Climate change: a university determined to make a difference


November 21st, 2022

Vice-Chancellor Professor Shearer West reflects on COP27 and says to tackle the greatest challenge of our time we must accelerate the delivery of sustainable technologies and solutions. 

As world leaders, ministers and negotiators return from COP27, we know that any further failure to deliver urgent action on climate change will push us deeper into extraordinarily dangerous territory.

The 27th UN conference on climate change took place in a year of record temperatures and extreme weather events, with devastating floods in Pakistan and Australia, wildfires in Europe and catastrophic storms in the USA and southeast Asia.

The United Nations warned delegates in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, that collective failure to act on greenhouse gas emissions was rapidly dashing any hope of limiting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5C.

Beyond this tipping point, climate disaster will accelerate, and our planet could be irredeemably damaged. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that failure to prevent average temperatures rising by more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels will expose half the world’s population to life-threatening heat and humidity.

COP27 saw a welcome focus on supporting adaptation and resilience on the conference’s host continent and other areas of the world most at risk. In east Africa today, 20 million people are facing food insecurity because of unprecedented drought, and populations in highly vulnerable regions are already 15 times more likely to die due to floods, droughts, and storms.

Future generations will ask us: what did you do to avert such catastrophes?

The future is too uncertain to risk an answer at this time, but at the University of Nottingham we are doing our utmost to make a difference. We are committed to making outstanding contributions to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which focuses our commitment to secure a fairer, more secure world: delivering zero carbon technologies,  building partnerships with industry to scale up and drive transformational change, putting sustainability at the heart of all university operations, and inspiring our graduates and postgraduates as globally-minded citizens and change-makers.

The delivery of sustainable technologies is vital if the UK is to achieve its 2050 net zero target. Our emerging zero carbon research and innovation cluster will create a regional hub, where we will work with our partners in industry to turn discoveries made in the lab or workshop into innovative products and services.  We will scale up the delivery of these to homes, business, and society. This cluster will support change, generate regional economic benefit and place the UK at the forefront of sustainable innovation.

Our investment in the Power Electronics and Machines Centre will help deliver this vision. The PEMC hosts the Driving the Electric Revolution Industrialisation Centre – Midlands and the world-leading 20MW UK Electrification of Aerospace Propulsion Facility, together with the first independent business unit established by a UK university for the industrialisation of electrical motors and drive systems.

These capabilities to develop, manufacture and test electrical motors will contribute to a revolution in the electrification of aviation and transport.

As a leading partner in Clean Sky 2, Europe’s largest ever aviation research programme, and with the support of partners including Boeing, Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Leonardo, our ambition is to make the East Midlands the world’s foremost location for low-carbon aerospace innovation.

Our partnerships with government and industry will further widen the impact of our net zero research in areas such as green fuels and low-energy buildings.

Our engineers and university spinout Promethean Particles are pioneering bioenergy and carbon capture and storage processes at a North Yorkshire power station, while our research is helping the UK dairy industry reduce its carbon footprint by establishing the value of alternative, sustainable sources of protein in animal feed.

Our Energy Institute meanwhile draws on multidisciplinary expertise, and over 25 years has attracted significant funding from government and industry to address the challenges of transitioning to sustainable energy.

COP27 highlighted the importance of international partnerships and building the resilience of developing economies. In Indonesia, we are working with the Ministry of Transport to develop infrastructure for electric vehicles and support SMEs who are working to adapt conventional vehicles to electric propulsion. A new net zero translation centre in West Java will upskill industries to support the transition of Indonesia’s most populous province to a net zero economy, with an initial target of renewables meeting 20% of the energy needs of 50 million people by 2025.

Closer to home, sustainability informs every aspect of life and work on our campuses. The university has set ambitious, science-based carbon reduction targets: by 2030 to reduce our emissions by 63%, with an aspiration of net zero by 2040 and absolute zero by 2050.

To help us achieve this, we are actively working on solutions to reduce demand for energy, particularly in our building stock, and generate more of our own power; as well as focusing on our supply chains for food, paper, travel, construction materials, IT and lab equipment which together account for around 50% of our total annual scope 3 carbon emissions. We also aim to change our travel policies to reduce unnecessary travel, encourage lower carbon journeys and offset the cost of our travel on the environment.

We are also addressing the small but very meaningful changes in our day-to-day activity, for example by providing water refill points across campus to reduce the need for bottled water; partnering with Too Good to Go, an app that helps businesses sell surplus food and reduce food waste; and introducing carbon labelling on some of our menus to educate staff and students on the CO2 impact of their food choices.

Furthermore, we are supporting our friends and partners in their efforts, by backing the city of Nottingham’s ambition to be the UK’s first zero carbon city by 2028 and working with colleagues in China and Malaysia to improve sustainability in their regions.

The University of Nottingham is the world’s second most sustainable university, according to the UI Green Metric World University Ranking’s latest survey for 2021, and THE’s analysis of REF 2021 places us 7th in the UK for our research power, which takes into account the sustainability, quality, international impact and critical mass of our research.

The greatest challenge of our time remains simply enormous; however, we are determined to make our contribution and to work with our partners to meet this challenge head-on.

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