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Professor Charlie Jeffery: The University is leading on climate change

Climate change is unquestionably one of the world’s most pressing problems. So what are we doing about it? For both individuals and institutions, such as universities like our own, the answer is that we have to change.

The University of Edinburgh takes its impact on the environment seriously. We have been on a journey for several years investigating how we can use all our available levers in combating climate change. That journey has seen many significant challenges. Change does not happen overnight.
But it has also shown the many ways a leading centre of learning such as ours can use its resources, and work with its staff and students for the benefit of people both here in Scotland and in the most vulnerable parts of the world.

Let’s start with our finances. How the University invests the money in its endowment fund has received a lot of scrutiny in recent years. After consultation with staff and students, a Fossil Fuels Review Group was set up and reported around a year ago. High on its agenda was looking at how the University could use its investment and procurement leverage to support the transition to a low carbon economy. As a result, we sold stocks worth £2.5 million in order to divest from coal and tar sands companies, the most polluting of all fossil fuels. Unlike others who put conditions and long timescales around similar decisions, we did this within months – there were no empty gestures. The University also committed to exploring further ways of reducing the carbon footprint of its other investments and, as campaigners had argued, to keeping an eye on the asset values of fossil fuel companies following the so-called ‘stranded assets’ argument and to switch to assets with better returns where we saw falls in value.

The effect is clear. A recent report by financial advisers Mercer said that the proportion of Edinburgh’s portfolio linked to fossil fuels has halved since 2013 and fallen by almost 90 per cent since 2008. In December 2015 the University moved investments into the Global Alpha Choice Fund, which means – like a number of other universities – we filter out companies with any significant interests in armaments, tobacco, gambling and pornography from our direct investments.

These recent developments are in tune with the University’s long-held commitment to using its assets responsibly and ethically, which we recently reaffirmed as the first university in Europe to sign up to the UN-backed Principles for Responsible Investment.
A lot of focus has been put on the so-called divestment debate, but that is only a small part of a much bigger picture of how the University is tackling issues of sustainability and climate change and as a result we are changing the way the University consumes energy. For example, we have just announced £11 million in funding for the Easter Bush Energy Centre.

The University is also one of the UK’s leaders and largest generators in Combined Heat and Power technology. This builds on the £20 million we have already invested in combined heat and power elsewhere in the University which has reduced emissions by almost 10,000 tonnes annually.
More important still is the impact our world-leading research and innovation has in meeting the challenges of climate change. Our researchers have secured more than £50 million over the last seven years to fund work on climate science, emissions mitigation and sustainable solutions. Our experts are at the forefront in identifying the threat climate change poses, particularly to some of the world’s most vulnerable communities, and to develop innovative technologies to help mitigate against it.

We are widely recognised as one of the strongest centres in the world for technologies of carbon capture and storage. Irrespective of what we do on financial markets, highly polluting coal-fired power stations will be a mainstay of energy production in large parts of the developing world for decades to come. What our carbon capture technologies can do is stem the flow of carbon emissions from those power stations pending their replacement by renewables.

However, we are also at the forefront of renewable technologies. We have developed clean energy access for 250,000 people in Kenya, India, Sri Lanka and Tanzania and The School of Engineering is host to world-class test facilities for wave and tidal energy, including the FloWave Ocean Energy Research Facility.

The UK Biochar Research Centre works to investigate a type of sustainable charcoal as a way to fertilize crops and take greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere. We also have outstanding research under way in wind and solar energy generation. Furthermore, The Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation provides a hub for engagement between our research, policy and business. It sits at the heart of a growing low carbon technology sector in this part of Scotland and has now begun to export those technologies, most recently by setting up an offshoot in Hong Kong to deploy energy-saving technologies in the massive Chinese market. Carbon emissions know no national boundaries. If we can make an impact in China, it will have an impact everywhere.

Finally, we have a rapidly growing range of degree programmes in sustainability, low carbon technologies and low carbon business, educating the next generation of practitioners and leaders who will make the difference as we transition to a low carbon society.
The University is rightly proud its staff and students’ work in mitigating the effects of climate change. In many areas – responsible investment, campus energy systems, research, business innovation and teaching – we lead the sector. But we do not intend to rest on our laurels, we can and will do more. The problem of climate change is not going away. Fortunately, neither is the University’s dedication to tackling it.

Image: Cowan, Scottish Parliament

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