Higher education, politics and industry – Challenges and opportunities of COVID19 on climate emergency initiatives

By Asitha Jayawardena

This is the report of the first online workshop held on 7 October 2021 and organised by the Centre for Environment and Society of the University of Essex.

When Covid-19 covered the entire UK in March 2020, forcing people to work from home, the universities found that teaching could be repurposed for online learning while research could be redirected, said Professor Jim Longhurst, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Environment and Sustainability at the University of West England, Bristol, on 7 October 2021.

With Jane Davidson from Wales and Mr Olumide Idowu from Nigeria, he was launching the online workshop organised by the Centre for Environment and Society of the University of Essex.

Professor Longhurst on higher education

Apart from repurposed online learning and redirected research, Professor Longhurst said estates can be repurposed into providing testing, vaccination and hospital facilities, leadership could be empowered and enabled rapid change, and the rules, regulations and procedures could be amended in pace to move in an emergency of Covid-19. In short, he viewed that that universities could be fleet of foot.

In the context of higher education in the UK, he mentioned 160 institutions with 2.3 million students and 485,000 international students along with 429,000 staff. Staff and students add up to 4.1% of the UK population, he said, with an annual expenditure of £37 billion. The potential impact on net-zero from the higher education sector was huge but it required significant change, he said.

In both short- and long-term implications, the climate emergency is more serious than Covid-19. Can universities respond with the same intensity and commitment?

“The opportunity is there, students and increasingly staff are expecting action,” said Professor Longhurst. “To do so, it requires mitigation and adaptation action in the mission of higher education, across teaching, research, campus management and civic engagement.”

Drawing attention to the Higher Education Climate Action Toolkit published in November 2020, he mentioned that it identified practical higher education-specific steps that higher education leaders can take to advance sustainability and respond to the climate crisis. The first of its kind, the toolkit covered campus management, teaching, research and knowledge exchange, community engagement and leadership and governance.

Turning to the University of Essex, he said that a climate and ecological emergency was declared on 9 December 2020 and the electricity contract was switched to a provider which produced 100% certified carbon-neutral energy. The university’s Sustainability Sub-Strategy and Climate Action Plan 2021, he said, contains embedding sustainability into research, education, operations and estate, building resilience to the impacts of climate change.

Finally, universities and colleges could play a powerful role in decarbonising society, Professor Longhurst said. They can:

  • Use their role as thought leaders to help shape public opinion and build the case for urgent action.
  • Educate their students about climate change.
  • Research the causes and consequences of climate change.
  • Research solutions for living in a changing climate.
  • Use their financial resources wisely to reduce indirect emissions.
  • Rapidly reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases.
  • Ensure that their campus is adapted for an adverse future climate.
  • Work with local stakeholders to jointly address local climate issues.
  • Join the UN Race to Zero http://www.educationracetozero.org

Jane Davidson on education and politics

With the experience of over 20 years with universities either as the minister of education in Wales or the university system, I understand that universities should take long term decisions for the benefit of the future generations and they take commensurate climate action, said Jane Davidson as the next presenter from Wales.

From 2000 to 2011, she was the minister for education and then minister for the environment and sustainability in Wales. Since 2019, she is Pro Vice-Chancellor Emeritus at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David.

“I love my university but I do think that universities are generally incredibly broad. I am deeply shocked,” she said.

Wales is an interesting experiment in legislating for future generations it is the first country in doing so. Back in 1999, when the National Assembly in Wales was set up, we were given the duty of promoting sustainable development in everything we did, she recollected. What we found in the first ten years is that it is really difficult to promote sustainable development in a way that needs outcomes in delivery.

By the time I took on the responsibility, I realised that promoting sustainable development was not enough, she explained. My first step was to ask the cabinet to adopt sustainable development so I asked the first minister of the cabinet whether or not they would support the idea that this would become our central organising principle and they said, yes! Absolutely and a brilliant idea, she said. So, I thought my work is done.

“Then, nothing changed,” said Davidson. “Still, it might become the central organising principle, but the phrase levelling up or build back better. Everybody said it but there was no plan.”

Under the law of Wellbeing of Future Generations, every public authority in Wales has to take actions under pillars environmental, social, cultural and economic, said Jane Davidson. The goals and actions set in the act must contribute towards prosperous Wales now defined as innovative and low carbon and supporting decent work.

Turning to eco-anxiety, she does lots of work in the area with young people and she does not want to encourage eco-anxiety.

“I do tell young people that I am angry at the universities for not working with young people to help tackle their eco-anxiety by doing more in these university settings to demonstrate the very universities that young people who pay huge amounts of money can help tackle their eco-anxiety by activism,” she said. “We all feel better if we act.”

In her book #futuregen: Lessons from a Small Country, the headline by Nikhil Seth of UN Assistant Secretary-General, says, “What Wales is doing today, the world will do tomorrow.” It’s a story of how one small nation (i.e., Wales) responded to global climate issues by radically rethinking public policy for future generations.

“The story of Covid and the story of climate is that there is no excuse that the government not to act quickly. There is no excuse that the institutions not to act quickly,” concluded Jane Davidson. “Covid has shown us they can so that we just need to scrap the incrementalism and get on with the job because we have a duty to future generations.”

Mr Olumide Idowu on industry

Being independent in 1960. Nigeria is one of the biggest countries in Africa with the largest population, said Mr Olumide Idowu, Co-Founder/CEO of the International Climate Change Development Initiative (ICCDI) Africa as the final speaker, from Nigeria.

Industrialisation is the key factor of economic development, he said. If we don’t take urgent action against climate change, it will penetrate deep into the economy.

Moreover, the environment is affecting Covid-19, he said. Looking from the northern part of the country with desertification and deforestation, we can see that we were unable to get people to understand that the Covid issue is very urgent.

For example, in the southwest of Nigeria where I am presenting, we see the issue of flooding, he said. Mental problems and property loss cause a deep issue for the community.

As we are now in the COP26, what are the things that we are taking forward to the leaders to take urgent action? Can we drive financing adaptation and mitigation activities? What are the opportunities you can invest in climate change? What is the impact on the upcoming generations? As a country, are we able to meet the target of our Sustainable Development Goals? Mr Idowu asked.


With three speakers, Dr Jane Hindley from the University of Essex moderated a discussion, which unearthed some revealing developments in climate change.

Under the guidance of Prof Kelum Jayasinghe, the Director of the Centre for Environment and Society of the University of Essex, Dr Chaminda Wijethilake organised the event with the support of Asitha Jayawardena.

The next event would centre on education.


Speakers from 4 countries to talk about COVID-19 and climate emergency at Essex University workshop

Centre for Environment and Society (CES), University of Essex https://www.essex.ac.uk/centres-and-institutes/environment-and-society


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