Climate leadership at the University

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In January, the Principal announced his intention to strengthen the University’s strategic focus on climate responsibility and sustainability by embedding it in the portfolios of specific members of the Senior Leadership Team (SLT).

Bulletin spoke to Professor Iain Gordon, Vice-Principal and Head of the College of Science and Engineering, Professor Christina Boswell, Vice-Principal Research and Enterprise, and the Provost Professor Kim Graham, to find out more.

What will your role and focus be?

Professor Iain Gordon (IG): “As Head of College, I want to support and encourage research and translation in topics related to climate and sustainability; to increase awareness of the role we play in society, particularly with opportunities to work with students, and ensure we are rigorous in making our operations environmentally friendly and low-carbon.

“I also chair the Sustainability, Civic and Social Responsibility Committee and the Edinburgh Earth Initiative’s governing board.”

Professor Christina Boswell (CB): “My role oversees research and innovation activity. Tackling the climate and environmental crisis is one of our three core research and innovation missions. We need to mobilise our research to help address urgent challenges around carbon emissions and biodiversity – through expanding the pool of researchers in this area, mainstreaming sustainability into our research, and maximising the impact of the research we do.”

Professor Kim Graham (KG): “As Provost, my role facilitates a unique, strategic birds’ eye view of climate change and sustainability initiatives. It has the senior leadership and influence to help deliver a bold, ambitious step-change that embeds climate responsibility and sustainability in all our work, via cross-institutional working, collective commitment and buy-in, management and refurbishment of estates, and crucially through our research and international partnerships and engagement.”

Why is it important to embed this work within SLT?

KG: “Climate change is the most significant societal challenge we face and it needs strong, ambitious and co-ordinated leadership across the University. Our commitment to tackling climate change reflects the University’s broader civic and social responsibility. We are very mindful that, rooted in the West and the UK, we have historically generated more than our fair share of carbon. In many parts of the world, including some of the world’s poorest, those who are experiencing the worst impacts of climate change are those who did the least to create the problem. UNICEF estimates that the health, wellbeing and even lives of hundreds of millions of children across the world are now at risk and their futures will be determined by the choice we collectively make over the next decade.

“It was important to the Senior Leadership Team that, when Professor Sandy Tudhope stood down as University Lead for Climate Responsibility and Sustainability, this area remained a key focus, and that decisions taken by SLT, as well as the University Executive, continued to deliver on Edinburgh’s Zero by 2040 ambition. I am delighted to be working with Professor Iain Gordon to provide leadership and strategic focus in this area on behalf of all Heads of College. This is complemented by Professor Christina Boswell’s work to develop net zero research and innovation partnerships, and builds on the excellent work of Sandy, as well as Dave Gorman, Director of Social Responsibility and Sustainability, and other staff involved in creating and delivering the University’s Climate Strategy.”

CB: “Research and innovation will play a fundamental part addressing climate change. That means developing technologies and adapting our behaviour so that we can deliver clean energy, ensure our food system is sustainable, create carbon neutral cities, support carbon accounting and investment in clean energy, and build a circular economy. Tackling these challenges requires research and innovation across all our disciplines, working with partners in our local community and globally.”


What are the immediate and long-term aims for this work?

IG: “I’m keen that we create a deliverable but ambitious renewed Climate Strategy for the University. In the long term, I’d like the work that we do to have had a significance in local and global efforts to address the climate crisis.”

CB: “I am working to develop a number of concrete initiatives to grow our research on climate and sustainability, and leverage funding and impact. This includes expanding our partnerships with government, industry and local communities so we can maximise the positive benefits of our research.”

KG: “To identify opportunities and initiatives to successfully deliver our Zero by 2040 ambition, as well as consider how to deliver the significant investment needs aligned to this goal.

“We have estimated that we probably require at least £300m investment to deliver our ambitions to decarbonise our estate and embed sustainability in the refurbishment, construction and maintenance of our buildings. I also wish to ensure we continue to be recognised for our sector-leading work in this area, as evidenced by our place in the QS world rankings for sustainability, and that we readily share our expertise to help others deliver positive change that reduces carbon emissions, addresses biodiversity loss, mitigates against extreme weather events and provides safe and healthy environments for all.”

[Note: The University ranked first in the UK and fourth in the world in the QS Sustainability Ranking 2023. Read the announcement of our sustainability ranking.


What upcoming project are you looking forward to working on?

IG: “I’m enjoying finding out the breadth of what people work on, and better understanding the impact this has on communities and individuals whose lives are substantially affected by climate change.

Colleagues within Science and Engineering are also working on a College-wide course on sustainability and I’m really excited by that. This has already brought together quite different perspectives – from geography to mathematics – and is trying to create something new, that makes sense across a wide set of disciplines and can work at scale. Crucially, it also gives everybody taking part the challenge and opportunity of seeing and hearing things from a variety of perspectives and trying to bring that into their own learning. We’re only just starting with this, but it’s already fascinating to see the energy created from the collaborations. Speaking of which, there is a lot of great work going on around the theme of energy in the University, and I’m also looking forward to supporting that more.”

KG: “There are so many projects it is hard to answer that question! I am interested in how we might develop a major programme of activity around climate change which brings significant benefit to communities in the region, and helps drive Scotland more effectively towards a carbon neutral future.

“The new postgraduate scholarships the University has launched with the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program are also really exciting. We will work with African partners to deliver the programme, which focuses on equipping young people to promote sustainable change. The scholarships emphasise recruitment of young women, forcibly-displaced youth, and young people living with disabilities. This is a fantastic example of the type of partnership working which sits at the heart of the climate change agenda if we are to effect meaningful and lasting change.”

CB: “I’m looking forward to co-developing a framework for ensuring sustainability issues are mainstreamed into our research. This will be a voluntary framework we will encourage researchers to engage with!”

The 2020 cohort of Mastercard Scholars


What has been your highlight of climate leadership work so far?

KG: “There are key initiatives that are worth mentioning. For example, the £5m sustainable campus fund which ran from 2016 to 2021 identified hundreds of projects to save energy, carbon and money. Our recently awarded £10m European Union grant, MAXBlade, is a fantastic opportunity, bringing together leading international research on tidal energy with the aim of playing a key role in expanding this crucial source of renewable energy, and positioning the University, Scotland, and the UK as internationally leading in this area.

“Our free online short courses on climate change and sustainability have really impressed me. That several of these courses are available in different languages, with the content specific to different regions, underscores the global relevance and reach, not just of these courses, but of the University’s wider work in this area.

“We are all playing a part in addressing climate change, across the whole of the University; that for me is the highlight.”


What do you think the biggest challenges will be?

CB: “If our ambitious plans are to be achieved, we will need to keep up momentum and ensure we have the right support in place for researchers, innovation and impact work, and for forging and expanding key partnerships.”

IG: “The financial costs around decarbonising are high, technology is always improving, psychologically change is difficult, and climate change and environmental degradation are usually not immediately visible in Edinburgh. I think there will be a challenge to act soon enough, on the right issues, and at the right scale.”


How might this work impact staff day-to-day?

KG: “Our sustainable travel policy affects staff by asking them to consider climate conscious travel. Taking a flight in the UK will generate, on average, five times as much carbon as travelling by train. While taking the train results sometimes in longer travel times and more expensive fares, we know cutting back on flights is the right thing to do.

“We will need to consider other ways we can reduce our carbon contributions, such as enhancements to sustainable food policies, ensuring vehicles are electric, where possible, and encouraging less car travel. Beyond that, I want to support colleagues to embed climate change and sustainability into their own thinking – from how we run our offices and manage our space efficiently, to how we design our learning and teaching and the travel it generates, the opportunities for students to take practical action on climate and how we identify ways to test new solutions and link to the ecological crisis we are also facing.”

CB: “An expansion of research and innovation in this area will mean more activity – both by researchers and the professional and technical staff who support our research. Longer term, I hope adopting a climate and environmental focus as one of our key missions will have ramifications for our priorities across the whole academic mission, including teaching.”

IG: “The University is incredibly diverse in what we do, day-to-day. I’d hope we will have good ways for everyone to think about the climate impacts of how we currently work and the agency to be imaginative in finding ways to reduce those.”


How can staff get involved?

KG: “The University’s Social Responsibility and Sustainability (SRS) team is dedicated to improving sustainability and climate action on campus. Their training courses, events, support, funding and advice help improve colleagues’ sustainability skillset and equip them to make a difference.

“I would also encourage colleagues to develop their knowledge of the climate crisis by taking the accredited, award-winning Carbon Literacy Training; join the Sustainability Champions Network to lead positive change in their area, and participate in our Sustainability Awards.”

CB: “If you’re carrying out research and impact in this area, or would like to orient your research to climate and environmental issues, your first port of call should be the Edinburgh Earth Initiative (EEI). It acts as a node for mapping research and innovation across the University, brokering connections and showcasing our work to external audiences. Check out their website, and find out how you can get involved.

Find out more:

Staff: climate, sustainability and you

Social Responsibility & Sustainability

Edinburgh Earth Initiative


Any final thoughts?

KG: “I would like to thank all staff and students who are committed to action in this area, as every little bit helps. Just seven per cent of the world’s population delivers more than 50 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions. Only by acting collectively, as a community, can we take the bold decisions and actions that are needed to deliver positive change and ensure we protect our environments and society across the world.”

Photography: Sam Sills; Chris Close; Gift Chukwuonye