What we learned from the EAUC virtual global climate conference

The worldwide event attracted 1,000 visitors and tackled the biggest and most challenging sustainability issues in higher education

The Alliance for Sustainability Leadership (EAUC) hosted a five-day virtual global climate conference from 16–20 November.

The EAUC event attracted 1,000 attendees from 18 countries to the summit. The event featured 11 plenaries, 60 workshops and three roundtables featuring 171 speakers and presenters from across the globe.

University Business watched the event: here are our five key talking points.

The challenge of scope 3 emissions

Joanna Chamberlain, head of environment and energy at the University of Cambridge, Tom Parrott, head of energy and sustainability at the University of Surrey, and Prof Peter Licence, professor of chemistry at the University of Nottingham discussed the challenge of reducing scope-three carbon emissions.

These “fugitive emissions” account for 80% and 70% of total emissions at Cambridge and Surrey universities respectively; Prof Licence suggested the sector spend less time tracking water wastage emissions and more time on the as-yet-undiscussed contributors to scope three emissions. Tackling these emissions will require “thorny discussions” with departments and suppliers, Prof Licence said; the catering and construction HE supply chains, for example, dwarf emissions from waste and water. Chamberlain added that the trend towards increased working from home might pose “moral” dilemmas for universities about how best to count its emissions.

Community engagement

Joan Concannon, director of external relations at the University of York, discussed engagement and particularly the convening power of the institution within the community as a force for “public good”. One of the university’s more novel ideas was to launch its free Festival of Ideas without any of its branding attached; the university logo tended to appeal to particular demographics, Concannon explained, and would not attract a diverse audience.

The festival hopes to articulate to visitors how to achieve change individually, but also to catalyse societal change and the power of working as a community. The scale of the global challenges is immense; it can leave some feeling powerless, which is why Concannon said universities should create public engagement opportunities within their communities.

What we learned from the EAUC virtual global climate conference Gillian Burke
Television producer Gillian Burke said language and communication are a crucial component of new sustainability policies.

Change your thinking

Sara Khan, vice-president for liberation and equality at National Union of Students, explained why decolonising the curriculum is about more than just racial equality: many indigenous communities, for example, prioritise sustainability and ecology. Many universities have promised to embed sustainability into their curriculums – the University of Sheffield recently announced it would embed Education for Sustainable Development into all taught courses.

Sustainable development goals and research

Prof Katherine Richardson said most research is locked in a “reductionist” mode.

The professor in biological oceanography at the University of Copenhagen – who also serves as the leader of the Sustainability Science Centre and a principal investigator at the Centre for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate – was one of 15 scientists selected to contribute to the 2019 report UN Global Sustainability report, which argued that academics should address contentious and unexplored areas of science.

The report identifies five key types of research:

  1. ‘Simple research’ considers uncontested topics like recycling
  2. ‘Complicated research’ considers concepts that are sociopolitically contentious like carbon taxation and nuclear energy
  3. ‘Complex research’ considers topics with high levels of public support but knowledge gaps, like equal opportunities and eco-friendly farming
  4. ‘Wicked research’ is in fields that are both contested and unexplored, like equitable trade and corruption
  5. ‘Chaos research’ considers topics that are either unknowable or non-negotiable, like ecological tipping points

It is only by pushing boundaries – considering the interaction between the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) – that academics can hope to push the agenda on sustainability.

Communicating the problem

Gillian Burke, a television producer who specialises in natural history programmes, provided the audience with an analogy; if nature is the head of an axe, language is the handle that helps us cut through. With years of experience, Gillian discussed the importance of making science and sustainability engaging so that people change the way they see and value the world.

Read more: Leading research universities urge G20 to pursue zero-carbon future

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