Leading the University of Southampton in a Climate Emergency


Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.

We have all heard the warnings from the UN, the IPCC, and scientists here at our own university who state in no uncertain terms that the world is entering a climate crisis, with temperatures already one degree warmer than the pre-industrial era and greenhouse gas emissions rising to dangerous levels. Many staff and students have taken action this year, including at the Climate Strikes and Extinction Rebellion events, including our new Chancellor Ruby Wax who took to the streets of London last month. Hampshire County Council declared a Climate Emergency earlier this year, and Southampton City Council announced a Green Charter – co-signed by the university – which aims to achieve net-zero emissions by 2030.

You may then be surprised to hear that our university has a very poor record on sustainability. Southampton holds significant investments in fossil fuel companies – over £3 million – and is in receipt of millions more in research funding from the fossil fuel industry. Is it not hypocritical and morally wrong for an academic institution that promotes its contribution to environmental science to continue funding fossil fuel extraction? Many universities have already fully divested from fossil fuels and fossil fuel research and we must too.

Despite setting a CO2 reduction target of 20% by 2020, less ambitious than many other universities, emissions have actually increased at our university. A Carbon Reduction Fund which was set up to help meet the target first had its funding cut in half before being closed altogether. Clearly this fund must be re-launched and given additional investment if we are to achieve our emission reduction targets? This revamped Carbon Reduction Fund could spur innovation, enterprise, and education at our university whilst at the same time helping us work towards a sustainable future.

It is not just in tackling carbon emissions that we are failing as an institution. A recent sustainability performance report of universities ranked Southampton at 94th, graded a ‘2:2’. But a lack of data transparency on our performance means that thousands of students graduate each year not knowing that they left a university with a 2:2 in sustainability. The university management must trust our student and staff community with the truth that we are failing our moral commitments to climate change. We have tremendous sustainability expertise and passion at Southampton and we can harness this potential through engaging our community and asking for support in achieving sustainability progress. But will our new Vice-Chancellor Mark Smith take this issue seriously? His previous university (Lancaster) scored 91st in the same sustainability ranking, also failing to divest from fossil fuels or achieve carbon emission reductions.

Mark Smith, will you be the first Vice-Chancellor of Southampton to take the climate emergency seriously? You will show leadership during this climate crisis and a commitment to our futures if you embed sustainability into our university goals. This means integrating sustainability within all key decision making bodies at the university to ensure that we no longer make important decisions such as financial investments or new buildings without regard for the environment. This could be achieved through the appointment of a Sustainability Champion. And we must integrate sustainability objectives with the university’s annual financial reports, after all in whose interest is it in when annual revenue rises at the expense of damaging the planet?

Our Student Union has a role in this too; they must represent the interests of our generation and campaign for this important agenda with university leaders. SUSU, we need you to highlight the importance of these issues to students, after all, we students will experience far worse impacts from climate change than those currently in charge of our university’s direction.

There are green shoots of positivity; the university estate is moving towards electric vehicles, our catering department is implementing a sustainable policy, SUSU has opened a vegetarian and plastic-free café, and our lecturers are standing up for our generation with bold policy proposals, such as a transport carbon offset scheme and a ‘Library of Things’. To succeed in the face of a Climate Emergency requires a revolutionary new approach and engagement from our entire university community, especially university leadership. To this end, a group of students has proposed a Green New Deal which sets out the above priorities. Our proposals already have the support of hundreds of students and staff. They now need to be taken forward by SUSU and university management who will find support and enthusiasm from across Southampton in helping to achieve a secure future for the current and future generations of our university.

Editor’s Note: Since the publication of this article, SUSU and the University have released a joint statement regarding their commitment to sustainability.


Leave A Reply