Welcome to what we hope will be a lively and passionate sustainability blog from all sections of the staff and student community at Sussex.
Climate Coffees – A little more conversation and a little more action please….
Posted on behalf of: Sam Waugh
Last updated: Tuesday, 18 January 2022
Hello, my name is Sam. I am your University Sustainability Manager.
Welcome to what I hope will be the first of many lively and passionate sustainability blogs from all sections of the staff and student community at Sussex.
I am honoured to kick off the first blog with my personal reflections from the Climate Coffees held during the COP26 summit in early November. The coffees brought together seven senior leaders from the University Executive with a cross section of Sussex staff to generate meaningful dialogue on next steps in tackling the climate crisis. So, what did we discover from the experience?
Setting the scene
Each of the seven climate coffee mornings were somewhat the same but different. Most of them were quite messy with people informally dropping in and out quite organically with a flat white and a flapjack in hand. The energy and dynamic in the room varied as greatly as the personalities of the senior leaders chairing the discussions. All views were valid. No discussion was censored or staid.
The staff present varied in age and experience from idealistic interns to long service grandees who had been at the University for thirty years. Many academics and professional service staff brought their environmental expertise and personal activism to the table - next to the hot chocolates and cherry bakewells. Sometimes students inadvertently joined the discussion alongside staff by chance or mistake. All were made welcome. Everyone added to the debate.
The human dimension
Climate anxiety is a very real phenomenon. Many staff spoke about how difficult it is not to feel nihilistic when facing the scale of the current climate crisis. Colleagues spoke with vulnerability and power about the dilemmas and anxiety that they face every day, when they go to the shops – asking what should I buy and what is the right thing to do. Many felt confused and hopeless, but they were still trying because, like us, they care about the planet.
This highlighted the importance of exercising personal agency to feel less hopeless. Like the theory of learned helplessness (which hypothesises that depression may result from real or perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation) our staff showed that exercising agency was essential for both making a difference and improving mental wellbeing.
With this in mind it was perhaps unsurprising that the conversations often shifted to the topic of power and ownership. Who at the university did or should have the agency to make change? Is it all of our responsibility to turn off the lights before we go home in the evenings or not? Do people feel just too disempowered and inconsequential to assume individual climate leadership while at work?
An opportunity for agency
Like with all tasks, individuals tend to be more motivated to take environmental action when they are given a sense of ownership.
Colleagues could sense the opportunity to make the University a beacon of hope and good practice but they felt that they needed to create a community of custodianship to realise this vision. They wanted to make the campus feel like their collective home, and be empowered to build a greener world underpinned by our collective sustainability values.
China and India could drag their heels in reaching net zero but together we could be that beacon of hope, kindness and sustainability.
It was time to stop putting the burden of responsibility onto the “management” or individuals and to recognise that we were all in this ship together and needed to take turns at rowing it to shore.
It would not have been a discussion at the University of Sussex without the C word being raised. I am of course talking about capitalism. We asked if growth was good and could it ever be sustainable? Should we ride the wave of consumerism – using markets to innovate our way out of the climate crisis? Or did we need to bring down capitalism first even if we risk running out of time to save the planet doing so?
Either way, there was an excitement at times about the potential to think differently around financing the transition to net zero. Could decarbonisation actually be a fantastic opportunity to bring in much needed capital investment into our estate?
For example, could we create a climate bond scheme Like Lewes Council has done for their citizens? One where staff are invited to fund (and receive a return on investment for) the decarbonisation of the campus? Could this shared stakeholder model also help to foster the sense of common ownership so crucially identified earlier in this blog?
While the previous paragraph is peppered with more question marks than a grammar lesson, one thing became certain during the climate coffees. There is a dazzling array of talent, commitment, passion and enthusiasm at Sussex for tackling the climate crisis together.
As Sustainability Manager, my biggest personal challenge is to be able to harness this enthusiasm in the creation of a network of environmental champions throughout the institution in every area and at every level.
In doing so it will be important that we appeal to the diverse range of intrinsic values (e.g. health, self-development, fulfilment and community belonging) and extrinsic values (e.g. money and image) held by our staff, segmenting messages and opportunities accordingly.
If we get this right we will generate enough agency within our community to make Sussex the beacon for sustainability that we all want it to be. A place where we all feel custodianship for our beautiful campus. Where we co-create one of the most sustainable universities in the world at the individual level, the operational level and possibly even the financial operating level. As John Lennon said – you may say that I’m a dreamer but I am not the only one.
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Specific opportunities for change
Staff were particularly passionate about taking positive action in some of the following areas:
Business travel: Opportunities were identified to set localised business travel carbon budgets and to use algorithms to create lower carbon student field trips. The issue was emotive and it became clear that the new business travel policy needed to be co-created in as consultative a way as possible.
Digital emissions: There was a growing awareness of the importance of hidden digital footprints in everything we do, from searching on Google to deleting emails from our inbox. Digital was not always greener than paper and the staff community at Sussex are eager for further guidance on reducing this important and growing source of emissions.
Biodiversity: The University is fully focused on COP26 but how many people know about COP15 – the UN Biodiversity Conference? We have staff who are passionate in uniting to stop the sixth mass extinction by making the campus, and wider surrounds, a living laboratory for achieving a net gain in biodiversity.
Waste: Staff want to see less waste. They want training and support to recycle integrated within institutional learning and development. They want to see less plastic on campus. They question the sustainability of meal deals and would like more focus on creating a circular economy.
Personal Impact Calculators: There was a hunger for more personal data on the environmental impacts on various decisions at work and for more tools and templates for understanding environmental impacts at an institutional level also.