Sustainable travel and net zero can only be achieved if higher education institutions radically rethink their approach

Universities have key role to play in climate change progress but need to lead by example
Quote from Ola Bankole and David Leon

‘Net zero’ is a term we see everywhere, but how do we turn ambition into reality? Just because the phrase is widely used, it doesn’t mean its importance in tackling climate change should be diminished. Higher education institutions can and should lead by example in this mission – by drawing on research and expertise in relevant fields, maximising the commitment of the student community and rethinking travel policies.

Earth Day 2022 comes just six months after the much-anticipated and widely reported COP26 in Glasgow. Taking a look at where we stand today, one thing is certain. While there is growing recognition of the impact of climate change on human health, action is not yet happening at the rate and scale needed to address this crisis. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently published its Sixth Assessment Report and the central message is sobering. Climate change is already having a devastating impact on the physical and mental health of people worldwide and if we fail to curb greenhouse gas emissions now, worse is still to come.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that air pollution, unsafe drinking water, zoonotic diseases, and weather-related disasters cause more than 12 million deaths annually. Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to add another 250,000 deaths annually from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea, and heat stress. What we know for sure is that the impacts of climate change are disproportionately affecting vulnerable populations. The WHO warns that the climate crisis poses a significant threat to gains made in the past 50 years in terms of global health and poverty reduction and will further exacerbate existing health inequalities between and within populations.

At an individual level we can all introduce changes to bring about immediate improvements to our own health and cause less damage to our planet. Walking or cycling more not only curbs emissions but improves cardiovascular health and fitness. Similarly, opting for a more plant-based diet can significantly reduce the risk of premature death from chronic diseases.

But higher education needs to go further and faster at an institutional level to really make an impact. With its influential research on climate change and planetary health, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) has a vital role to play in generating evidence needed to address the challenges of a changing planet and training the next generation of leaders, who will be finding solutions in the future. However, we have a responsibility to act on climate change now, and reduce our carbon footprint.

That’s why LSHTM has made a commitment to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2030, an ambitious plan underpinned by its Energy and Carbon Management Plan (ECMP). Achieving this goal includes significant efforts underway to update our London-based infrastructure and make it more energy efficient, as well as investing in more sustainable energy creation in London and at our MRC units in The Gambia and Uganda. This will require a big shift in all aspects of our work as researchers, teachers and students.

A key area of concern is travel. As a global university with many staff, projects and collaborations based around the world, business travel accounts for approximately 70% of our carbon emissions. There is no way we can continue with business as usual; we must act now – choosing alternative modes of travel and continuing to use modes of communication that have served us well during the restrictions imposed on us by COVID-19. We, along with all funders and higher education institutions, must review travel practices and policies, and choose greener options.

Reducing international travel and re-thinking the way we work will affect how we engage with partners and stakeholders around the world. This comes at a time when the question of how we ‘decolonise’ global health and our own history has risen to the top of the agenda. The traditional model of much of our research around the world being run from London needs to change. This in turn will entail changes over the coming years and whether there will be a continuing need for such a high volume of international travel. 

We must embed sustainability and the move towards net zero in all our policies and decision making. As a sector, higher education will have a greater positive impact on the world if we support and learn from each other to make the radical changes needed. Progress towards reaching net zero by 2030 is going to be one of the key indicators of our success as an institution, and we must face up to the challenges and opportunities arising from taking a new approach to things like travel. LSHTM has already made important steps to lead the way in ringing in a new era of public health with planetary health at its centre. It’s time to build momentum and we hope other higher education institutions will join us on this journey.


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