The Discussion (Part 1): COVID19 and climate emergency workshop in the University of Essex

By Asitha Jayawardena

Part 1 of the discussion at the online workshop on COVID19 and climate emergency, organised by the University of Essex.

The 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) was held in Glasgow from 31 October – 13 November 2021. Called COP26, it was hosted by the UK in partnership with Italy. 

Three weeks before COP26, on October 2021, the Centre for Environment and Society (CES) of the University of Essex held an online workshop, titled “Challenges and opportunities of COVID19 on climate emergency initiatives: from the perspective of the Net-Zero carbon emissions policy.”

There were three guest speakers from three countries. Professor Jim Longhurst, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Environment and Sustainability at the University of West England, Bristol (from England); Jane Davidson, Pro-Vice-Chancellor Emeritus at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David (from Wales); and Mr Olumide Idowu, Co-Founder/CEO of the International Climate Change Development Initiative (ICCDI) Africa (from Nigeria).

Moderated by Dr Jane Hindley, the University of Essex, the full programme ran for 2 hours.

On 5 November 2021, an article titled “Higher education, politics and industry – Challenges and opportunities of COVID19 on climate emergency initiatives” appeared on Sustain blog, presenting the three presentations of the three speakers.

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

This post is part 1 of the discussion. Part 2 will appear next.

COP26: Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs)

In line with COP26, Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) are the key and nearly 200 governments should submit their NDCs in with the Paris Agreement.

Jane Davidson: The Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) are agreed through the UN. Each country has to determine the way they will deliver on the contributions that they have agreed.

We have no idea of the plan that the UK government is going to put in place to make this happen. Their instinct is to deregulate, not regulate.

If we don’t regulate the higher emission industry and if we don’t regulate the institutions at the heart of public life where the government has the greatest control because it exercises financial control, we clearly won’t meet our obligations.

Britain reduced its aid budget, so the number of countries in the Global South are framing all their conversations with the British Foreign Office based on the gap that is left in highly worthy projects in countries across the world and therefore compromises the trust. We are not feeling terribly confident that we are going to get what we want at COP26.

The principle about regulations is that nobody wants to be a first-mover. You wait until something happens. And yet they all privately agree that a level playing field can be delivered by regulations.

That level playing field enables them all to be movers at their own phase in new regulations.

And that is where the Covid message is so strong. With Covid, regulations introduced very very quickly that changed behaviour.

The Covid regulations were about citizen behaviour. This is mostly about corporate behaviour. But it also leads to a set of other regulations which is what are the optimum outcomes in the areas of most important in emissions reduction, whether that energy, transport, buildings or food.

In a sense, if we have a key regulation in each of those areas, that would drive major emissions reduction. The moratorium on fossil fuel exploration for some time while people look at how quickly other industries could come up.

This has to be a message about jobs and opportunities. Otherwise, everybody would get into a bunker and some bunkers would be richer than the others. 

UK targets

The UK’s new target of carbon emissions in 2035 is 78% by 1990 levels. Is it enough?

Professor Jim Longhurst: The UK claims the climate leadership in emissions and we think we hit our targets easily.

Have a look at the report to the parliament by Committee on Climate Change (CCC) for the 5th and 6th budgets. We are quite a long way from where we need to be.

When we talk about new targets (of carbon emissions) in 2035, say 78% (by 1990 levels), it’s a target with just goodwill and best intentions rather than a concrete set of proposals for action.

The rhetoric level is high but the commitment to action appears…Well, I can’t see because my glasses aren’t the right focal length.

The initiative of Race to Zero

Professor Longhurst has the enthusiasm to support Race to Zero, a United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Professor Longhurst: Race to Zero is an UN-led initiative and there is a specific element for higher education and further education.

Why don’t they sign up? It may be a lack of awareness of the initiative.

The autonomy argument will be in there somewhere because Race to Zero comes with stringent requirements about the plan to get Net Zero and to report on the actions which they are taking in regular intervals. Therefore, that level of scrutiny and commitment is required if you sign up.

It is an opportunity to show how committed they are to delivering on this agenda. If they don’t join, perhaps that level of commitment is not that great as it ought to be.

Where I have been in contact with students around the world over the last few years always mediated by Teams or Zoom, there is a great agreement of students around the world that they are expecting us to act on this.

I think this is going to be an increasing problem for the institutions in the UK as students start to become ever more concerned about actions that should be taken but they cannot see being taken. And mental health implications or eco-anxiety will become a bigger issue for universities to deal with.

Management of carbon emissions at the supply chain level

How carbon emissions could be measured at the supply chain level? It’s very complicated. For example, consider the food supply chain. We come across food miles. From the UK, unpacked food is sent to Eastern Europe for packaging and then come back to the UK, packaged. How could you look into different scenarios when the regulations are different in two countries to tackle the key problem?

Professor Longhurst: It is incredibly challenging to understand the scale of carbon emissions associated with supply chains. Many suppliers will not know how to present the data even if they have data.

What can those who procure the goods do? Let’s see what higher education does. A significant fraction of 37 billion pounds goes into procurement through the bodies for universities collectively such as Higher Education Purchasing Consortia.

By working closely with those organisations and building into contracts requirements that specify the institutions’ expectations about what carbon disclosure will be made through the purchasing agreements and restricting those who cannot provide that information from entering into the purchasing relationships is the way that I would like to see this evolve.

It is to better understand the carbon-intensive procurement decisions and how we can begin putting the pressure that would drive them down.

We do need to get a grip on this. One of the ways we can do is through those consortia to provide the purchasing arrangements for many universities.

Jane Davidson: With this issue around procurement, organisations can set leads on these issues. There are many examples of the organisations in the public and private sector, which have determined their procurement arrangements and as a result has put elements in our carbon emissions or ecological footprint into their procurement frameworks.

The Welsh government has finally decided, after about ten years of arguing the procurement, that it is possible to effectively ask people to deliver on something equivalent to the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act in the context of the procurement framework.

We started that journey in Wales back in 2008 when we became the first Fairtrade country in the world. That was not led by the government but by the civil society pushing government. As civil society, we should push the government (in the right direction).

As a result of the first Fairtrade nation, Wales has these fantastic links and those links are still surviving. That ethical agenda created partnerships between different communities and many exchange visits are happening between small communities in Wales and small communities in Sub-Saharan Africa. They take that agenda forward.

It is not just about economic issues. It is about the values. It is about understanding. It is about the support for each other.

Livelihood and compensation in the developing world

In the context of COP26, the sort of demands you would like UK organisations to be made about the legacy of the poor industries, are you and your organisations and others in Nigeria demanding compensation as part of a way forward in reconstruction? You talked a lot about sources of new livelihoods and how to create livelihoods and jobs in the context of polluted waterways and seas, also the certification in the north and the kind of demands to support on.

Mr Olumide Idowu: There is a big issue for the country (Nigeria) and the people. One of the key things we are looking at presently is we just submitted our Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) a couple of months ago and in the NDCs there are several sectors such as agriculture and industry and we have some Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) in Net-Zero.

The issue of livelihood is very important and we direct our demand towards energy transition. It acts as one of the key issues we are presently having now.

The president (of Nigeria) promised to plant twenty-five million trees. What is the process? Where are we going to plant twenty-five million trees? What we are demanding is just energy transition in the livelihood of people in the Niger delta.

COP26 is a call to action and, at Glasgow, demand for more energy transition in the rulebook in the Paris Agreement. We are also using the support of the religious leaders and other organisations and the demand for more accountability and transparency in the implementation of our (Nigeria’s) NDCs.


Part 2 will present the rest of the discussion.

Under the guidance of Professor 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 second online workshop is on Education for Sustainability.


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

Centre for Environment and Society (CES)

Race to Zero



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