Sustainability at Falmouth and Exeter: ‘We’re in a crisis, and we should act accordingly’

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Falmouth University and the University of Exeter both declared climate and ecological emergencies in 2019 and have made sustainability central to their 2030 strategies. Dozens of other UK universities have also made declarations signalling their commitment to tackling global warming.

Lars Mucklejohn spoke to the Cornwall campuses’ sustainability team about why the higher education sector is increasingly focusing on the climate.

“Traditionally, the way universities are run is not sustainable”

Jake Causley is sustainability coordinator at Falmouth. His responsibilities include identifying and improving areas of its strategy to embed sustainability across the institution.

His position was established shortly after the university declared its climate emergency. On the declaration, he said: “The university was taking its first steps on a journey where, along with the entire sector, institutions were stepping up to work together towards sustainable development and harness students’ passion for combating the climate and ecological crises.” “From our perspective, what it signifies is a recognition of the emergencies at hand and that we’re in a crisis, and we should act accordingly”, he added.

Jake stressed “urgency” as a key takeaway from COP26, having attended the climate summit on behalf of the university in November. He pointed out that the world is already past the threshold of certain global warming but would need to respond “really rapidly” to prevent crossing further milestones, such as 1.5C.

On the Cornwall campuses in particular, he said that Falmouth’s position as a low-lying seaside town means that it could feel the effects of climate change more directly.

Jake explained that the university’s sustainability policy is spread across three key themes: “learning and teaching”, “environment and operations”, and “people and behaviour”. With two Cornwall-based members of the sustainability team, he highlighted how “we’re trying to embed these changes and responsibilities into departments”.

He said that “we want to redesign our curriculum to embed sustainability in it, so we believe the biggest impact we can make as an institution is teaching the students that come here the appropriate skills for sustainability and a greener future”. He added that teaching students about sustainability is part of “making sure people leave a better global citizen”.

“Traditionally, the way universities are run is not sustainable”, Jake said, highlighting their usefulness as “bridge to the young adult population” and “big influence” on government policy. He described how “we’re here to provide a service for students, and if that service isn’t safeguarding the natural world, it’s putting the people we care about the most at great risk”. “The people that come here are the future—they’re the people who are going to need to adapt and be resilient in this changing world”, he added.

As “one of the biggest institutions and employers” in Cornwall, he said that the universities have a responsibility to protect the local environment and work with Cornwall Council, which itself declared a climate emergency in 2019, on “larger-scale initiatives”.

“It’s not really a peripheral programme—it’s quite a serious undertaking”

Oliver Milliner is head of sustainability at FX Plus, which delivers campus services on behalf of both universities. His responsibilities include leading its sustainability strategy and working with university management to make sustainable changes.

He said that the universities’ climate declarations have involved “creating a strategy and a plan, heading towards a series of targets”, adding: “It’s not really a peripheral programme—it’s quite a serious undertaking.” While the two universities operate “in slightly different ways”, he described how sustainability was “core” for both, and their policies have been “really accelerating towards their targets”.

Oliver highlighted Exeter’s long-standing focus on contributing to climate research, adding that sustainability has been “absolutely critical and central to the way they want life to be on campus”.

The university’s Environment and Sustainability Institute opened in 2013 and is located on Penryn Campus, conducting cross-disciplinary research into solutions to the climate crisis.

He noted that universities across the country have been “learning from each other” on climate policy, with the sector increasingly promoting sustainability and “good ethics”.

The 2021 People and Planet University League found that 92 UK universities had made commitments to exclude fossil fuels.

Oliver said that the natural environment is an especially important part of life around the Cornwall campuses, himself having chosen to study there partly “because of the lifestyle”.