Philip Larkin’s poem The Trees begins with one of his most famous lines ‘The trees are coming into leaf/Like something almost being said’. It goes on to mark, with characteristically Larkin-esque uncertainty, the endless cycle of the seasons: ‘Is it that they are born again/And we grow old? No, they die too,/Their yearly trick of looking new/Is written down in rings of grain’.
Most climate change research, thirty or forty years ago, began with a sense that the apparently eternal cycle of the seasons was awry, that something was out of kilter, that the ‘yearly trick of looking new’ was a trick no longer being pulled off with the same brio. At first the findings were cautious: the evidence suggesting springs coming a little earlier each year, summers a little warmer. And now the evidence has accumulated and the warnings of scientists are stark. Last week, dozens of scientists co-authored a single paper in Nature which proposed eight new limits to what the planet can endure, and concluded that humanity has already blown through seven of them. They used a mixture of modelling and literature review to quantify safe and just Earth System Boundaries (ESBs). Breaching these ESBs lead to triggering tipping points that irreversibly destabilize the Earth’s system. Whilst they concluded that safe limits had already been passed, their conclusions were still that changes were possible which would preserve a cooler, wilder, wetter world, and that governments were not the key actors in driving change. One of the authors of the paper, Xeumei Bai of the Australian National University, has commented that “actions below the national level will be really key.” Citizens, organisations, cities and regions really do matter.
The University has undertaken a huge amount of work over the past year to think through its Climate Action Strategy, under the determined leadership of Rory Duncan, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation, Professor Peter Wells, and Natalie Day, Head of Strategy and Policy. We are not the first university to publish a Climate Action Strategy, and I know some of my colleagues would have wanted us to move further, sooner. But there are some benefits in learning from first movers, and the Hallam strategy is a whole-of-institution approach to tackling the climate emergency – something many organisations have found hard. The University has commissioned work to understand its current carbon footprint across its direct and indirect operations and has set out ambitious commitments and initiatives that aim to make a positive contribution and embed climate awareness across everything we do. In 2021, we made a global pledge to tackle climate action by joining the UN Race to Zero, making a public commitment to deliver Net Zero on direct emissions by 2030, and to make significant progress on indirect emissions by 2038. The Strategy fleshes out those commitments.
Understanding the University’s carbon footprint is itself a complex task. The overall framework for thinking about carbon footprints sets out three ’scopes’. Scope 1 emissions are direct emissions from an organisation’s operations and activities whilst scope 2 emissions are emissions from purchased or acquired power. Scope 3 emissions are indirect emissions that are a consequence of the activities of an organisation, but occur from sources not owned or controlled by the company; they include emissions in our supply chain or from staff and students travelling to the campus. We now have a Carbon Management Tool to help us accurately track our progress against our targets and ensure evidence-based decisions, along with a robust breakdown of our environmental impact across Scopes 1 and 2 (direct emissions) and Scope 3 (indirect emissions), and you can find out more about the tool and about our approach on the Climate Action pages of our website. Crudely, it is relatively straightforward to map – though more difficult to reduce – emissions under Scopes 1 and 2 for any organisation, and much more difficult both to map and to reduce emissions under Scope 3.
We have already made huge progress on Scopes 1 and 2 as we have changed over the last five years. That is a result of our own practices on travel and communication, on estate management and environmental measures and a result of the national context as the electricity supply grid has been decarbonised. Modernising our estate involves careful decisions about the cost benefit of replacing inefficient older buildings with much more efficient newer buildings – the replacement of course generates emissions. In practice, there are complex but usable tools which support the calculation. Of course, there is a lot more to do. The challenges become more difficult as time goes on and progressively more difficult questions will need to be asked about the way we work and the ways in which change can be supported and resourced.
Universities, including Sheffield Hallam, have a challenging double role in the transition towards sustainability. We have a critical role to play in research and teaching. The science of climate change is now settled, which means that the difficult questions are no longer about basic science but about human behaviours. Our academics and students are critical change agents in that process. The evidence we have from the most recent Times Higher Impact rankings is that the University is amongst the top ten in the world for its impact on reducing inequalities – a key aspect of a just transition. There is a strong base on which to build our impact, whether in work such as Aimee Ambrose’s research on energy policies or Paul Bingham’s work on sustainable glass manufacture – to cite just two of our major research contributions. But at the same time universities, including Sheffield Hallam, need to think hard about how to make their operating models sustainable as the demands of net zero quite rightly tighten.
Our Climate Action Strategy is a starting point, and it needs to be a living, revisited tool for many years. The challenges we face are huge, and can feel overwhelming at times, but there is no alternative to rising to meet them. Larkin’s poem ends ‘Last year is dead, they seem to say/Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.’