Skip to main content

Vice-Chancellor news

Environmental expert advises UEB

26 September 2019

At the recent UEB away day we had a PESTLE session to explore the Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal and Environmental risks, challenges and opportunities facing the University.  We will share future PESTLE sessions in the UEB blog.

I invited Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh, Director – Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformation to help us understand what are the most important environmental changes predicted over the next year and what are the main things that UEB need to be thinking about. The aim was to provoke debate, widen thinking and introduce new ideas for us to consider as we review our environmental sustainability strategy and action plan.

I wanted to share Lorraine’s expert contribution and the issues that we discussed:

What are the current hot topics?

Climate change, biodiversity loss, green technology, and plastics are all prominent policy and public issues; though climate change is arguably the most fundamental and critical – and tackling climate change can help address broader environmental issues (e.g., cutting material consumption reduces greenhouse gas emissions and means less plastic and other pollution).

Following the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) report on limiting climate change to 1.5oC global warming[i], the UK government recently amended its climate change legislation (Climate Change Act) to a more ambitious goal of reaching net zero by 2050. This implies rapid and systemic transformation of society to be low-carbon and sustainable; while some of this change will come from technological innovation, a large proportion (62%) will involve significant social and behavioural change.[ii] In particular, there will need to be significant reductions in how, and how much, we travel and consume. Many of the changes required will offer important co-benefits – for example, using more active forms of transport (i.e.,. cycling and walking) and eating a plant-based diet can improve health; while using less energy to heat/cool our homes and businesses can save money.[iii]

In Wales, the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act is a world-leading piece of legislation which requires that sustainability is embedded in all areas of policy. Along with the Environment (Wales) Act 2016, the nation is committed to reducing its emissions across all sectors; and the public sector is required to be carbon neutral by 2030. HEIs are encouraged to be part of these efforts, as well as to support efforts to improve sustainability literacy across Welsh society, and through climate change research and innovation to deliver solutions to climate change.[iv]

Alongside cutting emissions to mitigate climate change, HEIs like Cardiff University also need to consider the worsening impacts of climate change, which are already being experienced in the UK and globally. In Wales, these include hotter and drier summers, leading to droughts and heatwaves, and associated health impacts (heat stroke, sunburn, , etc.); and warmer, wetter winters, leading to more flooding, along with more extreme weather events (e.g., storms), erosion, sea-level rise, disrupted food supply and travel infrastructure, spread of disease, species extinction, and so on.[v]

What are the most important changes predicted over the next year?

Over the coming 12 months, we will see important changes in Welsh and UK policy; in technological innovation; in climatic conditions (e.g., more extreme weather events), as already noted; and in pressure from the public (particularly youth) as well as our staff and students to act.

Policy. In terms of policy developments, since most UK environmental legislation has come from Europe, the UK’s exit from the EU will significantly impact on the nation’s ability to govern the environment – with very high risks to air and water quality, food systems, wildlife, etc. if we leave without a deal.[vi] The new Environment Bill, currently making its way through parliament, will seek to address this gap in environmental governance and has a particular focus on: improving air quality; restoring and enhancing nature; improving waste management and resource efficiency; and improving surface water, ground water and waste water management.

Technology. In terms of technological change, electric vehicles are becoming more affordable and charging infrastructure more available; while other innovations in energy systems (e.g., hydrogen heating) and ICT (e.g., smart technology, internet of things) are also being rapidly developed and will become available in the near future. There are important opportunities here for Cardiff University to be at the forefront of low-carbon/environmental R&D; while these developments may also offer solutions for the University to become more sustainable in its own operations (e.g., video-conferencing to replace travel; electric vehicle fleet; mobility sharing).[vii]

Society. Socially, there is growing public concern about climate change; indeed, concern about climate change and the environment is at an all-time high.[viii] Since the IPCC report’s release in October 2018, we have also witnessed public protests, organised by Extinction Rebellion and others, and global school strikes initiated by the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. Climate change is a particular concern of young people; indeed, it has been ranked the top concern amongst under-30s for the last three years in the World Economic Forum’s global youth survey.[ix]

What are the issues we’re not already thinking about?

Aside from the above developments, we are likely to be seeing environment becoming a mainstream concern of society and a requirement for organisations to consider, similar to the shift in norms and expectations around human rights and equal opportunities. In this sense, it is sensible that Cardiff University stays one step ahead of both societal expectations and policy requirements to embed sustainability into its operations and activities. More ambitiously, though, Cardiff could opt to be at the forefront of a low-carbon transition by exploiting opportunities associated with environmental change, as outlined below. Finally, while 2019 is DEFRA’s year of green action as – as discussed above – has seen unprecedented social shifts in environmental concern and action – 2020 will be another critical year. The UN’s global climate talks – COP26 – will be hosted in Glasgow, with Claire Perry the Conference President. This represents an enormous window of opportunity for the UK to champion their world-leading climate change policy and to highlight the research, innovation and educational efforts of UK universities. Communication efforts need to be focussed on this opportunity to showcase Cardiff University’s work in this area.

What are the opportunities and things to be excited about?

Opportunities associated with climate change cover every aspect of the University’s work, including teaching, operations, research and civic mission. In the CAST Centre[x], we frame this in terms of the ‘co-benefits’ of climate change action – i.e., additional benefits of reducing emissions – such as:

  1. Health of staff/students: e.g., encouraging active travel (walking/cycling) and eating less meat; ensuring offices and residences do not over-heat during heatwaves.
  2. Cost-saving: e.g., reduced energy bills through efficiency measures and renewables; lower costs associated with reduced material use and travel; minimising disruption from climate-related travel disruption through home-working.
  3. Income: e.g., exploiting research and innovation opportunities associated with low-carbon transition.
  4. EDI: e.g., virtual conferences are more inclusive (e.g., for carers).
  5. People: e.g., being a sustainable employer will help attract and retain the best staff and students.
  6. Reputation: e.g., championing sustainability will support our civic mission.

Finally, our staff and students are clearly in favour of the University being more ambitious in addressing climate change – we should use this enthusiasm and expertise to realise the opportunities listed here and others when they arise.

[i] IPCC (2018). Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees.

[ii] CCC (2019). Net Zero: The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming. UK Committee on Climate Change, London.

[iii] Jennings, N., Fecht, D. & De Matteis, S. (2019). Co-benefits of climate change mitigation in the UK: Grantham Institute Briefing paper No 31.

[iv] Welsh Government (2019). Prosperity for All. Low-Carbon Delivery Plan.

[v] CCC (2017). UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017 Evidence Report: Summary for Wales.

[vi] Burns, C., Carter, N., Cowell, R., et al. (2018). Environmental policy in a devolved United Kingdom: Challenges and opportunities after Brexit.

[vii] Government Office of Science (2019). The Future of Mobility: A time of unprecedented change in the transport system.

[viii] BEIS (2019). BEIS Public Attitudes Tracker: Wave 29 – key findings.

[ix] WEF (2018). Global Shapers Survey.