Putting sustainability at the heart of the agenda

arial view of windfarms with clouds in the sky

Professor Malcolm MacLeod, Senior Deputy Principal and Chair, University of Stirling Corporate Sustainability Steering Group:

This week the University of Stirling is proud to join, along with other higher education institutions, a campaign led by our sector body, Universities UK. Made at Uni: Climate Action highlights the critical role that universities are playing in taking action to address climate change.

Academic research has been central to understanding climate change since global heating was first identified, and researchers around the world continue to make a vital contribution to addressing the climate emergency. It’s been clear for some time that the impact of climate change is measured not just in data and projections, but in the consequences that changing temperatures have on communities around the world. Whether it’s the increased risk of natural disaster or food shortages in the global south, or the changes that more prosperous nations will have to adopt to reduce our carbon-intensive lifestyles, the state of the environment we inhabit is linked inextricably to the way we live.

Last year for the first time, more than 10 researchers from the University of Stirling attended the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, taking their own research to the heart of the international conversation. The message from Glasgow was clear; if we want to avoid a catastrophic rise in global temperatures, action must be taken in a range of interconnected areas to ensure a workable – and just – transition to a more sustainable future. 

It’s more important than ever, therefore, that we consider our own actions as a university and what we can do, as a place of learning, of research, and employment, to contribute to that effort. ‘Business as usual’ is not an option. We must reassess the very way that we do business to ensure that sustainability is embedded at the heart of our operations.

The Scottish Government has been clear in its vision that Scotland should become a net zero nation by 2045, and the University has also set out its own pledge to become carbon neutral by 2040, signing up to the Race to Zero for Universities and Colleges. However, it’s not just because of external expectations or government targets that we are striving for a more sustainable future; it’s part of Stirling’s DNA.

The University’s first Chancellor, Lord Robbins, was clear that the University should deliver ‘education with a purpose,’ preparing the next generation of leaders to go out into the world and change it for the better. This involved equipping graduates with the skills and understanding necessary to navigate the challenges of a fast-changing world, leaving it a better place for generations to come. More than 50 years since our foundation, that remains at the heart of our mission, and addressing the challenge presented by the climate emergency is no exception.

The University’s Sustainability Plan published this week, sets out our roadmap to becoming a more sustainable institution. In charting a course for the years ahead, we know that the University has already made good progress. The latest data reveals that the organisation’s carbon emissions for 2020/21 have reduced by 51.5% since 2007/08; a clear downward trend across 12 consecutive years.

However, we know that we have many more miles to travel. While the reductions made to date haven’t been easy, the challenge of reducing emissions further becomes increasingly complex. It’s only through thoroughly reassessing our activities and taking an integrated approach, that we can catalyse the change in culture necessary to become a genuinely sustainable institution.  

To achieve this, our Sustainability Plan adopts the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, identified by the United Nations; goals which recognise the integrated nature of the structural challenges facing communities across the world and the holistic response needed to overcome these in a manner which works for all. In signing up to UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Accord, the University has publicly committed itself not only to protecting our environment and to the reduction of our own carbon emissions, but also to the development of a range of socially sustainable solutions including climate justice and actions to reduce poverty, improved access to education, and progressive work practices that better support the well-being of our staff and students.

The Plan is divided into six themes covering energy usage, waste management, finance and sustainable procurement, people, green travel and partnerships, biodiversity, and sustainability in teaching, learning and research. Put together, they encompass the actions to be taken across our estates and corporate operations to lower our institutional footprint, e.g. through driving efficiencies and introducing technical innovations, but also consider our role as an educator, employer, and actor in the local community. That involves implementing progressive work practices to support a better work-life balance, and to embed the principles of equality, diversity, and inclusion throughout everything we do. It also involves equipping our graduates with the competencies, skills and attributes to meet future sustainability challenges, embedding sustainability within our research, and helping communities across the world to find sustainable solutions.

At the heart of this effort is embedding Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) across our educational offer. ESD empowers learners with the necessary knowledge, skills and values to address the interconnected global challenges we are facing, to reflect on their own actions, and to provide local and global perspectives to develop novel and sustainable solutions. That means moving beyond the biological and environmental sciences to genuinely embed sustainability as a mission at the heart of our curriculum, from economics and business, to law, heritage and social policy.

It’s not just about supporting our own students and graduates, however. The University has a significant footprint in the local community and recent developments reflect the extension of our efforts to regional partners. Scotland’s International Environment Centre (SIEC), founded through the Stirling and Clackmannanshire City Region Deal with investment from the Scottish Government (£17m) and UK Government (£5m) will pioneer an innovation community in the Forth Valley, driving forward a just transition to net zero ways of living and working.

As well as supporting research and innovation programmes which have the potential to become international exemplars, such as the Forth Environmental Resilience Array, SIEC also works with partners in Stirling and Clackmannanshire councils, and Forth Valley College, to ensure that the provision of vocational skills across the region can capitalise on the transition to a zero-carbon economy. It’s through partnerships such as this that the University is driving forward sustainability at a regional level, supported through further collaborations such as the ‘Forth Valley for Net Zero’ campaign which commits Stirling to sharing best practice with our strategic partners and to help the region achieve net zero status by 2040.

We know that we have a long way to go on our decarbonisation journey, and we don’t yet have all the answers. However, it is an essential journey that we must make together as an institution – each any everyone of us, together with partners – if we are to truly change our relationship with the world around us for the better. The University’s Sustainability Plan charts the next phase of that journey, and I invite you to join us in taking the next steps.

Theme by the University of Stirling