Opening remarks – Clean, Healthy and Sustainable Surrey – CHeSS

13 November 2019

Jointly hosted by the Urban Living and Sustainability Research Themes

Recently, I attended the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee meeting at Westminster – it was entitled “Climate Change – is there a Plan B?”

It was explained that during the warm periods over the last million or so years CO2 levels fell in the range 260-270 ppm.  And during the periodic ice ages this level dropped to 180-200 ppm.  Currently, we sit at 413 ppm – roughly the same as 3 million years ago, when the world was 10-12 °C warmer than today and the sea level was 8-10 m higher.

I heard that above 2 °C warming, known as the tipping point, that we seem to be now approaching, possibly within my lifetime, the resulting instability will make predicting difficult, and unexpected dramatic changes may occur, such as instability in the polar vortex or in the Gulf Stream.

Some of Britain’s senior climate scientific leaders, including UCL’s Chris Rapley, and the former UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser Sir David King, discussed plans to dramatically reduce CO2 emissions to below 350 ppm by such moves as refreezing the Arctic and the Antarctic, and creating new CO2 sinks on a global scale, for example, by seeding whole oceans with iron oxide to create global-scale algal blooms. And to dramatically lower global temperatures by creating the equivalent of an atmospheric nuclear winter – the equivalent of a massive volcanic eruption or meteor strike.

My goodness! I was not prepared to hear such radical propositions presented by such senior scientists to our mainstream civic leaders – and in parallel – just as I did not expect to consider stockpiling goods in the light of Brexit, which I have now also been forced to consider.  The ground is indeed moving.

It was not even 10 years ago that the basis of climate change, and its reality, were both disputed. Now, the facts would appear to be widely accepted across society’s leaders, and very radical global-scale solutions are being considered.

Walking home later that week from an event in London, I came across a sea of tents in Trafalgar Square, as the members of Extinction Rebellion made their own case for addressing the Climate Emergency.

On reflection, it struck me that members of the Houses of Parliament see eye to eye with members of Extinction Rebellion – even if their methods for effecting change differ.

So, I would like to applaud you all in coming together today – if Extinction Rebellion and the UK parliament can separately come to the same view, then nothing short of perfect unison should be our ambition here today.

Clearly, it is by working together – pulling in the same direction, that we shall be effective, and we all have a part to play and the scales on which we play our parts vary widely: from individual acts of consumption; to creating and influencing policies for global carbon trading.

Ultimately, we need to help people mobilise – and we need to sway the general public on the scale of change needed so as to empower politicians to act nationally and globally on our behalves. Our politicians, at least some, are swayed, but they do not see that commitment in the eyes of the people they represent.

How do we change that?

That very good question might be one that the University of Surrey, working with you, its collaborators and communities, is able to tackle.

We might be able to address the tricky policy question of how to educate the public so that politicians are responding to voter demand rather than sticking their necks out to lead voters.

Or we might provide the public with a Climate Change ready reckoner – a simple way of evaluating what is important – what to do. Stop flying. Recycle plastic bags. Don’t take such long showers. Buy local. As a member of the public, what is the most important thing I can do?  How do I prioritise?

A lot is happening in this space at Surrey – our Centre for Environmental Sustainability and Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity sit at the heart of the Sustainability Research Theme championed by Professor Richard Murphy.  And much surrounding the Urban Living Research Theme, now led by Dr Chris Jones, relates to climate change and sustainability.

In this year’s inaugural Times Higher Education University Impact Rankings, assessing performance against a range of UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Surrey ranked 44th in the category assessing contributions to research and engagement with policymakers and other partners (SDG 17 – Partnership for the Goals). And ranked 9th in the Good Health and Wellbeing category (SDG3), in particular, recognising the contribution of our graduates to the health professions.  Overall, we ranked 100th in the world – a platform to build on!

Our Executive Sustainability Steering Group meets regularly to consider institution-wide approaches to sustainability in research, in the curriculum, in procurement, and to address broader questions such as how the University should approach the Climate Emergency and Net Zero Carbon Targets.

And of course, we are responding to the national agenda, in particular, the Industrial Strategy, with its four pillars of artificial intelligence and data, aging society, clean growth, and future of mobility. 

Much research we do under these headings impacts the sustainability agenda, from sustainable tourism, to earth-observations of the impact of human activity, made in future from a clean, debris-free space, made possible by Surrey Space Centre.

But together, we could do so much more.

I welcome you to this afternoon’s event: Clean, healthy and sustainable Surrey – CheSS, and I invite you to enter into the spirit of open discourse and collaboration, after all, what university scholarship is all about, and scholarship with a noble purpose indeed – to ensure the sustainability of our species, our values and our way of living.