies and actions by creating such synergies. It demonstrates that aggressively acting on climate and development in an integrated and synergistic way is an important opportunity to achieve the course correction needed to protect our planet now and in the future. It also highlights some of the challenges but also the opportunities.

We know that tackling climate change is not solely about reducing global warming and protecting the environment. If we are to properly address it, we need to identify the synergies between the environment, society, behaviours and global development.

Souran ChatterjeeSouran Chatterjee
Lecturer in Energy Transitions – Environmental Management and Sustainability

Collection of international flags

Showing the critical challenges facing tropical forests

A study involving the University, and published in Nature, found some tropical leaves are already reaching temperatures at which they can no longer function.
The research combined high-resolution data from a thermal imaging instrument on the International Space Station and in situ warming experiment data from across the world’s tropical forests. It demonstrated for the first time that a small percentage of tropical leaves are already reaching, and occasionally exceeding, the temperatures at which they can no longer function. It also suggests that as climate change continues, entire canopies could die.
The study’s authors say their findings have serious implications because tropical forests are home to most of the world’s biodiversity and are key regulators of our climate.

Trees are a critical part of our planet’s response to climate change, and tropical forests play a key role in housing species diversity and regulating the planet’s climate. If they are damaged by increases in temperatures, we are losing a key line of defence and limiting nature’s ability to mitigate the impacts of human activity.

Sophie FausetSophie Fauset
Associate Professor in Terrestrial Ecology

Thermal imaging instrument in tree

Detecting the causes of Antarctica’s giant underwater landslides

Scientists have discovered the cause of giant underwater landslides in Antarctica which they believe could have generated tsunami waves that stretched across the Southern Ocean.
An international team of researchers uncovered layers of weak, fossilised and biologically rich sediments hundreds of metres beneath the seafloor. These formed beneath extensive areas of underwater landslides, many of which cut more than 100 metres into the seabed. Writing in Nature Communications, the scientists say these weak layers – made up of historic biological material – made the area susceptible to failure in the face of earthquakes and other seismic activity. They also highlight that the layers formed at a time when temperatures in Antarctica were up to 3°C warmer than they are today, when sea levels were higher and ice sheets much smaller than at present.

Thanks to exceptional preservation of the sediments beneath the seafloor, we have for the first time been able to show what caused these historical landslides in this region of Antarctica and also indicate the impact of such events in the future. Our findings highlight how we urgently need to enhance our understanding of how global climate change might influence the stability of these regions and potential for future tsunamis.

Jenny GalesJenny Gales
Associate Professor in Hydrography and Ocean Exploration

Antarctica research

Understanding the impacts of past global warming

Fossilised beaches along the UK coastline enabled scientists to demonstrate for the first time how melting Antarctic ice sheets impacted global sea levels during a period of pronounced climate warming more than 100,000 years ago.
A study in the journal Science Advances analysed ancient sediments from raised beaches in Cornwall, Devon and elsewhere across Western Europe. The scientists believe the raised beaches – characterised by flat surfaces, often with fossilised beach sands and stones, and typically found around 4–6m above current sea levels – could provide an invaluable insight into the local and global impacts of melting ice sheets in the future.
By combining new and existing data with a series of novel analysis and modelling techniques, the team of researchers from the UK, USA and Canada were able to demonstrate that the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet would have caused a rise in global sea levels of up to 5.7m.

Our findings show that the English Channel is roughly neutral for sea-level change from the northern hemisphere, with the rising sea levels from melt and the rising land from the effects of rebound cancelling each other out. As a result, the historic changes which saw sea levels along the UK coastline rise by up to 6m can be attributed solely to the melting of Antarctic ice.

Matt TelferMatt Telfer
Associate Professor of Physical Geography

A rocky platform at Bream Cove near Falmouth

Uncovering hidden moles in hidden holes

Scientists identified two types of mole which they believe have been living undiscovered in the mountains of eastern Turkey for as many as three million years. The new moles – named Talpa hakkariensis and Talpa davidiana tatvanensis – belong to a familiar group of subterranean, invertebrate-eating mammals found across Europe and Western Asia.
The researchers – using cutting-edge DNA technology – have confirmed the new forms are biologically distinct from others in the group. Both inhabit mountainous regions in eastern Turkey, and are able to survive in areas with surface temperatures of up to 50°C in summer and being buried under up to 2m of snow in winter.

Superficially, the new moles we have identified in this study appear similar to other species. Our study highlights how we can under-estimate the true nature of biodiversity, even in groups like mammals, where most people would assume we already know all the species with which we share the planet.

David BiltonDavid Bilton
Professor of Aquatic Biology

T.hakkariensis mole coming out of a burrow in the ground
Mole habitat in Turkey

Turning waste wood into nutritious food

Researchers from the University hoping to rebrand a marine pest as a nutritious food have developed the world’s first system of farming shipworms. 
The long, white saltwater clams are the world’s fastest-growing bivalve and can reach 30cm in length in just six months. They do this by burrowing into waste wood and converting it into highly nutritious protein, which has led to them being eaten by coastal communities for centuries. 
In a series of tests, detailed in a study published in the journal Sustainable Agriculture, researchers found that levels of vitamin B12 in the Naked Clams were higher than in most other bivalves, and almost twice the amount found in blue mussels. With the addition of an algae-based feed, they can also be fortified with omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids – nutrients essential for human health.

We urgently need alternative food sources that provide the micronutrient-rich profile of meat and fish but without the environmental cost. Our system offers a sustainable solution and may well become a fantastic way to reduce your carbon footprint.

Dr Reuben Shipway, Lecturer in Marine Biology
Shipworms in wood

Highlighting the threat of carbon loss from northern peatlands

A study involving the University found that the harm caused to the northern hemisphere’s peatlands as a result of wildfires could lead to greater quantities of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere.
The research, published in Nature Climate Change, estimated for the first time how degradation, wildfire combustion and post-fire dynamics influence carbon emissions from non-permafrost peatlands across vast areas of the northern hemisphere. When peatlands are drained, typically to convert them to agriculture or forestry, they release carbon back to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.
The study estimated that these emissions are enhanced by as much as 10% when taking wildfire into account. Using a modelling approach, the researchers found that while northern peatlands are still currently sequestering carbon, small increases to the drained area, fire severity or burn area can all switch the system to a net source of greenhouse gases.

Our study adds further evidence to the need to deploy peatland restoration at pace and at scale. It is a cost-effective tool that can help minimise the wider impacts to northern peatland carbon stocks and the associated significant costs to society.

Scott DavidsonScott Davidson
Lecturer in Ecosystem Resilience

Scott Davidson in peatland

Driving the development of water testing technology

Molendotech, an award-winning University spinout company, secured an investment of more than £1.2 million to push forward the development of its pioneering water testing technology.
The new funding has enabled the company to create an operational unit based in the Health and Wellbeing Innovation Centre in Truro, in addition to its base at the Brixham Laboratory. It will also support the company on the commercialisation and development of its product BacterisK+, an easy-to-use, portable and rapid test to monitor and detect pathogens found in water. Current water testing methods can take more than 48 hours to assess the safety for use. The 25-minute test invented and developed by Molendotech is being used by water utilities, regulators and other interest groups to minimise the exposure of the population to bacteria and to track sources of pollution.

Being able to detect pathogens quickly and accurately is vital when working to keep communities safe from harm. Our testing solutions can be used quickly and by anyone who has had basic training, meaning rapid action can be taken to address a poor-quality environment or danger.

Simon JacksonSimon Jackson
Chief Scientific Officer at Molendotech


Demonstrating young people’s demands for climate education

A report by the University and the British Science Association found that secondary school pupils feel the climate change education they receive is too focused on passing exams and doesn’t equip them with the skills they need to tackle the climate crisis.
The research showed that 14- to 18-year-olds believe climate change is the most important issue that needs to be addressed if their lives are to be improved in the future. Despite that, just over a quarter (26%) of pupils surveyed feel strongly that any actions they currently take to combat climate change might make a difference. Also, more than 7 out of 10 pupils (72%) say they would welcome the opportunity for broader lessons about climate change in school, rather than simply learning facts and associated impacts. A similar number (68%) believe climate change education should be included across all subjects, in addition to science and geography where most currently learn about how the climate is changing.

The findings serve as a clear and loud call for agency and empowerment from young people. Only by engaging with the next generation can we develop a successful climate education strategy, giving young people the confidence and knowledge to tackle environmental challenges.

Alison AndersonAlison Anderson
Professor in Sociology

Alison Anderson (1280x720)

Connecting people with stories from our changing planet

The Plymouth Nature Film Festival, founded by six students from the University, was held in the city’s Market Hall in April 2023. Open to people of all ages, it showcased grassroots works of film and photography from all around the world that encourage people to think globally and act locally. 
The creative pieces aimed to raise awareness around key issues and enable those attending to see the individual impact they can make through connecting with local environmental organisations. The 2023 festival carried the theme of ‘change’, how it impacts our relations with the world around us and whether the planet is best served by adapting or resisting it. In addition to things to watch and view, there were also interactive workshops and opportunities for people to speak to those who share their passion for nature.

In recent years, there has been a lot of conversation about how people all around the world connect with nature, and how the whole planet is in serious trouble. We felt it was something that needed to be explored here in Plymouth, by giving people a chance to better understand their relationships with nature but also providing them with the connections they need to take action.

Shivani Rajani, BSc (Hons) Marine Biology and Coastal Ecology student
The organising committee of the Plymouth Nature Film Festival 

Experiencing conservation challenges

Students and staff from the University worked with community organisations in the Azores to reduce the impact of invasive species on the islands’ landscapes.
The second year Biological Sciences students travelled to the region in the summer of 2023 for an annual field course studying the unique geography and exceptional biology of the remote volcanic island of São Miguel. The trip enabled exploration of topics ranging from evolution and conservation, to the habitats favoured by extremophiles and the effects of human behaviour on fragile ecosystems such as invasive plants and animals. While there, the students collaborated with local agencies to better understand some of the native plant species found on the islands, and how to create an environment in which they can survive and thrive in the future.

We have been running this field course since 2007 and have seen some of the massive pressures that have been put on the island environment. Our aim is a field course that has a positive impact on the island while creating a space for conversations with our students about responsible global citizenship.

Richard BillingtonRichard Billington
Associate Professor of Biology

Azores biological sciences field trip
Azores biological sciences field trip
Azores biological sciences field trip - seed collection
Azores biological sciences field trip - seed processing

Combatting the fishing nets stranded on our beaches

MA Design student Chris Fronebner designed a new tool to help clear fishing nets from our beaches – and received national recognition for his efforts. He created a beach cleaning tool that comprised a telescopic hook with a builtin knife and a collection bag made from a net.
The main tool is made by 3D printing using filament from discarded nets, and Chris’s work saw him named as one of the UK’s Green Grads, a national initiative that  celebrates graduates with ‘ideas to heal the planet’. Seen as a key threat to marine wildlife, fishing nets account for an estimated 25% of the ocean’s plastic waste. Chris designed the tool in the first module of his masters and now wants to make it available to everyone.

I’m passionate about marine wildlife and attended local beach cleans to help combat marine litter. While I was able to physically pick up several items, I’d noticed difficulties in collecting fishing nets, so designed a tool to help.

Chris Fronebner, MA Design student
Chris Fronebner beach cleaning tool