Inside Track - Sir Alan Langlands: Tackling the climate crisis: an obligation, not a choice

The Vice-Chancellor outlines how the University of Leeds is uniquely placed to play a leading role in tackling the climate crisis.

The University of Leeds is uniquely placed to play a leading role in tackling the climate crisis. We already do a great deal, but we are now committing to a net-zero carbon footprint by 2030 and no carbon emissions by 2050. And as a result of our Climate Active Strategy, the University has withdrawn investment from significant fossil fuel extractors Total, BP and, most recently, Shell (Royal Dutch Shell). 

Of course, we have an obligation to take this head on. While it is always dangerous to attribute any one event to climate change, anyone who has witnessed the appalling devastation in the Bahamas by Hurricane Dorian, or the unprecedented heatwave in Europe in June, let alone the reckless widespread fires in the Amazon rainforest, will understand why this is important.

I also know this is an issue that our staff and students care about very deeply. It was particularly striking that at a series of very well attended staff meetings on our future strategy before the summer, the issue of sustainability was raised time and again, with great passion and insight by colleagues. And through other regular discussions with students, I know it is a concern shared amongst the entire University community.

So today we are setting out seven bold principles that have one core aim: to mobilise that shared passion and concern amongst the University community, alongside our combined knowledge, influence and assets, to help tackle what is the most important global challenge we all face.

These principles and the actions that will follow essentially fall into two categories: 

  • First, harnessing our world-renowned, cross-disciplinary academic expertise to support others in making the transition to a low carbon, sustainable future. 
  • Second, continuing to get our own house in order, so that we can show true leadership and act as an exemplar for what a large university can achieve with determination, rigour and clarity of purpose. 

To the first point, the University has a global reputation for excellence in climate research and sustainability across multiple disciplines. This is evidenced through, amongst other examples, our first place ranking for research power in earth and environmental science in the last Research Excellence Framework (REF); our very significant contributions to the UN’s core reports on climate change, which have so fundamentally shifted the debate and spurred global action; and our strong partnerships with, amongst others, the Met Office and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). Alongside this, we educate more undergraduate students than any other UK university in environmental science and sustainability, and we are the market leaders in training postgraduate taught students in both sustainability and climate change.

This reputation will enable us to step up our contribution in the coming years. Our strong foundations in climate research, including colleagues in the Priestley International Centre for Climate, water@leeds and across the University, as well as our significant contributions to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Leeds Climate Commission, will help effect widespread change at home and abroad. We have four National Centres based in Leeds and a leading position in capability programmes supported by the Global Challenges Research Fund.

On the second point - getting our own house in order - we have a great deal of progress to build on, but we can and must do more. For example, we have reduced our direct carbon emissions by 28 per cent since 2005/06, and our Living Lab programme is leading the way in developing new sustainability solutions by integrating our research, student education and operations. 

Our Climate Active Strategy will also continue to guide the University’s determined approach to responsible investment. Having withdrawn investment from significant fossil fuel extractors Total, BP and Shell, the University’s exposure to fossil fuel extraction is now minimal, with the limited investment in this sector now focused on supporting companies who are evidently making the transition to alternative energy sources and a low carbon economy. 

Turning to the principles, I won’t recount all seven here, but I would stress that they include ambitious targets, securing a net-zero carbon footprint by 2030, alongside working with partners to make the city as a whole net-zero carbon by the same date, and working to achieve no carbon emissions by 2050. 

They also recognise that the transition to a zero carbon future will take time and will require some difficult decisions and sometimes pragmatic compromises along the way. For example, we will increasingly reorient our research and teaching away from the fossil fuel sector and explore ways of reducing the impact of our business travel, while maintaining our commitment to internationalisation.

We won’t be able to make all of these changes at the same time, which may give rise to some apparent inconsistencies of approach. But these will ultimately only be temporary, and the direction of travel and point of destination is clear.

So let me finish where I started. Tackling the climate crisis is not a choice, it is an obligation. These principles - which have been endorsed by our Council - set out a framework for how we can play a key role in doing this. I invite everyone from across the University community to join together to move towards a sustainable, low carbon future.  

Sir Alan Langlands

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