As the threat of climate change becomes increasingly urgent, our institution plays a vital role in addressing this global challenge. Research conducted at the University is central to understanding the causes and consequences of climate change, as well as developing solutions and innovations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the impacts of a changing climate.
In this article, we explore how research contributes to climate change and its solutions, our community’s understanding of this research and the steps that the University can take to ensure that our research practices align with a sustainable future.
The role of research in addressing climate change: The pros and cons
Research is critical for developing solutions to address climate change, including mitigation, adaptation and resilience strategies. The findings from research can lead to innovations in renewable energy, carbon capture and sustainable land use practices. Our University is also central to educating and training the next generation of climate scientists and policymakers, ensuring that they have the necessary skills and knowledge to tackle this complex challenge.
Moreover, research can lead to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by providing evidence-based recommendations for policy and decision-makers. For example, research into the benefits of public transport, bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure can inform city planners on how to design sustainable transport systems that reduce reliance on cars and decrease emissions. Similarly, research into sustainable agricultural practices can inform policy development and farming practices that promote carbon sequestration (the capturing, removal and storage of carbon dioxide from the Earth's atmosphere) and reduce emissions.
Despite the significant, potential positive impact of research on climate change, research conduct and culture also contribute to carbon emissions. Research is often resource-intensive, requiring large amounts of energy and materials to conduct experiments, store data and travel to conferences and fieldwork sites. Additionally, the culture of international travel to conferences and meetings can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, as can the need to store vast amounts of data on servers and supercomputers. Furthermore, research can also be associated with high levels of waste, as disposable materials are often used in experiments and the disposal of hazardous waste can have environmental consequences.
“Our research is helping to fight climate change across many aspects of society - from how we build, manufacture and travel through to investigating human behaviour and psychology. We have world-leading experts and research centres pioneering change through innovative technology and policy solutions. Part of our commitment to supporting excellent research at the University means looking at how we can minimise its impacts on climate change.”
Professor Julie Barnett, Associate Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research)
Aligning research with a sustainable future
To ensure that our research contributes to a sustainable future, we can consider how our research practices align with a low-carbon future. This could include rewarding research that addresses the climate change challenges (last year’s survey identified that 40% of students and 39% of staff would support this approach) and adopting best practices that reduce the environmental impact of research activities.
However, it is important to note that making these changes may require significant effort and investment from researchers. Therefore, we need to make sustainability easy and accessible for researchers by providing incentives and support to encourage them to adopt sustainable practices.
By sharing and using energy-efficient lab equipment, promoting teleconferencing over international travel, and encouraging the use of sustainable transport options for fieldwork, are just some of the ways that we can reduce the environmental impact of our research practices.
Race against time: Navigating a 1.5ºc future
Results from the 2023 Climate Action Survey found that 29% of staff and 38% of students are conducting research that aligns with a 1.5ºC future. But what does that mean?
A 1.5°C future refers to the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The 1.5°C goal is considered more ambitious than the previous target of limiting warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels. While a half-degree difference may seem small, it can have significant impacts on the planet, including more frequent and severe heatwaves, droughts and flooding, as well as impacts on human health, food security and biodiversity.
While achieving the 1.5°C goal is a significant challenge, it is essential to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change and create a more sustainable future for all. A greater understanding within our community is essential to ensure that research is aligned with global climate goals and contributes to sustainable development.
Living Lab: An innovative solution for a warming planet
Embracing the concept of Living Labs offers the University an opportunity to demonstrate a joined-up approach to research and sustainability.
Our organisation can be considered a microcosm of wider society, with a wide variety of building types and uses and over 20,000 students and staff alongside considerable visitor traffic. The transition to a low-carbon campus and the decarbonisation of our operations therefore provide real-life opportunities for research and enriching the student experience.
Many of the changes we need to go through (organisational, cultural, policies, processes, behavioural, technical, financial, for example) are also mirrored in many other parts of society and we are therefore an ideal test-bed for exploring the best ways to make these changes as we all transition towards a net zero, sustainable world.
This approach, joining together our action on carbon and our research and teaching on carbon, is known as a Living Lab and exemplifies the many benefits of our ‘whole institution’ approach.
Implementing sustainable research practices
Research practice is a crucial area to consider in addressing climate change. As a leader in education, the University is working to ensure that research activities and practices are designed and conducted with climate change in mind. This includes reviewing the ethical implications of research activities, minimising waste and considering the environmental impact of research activities when developing research proposals.
The University has already shown significant commitment to ensuring sustainable laboratory operations through LEAF (Laboratory Efficiency Assessment Framework). Since the pilot started in October 2021, over 50 University laboratories, across seven departments, have joined LEAF.
By adopting best practices and embracing the Living Lab approach, we can ensure that our research practices not only align with a sustainable future but also achieve far-reaching impact in supporting others in this transition.
With these actions, we can lead the way in addressing the urgent challenge of climate change.
This blog is part of a series of articles highlighting the results from this year’s survey. You might also be interested in:
This survey was conducted in November 2022.
This survey was completed by 4764 respondents, representing 41% of University staff and 14% of students.
This survey was commissioned by the Climate Action team with methodology devised and results analysed by Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh, Dr Paul Haggar and Kaloyan Mitev.
Members of the University of Bath community can access the collated survey data.
If you have any questions about this survey, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.