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Scientist says lessons learnt during coronavirus pandemic ‘must be applied to climate crisis’

"Fundamental change is needed and we should not lose sight of that during the coronavirus pandemic and its aftermath"

The academic in charge of co-ordinating St John’s College’s ambitious new plans to tackle climate change has said the world must not ignore the ‘potentially catastrophic’ threat on the horizon.

The College, which is one of the largest Colleges of the University of Cambridge, has released a statement on the climate crisis acknowledging the emergency facing humanity and setting out a plan to change its activities in response.

Professor Chris Jiggins, an evolutionary biologist and chair of the recently formed Climate Crisis Committee made-up of St John’s students and academics, said: “Changing our way of life has been hugely difficult and very painful during the pandemic. But it has shown that we can make very dramatic changes very quickly and we now need to apply the lessons we are learning during the pandemic crisis to our plans for how we can tackle the climate crisis more effectively.

“Scientists repeatedly warned that the world was overdue a global pandemic and we could have heeded their advice to be prepared so that we were ready with good stocks of Personal Protective Equipment and extra hospital beds.

“But humans aren’t very good at engaging with existential risks to our way of life. It is easy to think that the climate crisis is something that can be addressed by future generations but we have now seen the impact of being poorly prepared during the Covid-19 pandemic and we should use these hard lessons to prepare ahead of time for the climate crisis.

“Fundamental change is needed and we should not lose sight of that during the coronavirus pandemic and its aftermath – the world was poorly prepared for the pandemic and it is poorly prepared for the climate crisis which could be even more devastating on a much bigger scale. Now really is the time to be ‘guided by science’ and St John’s recognises the urgency of this challenge and will steer all College activities towards a zero-carbon future.”

A wildflower meadow at St John’s College. Photo credit: Paul Everest

In the newly published Climate Crisis statement, St John’s College commits to:

  • Significantly reducing carbon emissions across its operations. Including reducing energy use and switching to zero-carbon energy sources
  • Improving energy efficiency of College buildings
  • Reducing air travel and offsetting carbon emissions where necessary
  • Continuing to improve the sustainability of food purchased by the College
  • Managing water use
  • Examining carbon emissions from its investments

Professor Jiggins, discussing the new policy, said: “Although there was a huge amount of concern amongst the Fellows, students and staff, until now there hasn’t been an overarching College policy. Lots of good things have been happening for many years but we realised St John’s needed a clear leadership plan to set out how we can move forward.” 

The Climate Crisis Committee has been set-up in addition to the College’s Sustainability Forum. The former will look at the ‘big picture’ and will focus on issues including how land owned by the College can be managed to improve biodiversity and improve carbon sequestration (capturing and storing carbon dioxide to help reduce global heating). The Sustainability Forum already focuses on the day-to-day issues such as how to reduce plastic waste in the College even further, introducing plans to reuse rainwater, and encouraging people to consume less and recycle more. The University of Cambridge recently named St John’s as one of the Gold winners of the annual Green Impact Awards.

Professor Jiggins added: “Sustainability is already a guiding principle in College activities. Much of the food used in College catering is sourced locally and plastic packaging has been drastically reduced. Vegetarian and vegan options are actively promoted and are increasingly popular. Food waste has been significantly reduced over recent years. In all of these areas there remains, of course, a great deal more to be achieved.

“We now have baseline data on our carbon footprint which will help us identify what we can change and where we can have the biggest impact. Every aspect of College life will be scrutinised and we will set measureable targets so we can monitor our progress. We are committed to making changes to do our bit to avoid a climate catastrophe.”

Published: 5/6/2020

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