‘This global emergency cannot be ignored’ – Master of St John’s reveals action plan to tackle climate crisis

"There is no compromise where climate change is concerned - it is the defining issue of our time"

St John’s has launched a series of ‘big and demanding’ climate crisis commitments to help the College reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The College’s bold manifesto has been launched by Heather Hancock, Master of St John’s, and will be embedded in every aspect of life at one of Cambridge’s largest Colleges.

St John’s has also adopted a policy of divestment in all meaningful indirect fossil fuels investments by 2030 – the College divested from all direct fossil fuel investments in 2013.

Heather said: “Addressing the climate emergency affects every element of our individual and collective lives. There is no trade-off between academic progress and climate change.  We want St John’s to have another 500 years of supporting world-leading learning and research.  That means playing a full and active part in dealing, now, with the potentially catastrophic issue of climate change. 

“At St John’s we have decided to focus our efforts and resources on the big, demanding changes where we can see the greatest return. We are attaching a sense of urgency to making headway on our longer term commitments, and we are determined to ‘do’ rather than just discuss what ought to be done.”

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Last year, St John’s announced its headline ambitions to tackle the climate crisis, in particular to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero before 2050 and to achieve a steep reduction in scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions by 2030.

Now, the College has set out detailed commitments in a manifesto for change - the most challenging is a target to halve scope 1 and 2 emissions by the end of the decade. Scope one emissions are direct emissions generated onsite such as gas burnt in College boilers. Scope two emissions are purchased electricity and heat.

To achieve this, the College has decided to prioritise reducing energy – specifically gas -consumption.  It will need to improve energy efficiency in the College buildings – some of which are more than 500 years old – to meet its target.

A detailed multi-million pound financial plan is now being drawn-up to ensure the College can deliver the changes required without disrupting education and research.  The measures could range from replacing windows, and changing boilers to installing better insulation. Water consumption will also be closely scrutinised.

As part of the manifesto, St John’s has also said it will aim for ‘exemplary zero-carbon standards for any new operational buildings’. This is a significant point as the College is working through a masterplan to improve the student experience and to repurpose existing buildings to future proof activity on its main site.

Heather, who first worked on climate change alleviation more than 20 years ago when she led the Yorkshire Dales National Park, said: “Our headline commitment on reducing emissions to zero by 2050 is a powerful statement.  We’ve now made a bold move towards delivering that commitment, setting targets and deciding where to focus, to have the greatest impact within a decade. 

“We are building the data and evidence base to underpin our programme, and developing a nine-year plan to deliver an ambitious carbon reduction target.  It will be a stretch and it requires the College to keep focused on the big picture. But challenging ourselves is the right thing to do if we genuinely want to make a difference and make it soon.”

These long-term commitments have been pledged in addition to the College’s detailed statement on its day-to-day sustainability activities released last year.

The University of Cambridge named St John’s as one of the Gold winners of the annual Green Impact Awards last year for its debut entry. The College now intends to work towards Platinum status.

Heather added: “St John’s has extraordinarily talented academics working to help the world get its response to climate change right.  That’s the biggest difference the College can make at the global level. Collegiate Cambridge and the city also need to work together on collective solutions for some obstacles we all face – such as getting enough electricity into the centre of Cambridge to replace the high levels of gas consumption currently needed for heating. Finding the right renewable energy solution is essential if we want to reduce emissions across a large part of our main site.”

St John's College was founded in 1511 and is one of the largest Colleges of the University of Cambridge. Its former students include Nobel Prize winners, Prime Ministers, scientists, artists, and leaders in business and industry. Today St John’s has more than 150 Fellows, about 900 students, and 250 members of staff.

The Master, who herself studied at St John’s, spent more than two decades' in senior leadership in the private and public sectors before was elected as Head of House at St John’s. She said the climate emergency commitments have the widespread support of the Fellowship.

She added: “There is no compromise where climate change is concerned. This is something we have to do because the global emergency cannot be ignored - it is the defining issue of our time.”

Published: 7/5/2020

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