Student eco groups discuss sustainability on Penryn Campus

Penryn Campus | Lars Mucklejohn

Falmouth University and the University of Exeter have made sustainability a key feature of their 2030 strategies, and both declared climate and ecological emergencies in 2019.

Students across both universities have also shown a commitment to climate issues by establishing various eco societies and campaigns. Lars Mucklejohn spoke to several groups about the climate crisis and sustainability in Cornwall.

Renewable Energy Society supports the professional development of Renewable Energy Engineering students at Exeter.

It said that “catastrophic environmental changes” would “have a significant negative effect on agriculture and lifestyle” in Cornwall. Elsewhere, the climate crisis would increase poverty in less economically developed countries.

The Climate Action Tracker’s recent projection of 2.4C global warming and “lacklustre commitments” during the recent COP26 summit were noted by the society. It said that governments have implemented “very few concrete emissions targets and methodologies”, adding: “Further issues of recycling old pledges by adding signatories to new pledge schemes have been rife, especially with UK government initiatives to end coal.”

It argued that “all electricity and heating” on Penryn Campus should come from renewable sources and be backed by “guarantees of origin and additionality”. Energy could be generated by “sources on campus, such as solar panels on roofs, or new wind and solar generation elsewhere, potentially combined with battery storage”.

The society criticised international field trips “involving environmentally damaging flights” and poor public transportation options for students to commute to campus.

It said that “institutions with a legacy of exploitation and imperialism in recent centuries” held most responsibility for the climate crisis. “Lifestyle changes are difficult at the best of times, and this can be made even more frustrating when efforts made to recycle or limit meat consumption are met with systemic failures such as inefficient reuse of waste as well as more expensive alternatives”, it added.

MarineWatch is a society aiming to celebrate and protect local marine wildlife, organising regular boat trips, coastal events, and beach cleans. It helps the charity MARINElife to conduct surveys and monitor marine wildlife for their national database. 

It works with local organisations which promote sustainability and conservation, including AK Wildlife Cruises in Falmouth. It added that sustainable fishing permits in Cornwall would be “essential for protecting habitats such as unique maerl beds and preventing shifting baseline syndromes to ensure continual income from both tourism and fishery exports”. 

“Too little, too late” was how the society described COP26, adding that the government’s “unrealistic targets” have not been backed up enough in action or law. It also noted that it would be difficult for industries in low income countries to quickly switch to green energy.

It considered Exeter’s proposed 30% reduction of carbon dioxide emissions by 2025 “an achievable target” and suggested that, since the Cornwall campuses are so close to the sea, the universities could focus more “on the impacts of plastic waste within aquatic systems”.

The society observed that Exeter’s approach to sustainability is largely “top-down” and could benefit from a more “bottom-up” approach “to ensure student, as well as environmental, wellbeing”.

EcoSoc is a society “dedicated to all things nature and wildlife”, aiming to get students “engaged with science, the environment, and the natural world”. 

It said that sustainability would be particularly important in Cornwall, with “such a rich and historical connection to the sea and nature”. “Despite this, infrastructure for sustainable living can be lacklustre and make our job as educators much more difficult”, it added.

The society said that it was “cautiously optimistic about the results of the COP26 conference and our government’s climate policies, but it comes at the risk of being all talk and no action”, with there being “little accountability at these conferences”.

“We can push to have our government keep their word for initiatives like these and contact our local MPs to ask them how they will represent the local environment”, it added.

The society praised the universities’ climate emergency declarations and Penryn Campus’ reduction of single-use plastics and packaging, with room for improvement in “offering more plastic-free alternatives to common items and hopefully start to phase them out over the coming years”.

It said that a sustainable future would require significant and inconvenient lifestyle changes, adding: “People have gotten used to the low price and ease of access to unsustainably produced meat and exported vegetables, disposable bottles, and the fast delivery of small items.”

Vegan Society includes “vegans, vegetarians, and flexitarians”, providing social events and a like-minded community for discussions.

It said that, “as wealthier members of the global community”, developed nations would need to uphold sustainability for the sake of poorer countries “that will be most affected by climate change”.

The society said that the government’s December 2020 white paper laying out how the UK would reach net zero emissions by 2050 seemed “very promising”. It added that “market-based mechanisms like removing subsidies from harmful processes like trawling or beef farming would be a good start and relatively easy to implement” to reduce the nation’s climate footprint.

It said that providing more vegan options would be an effective way to increase sustainability on campus. The Sustainability Café “should be at least fully vegetarian, with half its options being vegan”, it added.

The society also criticised long-distance flights for international field trips.

It said that “education, accessibility, and price” were the main factors limiting a more widespread embrace of zero-waste stores and a plant-based diet. It added that, although some major supermarkets have pledged to become more sustainable, the government would have to pressure companies “to take that first step”.

Seaweed 4 the Planet is a student campaign promoting “the incorporation of seaweed into our everyday diet” to “bring the people closer to nature and push for sustainable behaviour changes”. It noted the “many health benefits” of seaweed and that it “can be foraged locally on the Cornish coast in a sustainable way”.

It described COP26 as politically “quite disappointing”, criticising Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s use of a private plane to fly back to London. However, it praised “many promising scientists, companies, and organisations presenting their innovative work” and “sparking some hope on the horizon”.

The group said that providing more local and plant-based options on campus would have a significant impact on the local carbon footprint.

It also argued that “the hidden amount of energy and carbon from the digitalisation of university learning should be evaluated—we think unnecessary video streaming, emailing, and cloud data needs to be cut for a more sustainable learning experience”.

Observing “a lot of misinformation floating around about sustainable behaviour”, the group criticised companies “using greenwashing techniques to deceive customers into believing they are making the right choices”. It added: “It is important to stay well informed and not get overwhelmed.”

The Falmouth & Exeter Students’ Union has established a student-led Green Committee, with the aim of “applying pressure to FX Plus and the universities to make sure change happens”.

This academic year’s SU presidents have stated aims to reduce the carbon footprint of field trips, create a food waste system in partnership with local homeless shelters and farmers, introduce more biodiversity, install composting facilities, reduce single-use plastic and packaging waste, and have more transparency in university climate policy.

In response to this article, a spokesperson for the University of Exeter told the Anchor: “All electricity supplied to Penryn Campus is backed by electricity generated from renewable sources.” They said that all FX Plus vans are electric, with 12 additional campus electric vehicle charging points planned for next summer. Emissions have reduced by 47% since 2005, and the universities are working with Cornwall Council.

Catering is removing plastic straws and bottles, and the university aims “to find replacements for all single-use plastic in the future”. All outlets “cater for vegetarian and vegan diets”, with the “vast majority” of the Sustainability Café’s stock being vegetarian or vegan.

“The University of Exeter has developed key governance structures at all levels within the institution to facilitate the delivery of our climate agenda”, they said, adding: “This gives staff and students across the entire institution the ability to get involved in identifying opportunities and assisting in the development and delivery of solutions”. Examples include the Bike User Group, which aims to “encourage people to ride their bikes to campus”.

They said: “Within the university’s Environment & Climate Emergency Policy Statement, we have the commitment to ‘require justification of all international field courses offering long-haul options, and look for alternative low carbon alternatives’. Work is underway in this area, and through our college climate action plans, reviews of our existing field trips are taking place, and low carbon options are starting to be offered (e.g. our Northern Spain Field Course).

“The impacts of plastic waste within aquatic systems is a major priority, and leading University of Exeter researchers are shaping policy and influencing change with regard to marine plastics.

“The Environment & Climate Emergency Team has identified that the digital environment is both a key challenge and opportunity for meeting our net zero carbon targets. They are developing a specific climate action plan for our IT infrastructure which will identify solutions for ensuring we are able to account for all the carbon associated with our digital environment and explore options to reduce this.”

Falmouth University said: “While some of our planned sustainability initiatives were affected by the pandemic last year, we are proud to have implemented a number of investments and developments which put us firmly on course to meet our sustainability ambitions in our 2030 plan.

“We’ve changed our approach to buying and procurement and invested in dedicated technology to enable us to better track and monitor our carbon emissions both as individuals and as an institution. We’ve overhauled our curriculum, so that sustainability will be a core part of the learning outcomes for every course, we’ve opened our Sustainability Café, which is focused on food provenance and locally sourced ingredients. Our estates team continues to implement improvements to our landscape and biodiversity using green energy and sustainable stewardship methods.

“We recognise the scale of the challenge ahead to drastically minimise the impact of our operations on our campuses. We’re proud to be a part of the COP26 Universities Network and profiled by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in recognition of our work on the circular economy.

“We’ve detailed our ambitions and our new approach to achieving our zero-carbon future in a Sustainability Report, which is available to view on our website. We will be reviewing progress on our plan in the next twelve months and look forward to sharing more updates with our student and staff community.”