Weather board at Cambridge University Botanic Garden showing data for 25 July 2019

The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stephen J Toope, kicks off a global day of action with a discussion on the University’s efforts to tackle climate change.

In July this year, staff at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden registered the United Kingdom’s highest ever temperature: 38.7° C. Temperatures in the glasshouses rose to an unbearable 45° C. It is clear that far from being a unique occurrence, this is part of an evolving pattern. It is widely agreed that in the future we will have to contend with increasingly frequent extreme weather events. Climate change is real, and it is happening here and now.

Today sees the beginning of a global week of action on climate change. Around the world, schoolchildren, parents, teachers, environmental campaigners and concerned citizens will be gathering to raise awareness of the dangers posed by climate change. Here in Cambridge, and with the University’s full support, students and members of staff will be among the demonstrators urging policy-makers to heed the advice of the scientific community.

Part of our responsibility as a globally influential academic institution is to take a leading role in helping our society move towards a sustainable future. As young people take to the streets, it is worth reflecting on what the University of Cambridge is doing to mitigate the environmental threat.

Cambridge chemists and physicists are developing next-generation batteries and solar cells – both of which are vital in the transition to a low-carbon economy. Our engineers are supporting the delivery of electric forms of transport that will be essential for the UK to meet its decarbonisation targets. The Cambridge Creative Circular Plastics Centre is developing methods to eliminate plastic waste.

Flood defences

From working with local communities to improve flood defences along the eastern coast, or alerting us to the increased pace of melting glaciers, to identifying populations who are most likely to shoulder the burden of climate change, our researchers are already deeply invested in helping us better understand the multifaceted nature of the challenge.

Our researchers are not only developing greener fuels, better technologies and more sustainable materials, but addressing all aspects of a zero-carbon future: the impact it will have on what we eat, how we work, how we travel, the way we communicate, how we measure economic progress and the way our societies are organised. Crucially, they are producing the knowledge to ensure that policy decisions are based on the best available evidence.

These academic efforts – arguably the greatest contribution we can make to tackling climate change – are backed up by action within the University itself, as we continue to implement the recommendations made by the Divestment Working Group in 2018.

We are leading by example, and demonstrating what is achievable. Our Sustainable Food Policy, launched in 2016, has already reduced food-related carbon emissions from our catering service by a third, and has been widely held up as an example for large institutions.


More recently, Cambridge became the first university in the world to announce that it has adopted a science-based target for decarbonisation, committing itself to a 75% decrease of its 2015 energy-related carbon emissions by 2030, and to reducing them to absolute zero by 2048. We are working with local authorities to plan a future that offers staff practical and affordable ways of travelling sustainably to and from work. Through our Green Impact programme we will be seeking ideas from students and staff on how we can accelerate our decarbonisation.

New initiative

Later this term, we will be formally launching a major new initiative, led by Dr Emily Shuckburgh, harnessing the full breadth of the University’s research and teaching capabilities to respond to climate change and support the transition to a sustainable future, both in the UK and globally.  

The new initiative will develop a bold programme of education, research, demonstration projects and knowledge exchange focused on supporting a zero carbon world. Its ambition is to generate and disseminate the ideas and innovations that will shape our future – and to equip a future generation of leaders with the skills to navigate the global challenges of the coming decades.

It is being launched only a few months after the UK became the first major world economy to legislate for net zero emissions. Eliminating greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 will mean a fundamental change over the coming decades in all aspects of our economy, including how we generate energy, and how we build decarbonisation into policy and investment.

Through the initiative we will engage in active collaboration with other universities and research institutes in the UK and beyond, including the newly established Global Universities Alliance on Climate.

Unite behind the science

As the world’s leaders gather in Chile later this year for the latest round of climate change talks, the University will be decisively setting out its stall to demonstrate how it contributes to tackling this most pressing of global challenges.

I am encouraged by the younger generations’ determination to make their voices heard on the key issue of climate change. I am especially struck by the rallying cry from that remarkable activist, Greta Thunberg, to “unite behind the science”, and to put “the best available science [at] the heart of politics”.

That is exactly what Cambridge is determined to do – not only on this day of climate action, or even this week, but for the long term.

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