Responding to the climate emergency

Climate change has been a focus of research for decades, only gradually gaining serious international policy attention and capturing the public mind and concerns.

Back in 2005, a small project I was involved in attempted to identify thresholds of ‘rapid’ climate change in terms of generating public response.

It suggested that climate change would need to be very real to people before their levels of concern prompted personal action as well as demands for government and industry response.

Now, most people in the UK think that climate change is at least partly caused by humans.

But it is the young and educated who are the most worried, and there is a general lack of optimism about being able to reduce climate change.

A fundamental ‘get real’ moment came last autumn when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the world only has some 12 years left to make an impact on cutting greenhouse gas emissions before the effects of climate change become insidious and irreversible.

Since then multiple governments and local authorities have declared a climate emergency and specifically, the need to set a target of net zero emissions by 2030 - or at the latest 2050 - if limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees C is to be achieved.

<p>Environmental Issue: Underwater image of Plastic in the Ocean. The location here is Phi Phi Islands, Krabi, Thailand.<br></p>
<p>Coral reef research

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<p>Soil erosion</p>

Universities – including the University of Plymouth – are joining the climate emergency declaration called for by EAUC. But this isn’t just about the essential need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions rapidly.

Adapting the ways in which we live, including our infrastructures, to survive future climate is also essential. And, of course, adaptation to reduce vulnerability to future climates has many synergies with the goals of sustainable development – ensuring food and water security, reducing disaster risks, maintaining healthy ecosystems, improving people’s health and reducing poverty and inequality. All of this requires a complex mix of technical fixes, social empowerment and changed behaviours.

As a university, we have a vital role to play in raising awareness around climate change. But we must also get our own house in order in terms of carbon emissions and we are doing so. We have cut CO2 emissions by 42 per cent since 1990, reduced our water usage by 50 per cent since 2005/06 and transformed the way we handle waste and how we generate energy.

But there is always more to do, which is why we have now committed to a net zero emissions target (scope 1 and 2) by 2025, five years earlier than both we had originally planned and as set out in the international climate emergency declaration.

Develop a passion for sustainability and the environment
Architecture, Design and Environment Programmes
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At the same time, we have a responsibility to ensure that our all of students graduate with an appreciation of the urgency and the opportunities. After all, our graduates will be the leaders of tomorrow.

In this regard, Plymouth has a reputation for embedding sustainability in its teaching through the work of the Centre for Sustainable Futures. 

It means that all students – whether they aspire to be an environmental scientist, designer or a nurse – learns not only about their chosen subject, but also how to practise it sustainably once they graduate.

It is a practice which has resulted in us winning five Green Gown Awards and three Guardian University Awards.

We are also internationally recognised for our research to understand what is happening in the environment, with academics working with governments in the UK and abroad to advance thinking on issues including marine pollution and conservation, global warming, environmental change, soil erosion and natural hazards.

We are leading fundamental work to understand future energy supply options through initiatives including the £9 million Supergen ORE project, which unites academics and industry to provide solutions which meet the UK’s offshore renewable energy requirements.

We are also working to make our research commercially available through knowledge transfer initiatives and spinout companies including PulsiV Solar, whose technology has been demonstrated to increase the power output of solar panels by up to 30 per cent.

Solar cells
<p>A shelf of plants in the Plant factory</p>
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</p><div><div>Offshore wind farm at sunset. Image courtesy of Getty Images.</div></div><p></p>

As well as demonstrating the impacts of climate change, universities also have a responsibility to understand how certain behaviours have developed and how they might be adapted in the future.

And in Plymouth, we have pioneered collaborations between natural and social scientists in fields including plastic pollution, soil erosion, coastal science, earthquakes, volcanoes and the development of smart cities.

We also have a number of initiatives, led by our research institutes, designed to find innovative ways to bring the scientific challenges to greater public attention.

These include residencies for artists, musicians and authors organised through our Marine Institute, the Creative Associates programme uniting scientists with creative practitioners in our Sustainable Earth Institute, and the roster of public events (often tackling complex scientific subjects) coordinated through our Arts Institute.

One of the University of Plymouth’s core commitments is to transform lives.

Using our world-leading expertise to respond to the climate emergency, and generating the knowledge and skills that will drive future adaptation and sustainable living, is at the heart of our mission.

University of Plymouth declares a climate emergency

The move, supporting a call by EAUC – The Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education, reaffirms the University’s position as a global leader in sustainability

Read more about our support for the initiative