The documentary A Life on Our Planet sees David Attenborough reflect on his own life and grief for the loss of wild places during that time, he then offers a vision for two futures one in which we do nothing and one in which we change the way we live.

Screening it for the University community on 1 December 2020 provided a starting point for a fascinating panel discussion about climate change between Essex colleagues from our academic and professional services community. Below is a summary of the discussion, which we hope will give you inspiration and encouragement to see how you can change your own impact on the world around us.

The panel included:

Dr Natalie Hicks - Natalie looks at how one of the biggest stores for CO2 is in the oceans. She works on how much carbon is stored in systems and how to maximise a natural solution for dealing with climate change. 

Dr Michael Steinke - Michael looks at environmental change and the effects of ongoing climate change on certain systems. He has carried out many studies from oyster research to global trace gases that have an effect on the atmosphere. 

Dr Tom Cameron – Tom is an ecologist and looks at relationships between human behaviour and outcomes in eco systems or populations/communities, specifically coastal areas. He addresses the kind of questions and policies that cross the terrestrial and aquatic divide. 

Daisy Malt – Daisy is one of our Sustainability Managers at the University of Essex. She manages engagement within the Sustainability team as well as wider strategic projects including the management of the sustainability sub-strategy and policies linked to improving waste reduction and recycling on our three campuses.

What do you think is the most important factor that needs to change to really affect the rate of climate change? 

 Tom stated that consumption is the most important factor that determines climate change. “You are consuming energy whilst reading this, the light that powers your room, the screen you are reading this on. Consumption is a big factor that we need to change if we want our actions to have an effect on the rate of climate change.” Natalie agreed but says we also need to change people’s attitudes towards climate change. She said: “We have got used to living a lifestyle where anything we want, we can have straight away, for example, through Amazon Prime.” 

Michael comments: “We all have a part to play in order to benefit us all and A Life on Our Planet has a positive role to play despite the awful truth within it as it offers solutions, we just need to make this happen. The environmental problem is essentially a social problem, we need to encourage people to think about how climate change will have an impact on their lives.”

Daisy discussed how the Sustainability team have been having discussions about the kind of messaging that they need around climate change. “Are individuals detached from the ice caps melting and the forests burning or would relatable messaging work better allowing people to connect their own actions to reducing climate change?”

Social change will come with younger generations, Tom suggests, as they are aware that this is their future. Tom firmly believes that COVID19 has taught policymakers that engagement is only part of influencing individuals and it has to be policy driven.

Is there a need to tie these social and environmental issues to business or corporate needs and how do we do that? Can individual change be enough without the buy-in of multinational corporations?

We are seeing more and more evidence of companies trying to have an eco-statement according to Natalie: “As a consumer, you can look into this when you looking to buy products to make an educated choice as to where you're going to get something. Politically we will start having better international direction when all countries are playing the same way in terms of dealing with climate change. The UK is going to host COP 26 (This is where countries present or commit their role in reducing climate change.) This will put pressure on the British government to make bold statements about what policies they will introduce.”

By spending your money in places that you know are at least more sustainable or avoiding those aren't sustainable you're supporting the market in a way that you want to see things changing, suggests Daisy. “From the University perspective there is a lot of work going into delivering a Sub-Strategy around sustainability and there will be a Climate Action Plan from next year which actually begins to embed things far more.”

Companies are trying to make a profit, Tom pointed out, and if they get a feeling that the market wants to be green, they will try to be green, or at least appear to be. “We think we are doing a good job with reducing plastics but plastic production has not declined; if anything it is increasing, so we need to be careful thinking about the schemes that we do and why we're doing them.

What impact can we each have? 

Natalie felt that lockdown gave us the time to explore the idea of making little changes. She eats vegetarian or vegan one day a week and has made a conscious decision to have less red meat and reduce her food waste. She suggested people encourage others to change their behaviour and keep learning. She recommended listening to the podcast What Planet are we on.

 Michael said everyone can reduce their impact on the environment: “I would say grow in confidence that you can say no more often, you should question ‘do I really have to buy this stuff?’ We are a developed society; we like to have nice things but just consume less of it. Take on board that recycling isn't actually the answer to our problems, it's still waste so try and avoid even paper things where you can because it still needs to be processed.”

It is important to engage with others, Daisy said, making sure that you're talking to other people about these issues, try and persuade people who might not normally take action to think about it. “I think engage politically and think about how you use your vote and who you want to run the country,” she said.

One of the most important things you can do in your household, according to Tom, is reduce food waste. “Try to influence people that in order to reduce their carbon footprint they should reduce food waste…It’s individual personalities that matter for policy, get thinking about who you can influence, do you follow a celebrity online, do you follow an MP online, could you influence them?” There are things that we could change in policy tomorrow that would immediately affect the carbon footprint of the UK.”

It was great to bring people together to talk about these issues. The panel felt strongly that the situation is very serious and there are lots of challenges to overcome, but they also highlighted individual actions we can take. 

The Sustainability Team will be running another panel discussion on the 15 March 2021. The discussion will look at issues such as humans involvement in climate change and declaring a climate emergency.

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