London Climate Action Week: the power of London’s higher education sector in accelerating climate action

Each year, climate experts from across the capital engage in London Climate Action Week (LCAW), one of the world’s largest independent climate change events. To mark this year’s London Climate Action Week, London Higher and UCL delivered a panel event to explore the impact and power of the higher education sector in accelerating climate action. The week is about showcasing London as a leader in climate action, fostering collaboration both within and outside of the capital, and joining together to find ways to tackle climate change. 

London’s higher education sector is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to climate action. Whether it’s through fostering partnerships with business, producing world-class research and innovation, or supporting local communities, the potential for impact of London’s higher education institutions is indisputable. To consider this impact and the challenges faced by the sector in taking climate action, London Higher and UCL assembled a panel of sustainability experts from across the capital for a discussion and Q&A. Expertly chaired by Simon Goldsmith (Head of Sustainability at the University of Greenwich and Chair of London Higher’s Sustainability network), the panel covered topics ranging from retrofitting to research and innovation. 

The panel discussed the need for institutions to be holistic in their approach to climate action, requiring engagement across all levels and departments. However, it was also noted by UCL’s Professor Tristan McCowan that some of the biggest challenges higher education institutions face in embracing sustainability arise from operating in a marketised sector rather than from the institutions themselves. Professor McCowan also underlined the importance of innovation within the lecture theatre itself. It is not enough only to have information and knowledge about climate change, pedagogy must engage students’ emotions and imagination and create spaces for student-led initiatives on campus and beyond. 

Pippa Palmer, a Research Strategist at London South Bank University’s Net Zero Building Centre, also considered the centrality of communication to climate action, especially when it comes to engaging with local communities. Pippa, who specializes in retrofit skills and has recently been helping map skills pathways for the National Retrofit Hub, advised that when higher education institutions engage in a civic capacity they should advocate for sustainable choices and changes in the terms of the communities they are engaging with. For instance, appealing to how money could be saved through retrofitting. Palmer also outlined the wider impact of universities outside of the capital, such as London South Bank University’s Balanced Energy Network (BEN), which has transferred its learnings from the project to a mining community in Wales. 

Dr Anna Valero, Distinguished Policy Fellow at the LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance and Associate at the Grantham Institute, highlighted how London’s higher education institutions (HEIs) are contributing to net zero through multiple channels and noted the importance of collaboration and interactions between stakeholders across decarbonization and other sustainability challenges. On the subject of connecting up supply and demand for green skills, Dr Valero observed that businesses are seeking clarity, especially in terms of longer timescales and direction from government. She linked this to the collaborative Productive and Inclusive Net Zero (PRINZ) Research Project, which examines how the transition to a clean economic equilibrium avoiding climate change affects growth and labour markets.  

We must not forget that higher education institutions are themselves significant consumers of energy and other resources, and all are on their own sustainability journey. Ola Bankole, Head of Sustainability for the Bloomsbury College Group, contributed his experience as the Head of Sustainability for the Bloomsbury Colleges Group, adding to the panel’s calls for continued collaboration and partnerships and outlining the support that higher education institutions can provide to one another even if they are not necessarily in synergy. 


Simon Goldsmith, Head of Sustainability at the University of Greenwich and Chair of London Higher’s Sustainability network said: 

“London Climate Action Week provides so many great opportunities to learn more about the climate crisis and crucially about what people and organisations are doing to help address the issue that will fundamentally shape our futures. Our universities and their staff play a crucial role.  

The expert panel assembled at the UCL-London Higher event at UCL East clearly illustrated the breadth and depth of action the sector is taking. Staff and universities are engaging and convening the key communities to initiate, test and deliver the solutions the world and our societies need. We heard how we need to better apply our ways of learning across the world to help deliver sustainable change, the role of innovation and policy to accelerate change, how universities collaborate to bring down their collective institutional impacts and how through partnerships we can solve the net zero retrofit challenge. The experts on the panel were matched with the expertise and interest of the audience, the quality of the questions and discussion was high and collectively the panel members and the audience recognised their roles as change agents are now to accelerate the transformation the planet needs.” 

This blog has been written by Anna Gunstone, Policy and Projects Officer at London Higher.