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Kate Zerrenner headshot

Long Before COP26, This University Led on Climate Action

In Glasgow, one of Europe’s oldest universities has been a climate action leader, long before the city was named host of the upcoming COP26 climate talks.
By Kate Zerrenner

Less than a mile and a half from the Glasgow venue where the COP26 climate negotiations are taking place sits one of Europe’s oldest and highly-ranked universities - one that is taking its role as climate leader in the host city seriously.

Taking the lead before COP26

The University of Glasgow (UofG) did not wait for COP26 to arrive on its doorstep to take action on climate. In 2014, it was the first university in Europe to pledge to divest from fossil fuels, followed by a declaration of a climate emergency in 2019. "As a university,” Rachel Sandison, the universitys vice-principal for external relations, told TriplePundit, “we feel that it is our civic duty to do all that we can to find solutions to the climate emergency and to influence others through the example of our leadership sets.” She added that the university expects to reach full divestment by 2024, with reallocation of approximately $25 million (£18 million) of current investments over a 10-year period.

UofG also consulted with staff and students to develop its sustainability plan, "Glasgow Green," which was released earlier in 2021. The plan sets forth a goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2030 and lays out specific projects to meet that goal, including energy efficiency improvements, more efficient heat pumps, and solar power installations. Emissions have already fallen 13 percent compared to 2015 levels and are on target to meet an interim goal of a 20 percent reduction by the end of this year.

The university will use verified carbon offsets to help meet the carbon neutrality goal, at which point they will review the offset policy. Further, in addition to offset projects in developing countries, the university will undertake projects in its backyard, such as reforesting land or restoring peatland in Scotland. In addition to their environment benefits, these projects can offer research and learning opportunities for the university’s academics and students. This is in line with national initiatives that seek to rewild parts of the country, improving biodiversity, increasing carbon sinks and building resilience to help address climate change impacts.

Approaching climate action internally

The universitys sustainability plan also works alongside UofG’s new strategy of creating more cooperation in teaching and research. This strategy “articulates a vision to bring inspiring people together through a shared common purpose,” Sandison told TriplePundit, “unlocking our vast potential as a world-changing community by working in partnership. We recognize the importance of collaboration and connection, and this is never truer than when responding to the key global challenges of our time.”

One key pillar of both strategies is the engagement of students. The students pushed the university to divest from fossil fuels, and, according to Sandison, they continue to push the universitys staff to do more sooner on climate change. To that end, in 2020, the administration created the Center for Sustainable Solutions both as an interdisciplinary hub for climate work, hosting the university’s student internship program and as a place in the larger community for external education about climate change. The students involved in the center also help inform university policies, such as the development of “Glasgow Green. And as a leader in scientific study in the U.K., it has expanded its academic offerings to include more climate-related courses.

Working with the local community

Collaboration goes beyond academic for UogG to the city itself. “Glasgow is also one of the most socio-economically diverse cities in the world. There is a real danger that climate-change could further exacerbate the social inequalities already felt within the city,” Sandison said. “By addressing climate change, we can help to tackle these inequalities by finding solutions that support a just transition.” Because of the university’s expertise, she added, “we have a duty to lead from the front.”

One way the university engages with the city is through an initiative called Climate Ready Clyde, the region’s cross-sector plan to create a climate adaptation plan. Launched in June 2021 and supported by the Scottish government, UofG is one of fifteen members figuring out how to build fairer, more inclusive and resilient metropolitan area through a number of targeted steps, such as resources for nature-based solutions in the most vulnerable areas along the River Clyde, coastal areas, and low-lying, low-income urban areas as well as implementing a robust early warning system.

Using its particular expertise, the university is working to ensure Climate Ready Clyde’s innovative, inclusive approach is replicable for other areas as well. The university will take that approach with them to COP26, where its representatives will participate in the proceedings through the COP26 Universities Network, which brings over 80 U.K. universities and research centers to the negotiations to ease government representatives’ access to research and expertise. “However,” Sandison added, “COP26 is not just two weeks in November. At the University of Glasgow, we are focused on the important legacy that COP26 will leave our university community, the city, the country, and the world.”

Making climate personal

For Sandison, she did not expect this role of shepherding the university’s climate role to be in her purview, but she relishes it. As she told TriplePundit, “I have a broad remit that allows me to connect with all of the university’s audiences, covering student recruitment and admissions, international partnership development, marketing and communications, fundraising and alumni relations, and widening access and lifelong learning. This golden thread of external relations provides me with an incredible platform to engage, connect and share our world-changing stories with the world.”

There is a lot of pressure on the COP26 negotiations as all eyes turn to Glasgow. COP was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic, but climate change did not stop raging across the world, and it fact it brought on record heat, floods, drought and wildfires. But beyond the walls of the venue, Glasgow’s residents and academics have the daily effects of a changing climate to deal with. When I was a graduate student at UofG, Glasgow was at the beginning of its renaissance. Now, the city known as the “Dear Green Place” and its oldest university are doing more than playing host to the most important climate negotiations to date; it is ensuring a sustainable future for all Glaswegians.

Image credit: Johnny Briggs via Unsplash

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

Read more stories by Kate Zerrenner