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Sustainable futures

Living in a material world

The worldwide lockdown is set to cause the largest ever fall in carbon emissions. We must stand together on climate change and reboot before we press play.

An attack on multiple fronts

At the same time as living through Covid-19, there are two other enormous challenges facing us. Our crippled economy and the looming catastrophe that is climate change.

Climate change was (and is) the biggest threat, but one that we have been reluctant to face. Despite the warnings from scientists, environmentalists and a growing youth movement stirred into action by Greta Thunberg, it has a global pandemic to forcibly impact upon our carbon emissions. The UK set a new record for coal-free power generation (18 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes) due to the lockdown response to coronavirus. As a University, we have recorded a significant drop in carbon emissions and reduced energy consumption as we have closed much of our physical estate, and the threat to the economy caused by the virus is projected by Carbon Brief to cause the largest ever annual fall in CO2 emissions. It’s not hard to see that this is a moment of opportunity. Covid-19 has forced a pause, but what will happen when it’s time to press play again?

The worry is that the need to rebuild our economy will cause businesses across the world to put aside any gains they had made in the sustainability arena before this crisis, for the chance to rebuild rapidly to help achieve a new economic stability. Could this be the return to ‘dirty’ chemicals?

Rebuild our economy based on the needs of society

There are positive signs that suggest this needn’t be the case. The Green Recovery, launched in the EU Parliament earlier this month as part of the Green Recovery Alliance, has been signed by many high-profile business leaders. The document calls for an economy based on the needs of society, but stresses the importance of embracing greener, sustainability principles, stating that “the transition to a climate-neutral economy, the protection of biodiversity and the transformation of agri-food systems have the potential to rapidly deliver jobs, growth and improve the way of life of all citizens worldwide, and to contribute to building more resilient societies. This is not simply a matter of creating a new economy from scratch, we already have the tools and many new technologies. Political will is here. We already have the plans and strategy.”  Now we as a civilization must engage and deliver! As Professor Paul Anastas, Director of the Centre for Green Chemistry and Engineering at Yale University, points out:

“Don’t rebuild the economy, build the economy anew. Why in the world would you want to rebuild something that is as flawed as our current status quo? The status quo that will always try to defend itself by saying other things are impossible. We are told that changing our energy infrastructure is impossible, changing our chemicals infrastructure is impossible… this pandemic has shown that all kinds of impossible things are possible, and that they are happening. The trillions of dollars that are being mobilised to be spent on things such as keeping people in their jobs is a case in point.”

Accelerate our sustainability targets

As a University, we have already taken significant steps in our commitment to sustainability. Even before the crisis a strategic plan was published detailing recent achievements and our future ambitions. In our research strategy the University has prioritised areas focused around achieving sustainable development goals including Green Chemicals, Future Foods and Propulsion Futures.

"Much of the best research in the University is built around environmental sustainability - fixing greenhouse gases into re-usable chemical building blocks, making agriculture sustainable to minimise carbon usage, achieving battery-powered flight, and so on. We must build on this with a far-sighted but achievable strategy for making university life truly sustainable, and embedding sustainability more firmly into the university education of our students."

Professor John Atherton, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for the Faculty of Health and Medical Science and Chair of the Environmental Sustainability Committee

But if we want to retain the benefits that this lockdown has given us, in terms of reduced carbon emissions and smarter ways of working, should now be the time to accelerate these targets? We now know that this is possible!  Shutting down much of the University as a physical space and the switch to online learning in little more than a week are proof of this and our Vice-Chancellor, Shearer West, has outlined the need for Nottingham to be agile in its approach to rebuilding and fulfilling its sustainability goals:

“One of the few positives to emerge from the lockdown is the way in which a drastic reduction in travel throughout the world has improved our environment. We should plan for a sustained reduction in our carbon consumption by encouraging much greater use of agile working and digital technologies and reducing our need for travel. I am determined that this will not be at the cost of Nottingham as a global university, so we need a more creative approach to what a global university can be.”

"Our close working relationship with the city council, in particular on sustainability, remains vital."
Professor Pete Licence

So can initiatives such as staff working with greater agility and flexibility (where their work allows) and reducing the amount of travel (especially air travel) undertaken on University business be implemented immediately rather than as an ambition to be achieved in a few years’ time? After all, we’re already doing it. Can we balance the needs of a world-class research and teaching institution without experiencing a reduction in quality and impact?  What aspects of our work continue virtually online wherever we may be?

While some staff have roles that require them to be ‘on campus’, others would arguably benefit greatly from being able to work at home at least some of the time, easing pressures on space, commuting and reducing carbon consumption; should all of our facilities be open in a physical sense 24/7 - can we survive at the interface of physical and virtual domains?

We are not alone in thinking this. Our fellow Russell Group universities are observing the same behaviours, costs and benefits and considering the very same questions. Cities around the world are taking the opportunity to lock-in the demand for sustainable travel in places such as Milan and Paris, the latest global city to roll out emergency bike lanes for the use of key workers and others during the lockdown. 650 kilometers of cycleways - including a number of pop-up “corona cycleways” - will be readied for 11 May when lockdown is eased in France. Now is the time for bold leadership and action.

Continued collaboration

The current crisis has demonstrated the successful working relationships that the University has forged across the city as well as nationally and globally. The recent civic agreement signed by the University with Nottingham Trent University has been further strengthened and their contributions of expertise and indeed equipment has been recognised publicly by the government. Likewise, our close working relationship with the city council, in particular on sustainability, remains vital.

Research projects including the Green Chemicals Beacon are pushing forward exciting collaborations such as our partnership with Yale University’s Centre for Green Chemistry. Continued investment in these relationships will not only help our university attain its own goals for sustainability, but seek to demonstrate once again how green principles can build a new global economy while addressing the needs of a post-pandemic society.

 “When we reflect on the economy and the current state of affairs we’ve done things so wrong for so long, we’ve got nothing but opportunities for innovation. Nottingham has a long history of green chemistry, they are without question a pioneer in this area. Yale and Nottingham share a vision of what the future needs to look like, we believe that it needs to be led with science, but not science only, more science and how it can serve society and the planet”

Professor Paul Anastas, Director of the Centre for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering, Yale University 

 Where do we go from here?

One of the small comforts of Covid-19 is that children are largely unaffected. But by throwing away our efforts towards a lower carbon economy in order to rebuild with ‘dirty’ chemicals and throwaway consumerism are we not just postponing the inevitable? We will effectively be leaving them to suffer the horrors of climate change so that we can enjoy the ‘new-normal’ as quickly as possible. There is a significant risk that we will return to carbon driven trajectories that will bring about irreversible changes to our planet, creating environments that are more susceptible to pandemics like the one we are living (and dying) through now.

Given the catastrophe heading our way (or already happening) because of climate change including food shortages and antibiotic resistance, arguably we would be desperate to act and prevent this, but we don’t like to face hardships. A global burying the head in the sand has resulted, until now. Surely this is the moment when we have demonstrated that we can stand together, perhaps the time has arrived when we should also stand together to face climate change?

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, we now know it’s possible to achieve what we thought was unachievable in a short space of time, both as a University and as a collective community across the globe. We’ve had no choice but to embrace our fears, but are we brave enough to reboot before we press play?

After the virus

Read more from our researchers as we reflect on the challenges we face after the coronavirus crisis, as well as opportunities to rebuild a more resilient, fairer society.

Pete Licence

Pete Licence is a Professor of Chemistry and Director of the University’s GSK Carbon Neutral Laboratory.

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