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UEA declares a climate and biodiversity emergency

The University of East Anglia (UEA) is joining forces with other organisations around the world to declare a climate and biodiversity emergency.

UEA is one of the world’s pre-eminent climate change research institutions and the work of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) and researchers in other UEA schools, has pioneered understanding of Earth’s changing climate.

The CRU at UEA is responsible for the global temperature record, which first brought global warming to the world’s attention. Researchers at UEA’s Tyndall Centre also help publish the annual Global Carbon Budget, the update for policy-makers on fossil fuel emissions.

UEA's declaration comes on World Environment Day (Wednesday 5 June), the UN's flagship awareness day on environmental issues from global warming to marine pollution and wildlife crime.

UEA has made the most substantive and sustained contribution to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of any University in the world. UEA and the Tyndall Centre is a core partner of the new Climate and Social Transitions Centre.

Vice-Chancellor Professor David Richardson said: “Over the decades researchers from UEA have arguably done more to further our knowledge of humankind’s impact on Earth’s climate and eco-systems than from any other institution.

"As a University we have reduced our carbon emissions by five per cent since 1990 – despite the campus doubling in size. We also fully recognise that we need to move faster to deal with what is a climate and biodiversity emergency and that we all have a part to play in addressing this crisis.”

UEA has also signed up to the SDG Accord designed to inspire, celebrate and advance the critical role that education has in delivering the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the value it brings to our global society.

The Accord is a commitment learning institutions are making to do more to deliver the goals, to annually report on progress and to do so in ways which share the learning with each other nationally and internationally.

UEA absolutely recognises the indivisible and interconnected nature of the universal set of Goals – People, Prosperity, Planet, Partnership, Peace and that as educators we have a responsibility to play a central and transformational role in attaining the Sustainable Development Goals.

Director of the Climatic Research Unit, Professor Tim Osborn, said: “UEA has been monitoring climate change and researching its consequences for almost 50 years. We understand what is causing our climate to change and can assess the significant risks that it brings - for human society as well as for the natural world. 

“Together with other causes, especially continuing habitat loss in many parts of the world and overexploitation of marine species, climate change represents a huge challenge to biodiversity and places many species at risk.”

Professor of Evolutionary Biology and Science Engagement, Ben Garrod, said: “Global climate change is the single greatest threat facing our planet today. If we are to have any chance of success in tackling the problem and reducing its effects then we need to act swiftly, decisively and collaboratively.

"It is estimated that a million species are facing the imminent threat of extinction and predictions as to the effects on the global human population are severe. By joining the growing number of institutions declaring a climate emergency, UEA can help by not only raising awareness but by contributing to solutions through our pioneering studies and leading researchers.

"Now we need every university, every council, government, school, business and every individual citizen to declare an environmental emergency and to work together to ensure we have a future where our food, health and homes are not all at stake."

Dr Lynn Dicks, Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Research Fellow at UEA, said: “Nature is under serious pressure all over the world. Roughly a quarter of all species are at risk of extinction in the groups of animals and plants that have been assessed. Nature is essential for human existence and good quality of life, and yet we are trashing it in exchange for economic wealth.

"Ongoing conversion of wilderness to agriculture, and direct exploitation of wild species through hunting, fishing and logging, are the biggest problems. Climate change is already driving species to extinction as well, and this will get much worse in the coming century.

"Researchers in the Centre for Ecology, Evolution and Conservation at UEA are working with partners in Government, industry and the NGO sector to understand our impacts on nature and to develop strategies to protect and restore it.”

UEA operates a Sustainability Board, currently chaired by the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for the Faculty of Medicine and Health, Professor Dylan Edwards, and with representation from staff, estates and the UEA Students’ Union. It meets quarterly and reviews the performance of the implementation teams that are charged with achieving the targets for the campus.

These teams address the university’s sustainability goals across eight areas: Sustainable Food; Transport; Purchasing; Engagement and Communications; Energy and Carbon Reduction; Sustainable Labs; Biodiversity; Water and Waste.

UEA has a 15 year £300m estate strategy to improve and modernise our buildings, which will include improvements to their energy usage. The 10 year programme to refurbish the Lasdun Wall is just one factor precluding reaching net zero by 2025 and the University supports the UK committee on Climate Change target of carbon neutrality by 2050.  

The decision to declare a climate and biodiversity emergency follows a motion tabled at UEA Assembly on 22 May by Dr Hannah Hoechner, on behalf of Extinction Rebellion UEA. The University’s response to the specifics of the Extinction Rebellion UEA request:

a.  "Formally declare a climate emergency”.  From the introductory paragraph it is clear that UEA detected and recognises that there is a global climate crisis.  We also feel there is a connected Biodiversity emergency.  Our preference would be to declare a “Climate and Biodiversity emergency”, which may help to appreciate their inter-relationships.  We support therefore that UEA should declare a climate and biodiversity emergency. Professor Sir Robert Watson, UEA and the Tyndall Centre, is co-Chair of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

b. “Commit to the target of carbon neutrality by 2025, in accordance with the precautionary principle”.  The University’s view is that this target is unattainable.  It takes the position that UEA should commit to net carbon neutrality by 2050, in alignment and support of the recent recommendation from the independent UK Committee on Climate Change. It is important to note the impressive improvements that UEA Estates and the Sustainability Board have made, in particular this year we are on target for a 50% reduction in CO2 emissions compared to the 1990 baseline data, despite the doubling in size of the university across the period. 

c.  “to appoint a senior staff member of the Executive Team with their sole responsibility being to achieve this carbon reduction target and to promote sustainability”  Two members of the Executive Team serve on the Sustainability Board (Professors Dylan Edwards and Mark Searcey) and they will be joined in future by Jenny Baxter, Chief Operating Officer.  The reporting process for Sustainability Board to ET will be enhanced, with quarterly reports of the Board’s activities. It was not felt that appointing one person was a sustainable way to promote sustainability.

d.  “create a consultative forum to harness the passion and expertise available among UEA staff and students to mount the necessary emergency response”. In essence, this is the function of the Sustainability Board.  At the May meeting there was extensive discussion about the need to enhance the visibility of the Board, ensure it is informed by the depth of research at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and build better engagement with its work to make a sustainable campus. We need to accelerate the pace of change and also communicate what we are doing.  We need also to cement our goals for sustainability into the next iteration of the UEA plan, with clear, explicit targets and ways to monitor our progress.  We recognise that there is much work to be done. 

For more information about UEA’s research into climate and the environment please visit www.uea.ac.uk/research/research-themes/understanding-human-and-natural-environments