Lancaster University held its staff-only 'Big Conversation on Sustainability' on 24th February. Despite the exclusivity of the event, which took place on campus during UCU strike action (therefore excluding striking staff), a Spineless muckraker gained access and produced the following report.
After failing to declare a Climate Emergency, ignoring the pleas of thousands of staff and students, University management's 'Big Conversation' on sustainability took place today. Ironically, it wasn’t very big.
Considering that invites had only been sent out to staff, and not students, and the fact that the conversation the occurred on a day on which academics are striking meant participation was lower than it could have been. While not explicitly mentioning the strike Professor Simon Guy, Pro-Vice-Chancellor Global (Digital, International, Sustainability and Development) who opened the session, did acknowledge that certain members of staff weren’t present for 'various reasons'.
However, he did explain that this was only the beginning of the conversation and students would be included during a similar conversation to be held on the 11th March (also a strike day). The fact that students and staff who happen to be UCU members are required to cross the picket line to feed into University management's sustainability programme speaks volumes about the status of trade unions on campus.
Guy’s speech focused on what the University was already doing to promote the sustainability agenda, from the often noted Wind Turbine and BREEAM architecture award for the LICA building. This then fed into a more detailed look at what the University is doing from Andrew Burgess, Director of Estates, Facilities and Commercial Services. While the intro did highlight a lot of the positives, Burgess did note where more work needed to be done, particularly on travel. If emissions produced from university travel was to be offset by tree planting would cover all the university’s land in 3 years. Burgess described offsetting as 'simply sticking a plaster on a large wound', and he believed while it was a good project, more needed to be done to reduce the university’s emissions.
The conversation then broke out into smaller groups to discuss several questions set by university management:
On a scale of 1 to 5, how sustainable are we at the moment? And why do you think that?
Attendees quickly acknowledged that this was a hard question to answer following a presentation that had focused solely on the positives. However, it did not stop the majority of attendees from stating that the university was somewhere between 1 (not very sustainable) and 2 (somewhat sustainable).
Thinking about your role and your work, what are the biggest challenges and barriers you face in improving our environmental sustainability?
Answers to this question focused mainly on a lack of resources and budget as well as the feeling that academics especially junior academics feel the need to travel to conferences to get their work known.
What are we doing well to address our travel and procurement sustainability impact, both individually and collectively as a university?
Attendees spoke about how bus passes were subsidised (perhaps not enough), the fact that it was now hard for students to get parking permits thus reducing amount of people driving on to campus, as well as the work of Green Lancaster. One attendee also spoke about how good students were in understanding the emergency that we’re facing and that they perhaps should be listened to more.
What more can we do to reduce our travel and procurement sustainability impact, both individually and collectively as a university?
Radical ideas were proposed here, such as a Bailrigg train station (said somewhat in jest, receiving a round of applause from attendees and further jokes). Attendees appeared to focus mostly on travel and procurement, and the need to change academics' opinions on flying. Attendees noted how other universities have a hierarchy scheme of staff travel whereby staff must consider more sustainable forms of transport before being allowed to purchase plane tickets.
In all, the meeting did start producing some interesting ideas, but can definitely only be seen as a starting point considering many staff that may have wanted to attend were striking, and students were not included in this debate. This was acknowledged by Professor Simon Guy as he drew the session to an end.
It was very positive to see a small demo of students organised by with placards demanding that the "Big Conversation” becomes bigger, and reiterating the demands of the Climate Emergency petition. Professor Simon Guy spoke to them, no doubt encouraging them to attend the student event on the 10th March which he described as a “parallel” talk to be had.
Guy spoke about how Lancaster could and should be looking at a being a leader on the Climate Emergency. Spineless would encourage the university to follow the lead of the majority of UK universities in divesting from fossil fuels. Spineless would also suggest that LUSU and the University look at students' union policy – to get the University to declare a Climate Emergency, and commit to becoming net carbon-zero by 2030 – passed by over 1,000 students at the AGM in October.
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