Alongside the climate emergency declaration, the university has committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2030. Behind the scenes, Paul has been working for many years in his role as a trade union environment rep to try to make the university more sustainable.
Paul, whose day job is in IT, has always had a passion for environmental issues. And he was keen to take on the role of environment rep within his union when the post became available.
Paul says: “My first step was to run a survey, to ask staff what was important to them in terms of green issues and where they wanted to see the union push for change. It was open to union members and non-members alike. We had a large number of responses, enough to make the results quite powerful. There were lots of ideas and a real groundswell of support for change.
“At the time, staff didn’t feel that the university looked or felt like a very green institution. It was doing things such as installing heat pumps and solar panels but these weren’t very visible. Most people didn’t know about them. It was clear that staff need to feel like the institution is doing the right thing from the environmental perspective – and that their personal changes are going to be matched by institutional changes from the university.”
Armed with the backing of staff from the information gathered from the survey, Paul was successful in securing union representation on the university’s environmental steering group. Paul also requested a meeting with the university’s environment manager and deputy vice chancellor. They agreed a list of practical things to improve sustainability that they could work on together.
Importantly, the university recognised that Paul needed facility time to carry out his role effectively. This means he is given paid release from his day job for part of his working time to carry out his trade union duties as an environment rep.
One key area of change staff wanted to see was action to support sustainable travel.
Paul explains: “At the time, the cycle to work scheme had lapsed, and the university wasn’t putting its weight behind the infrastructure for low-carbon travel. As a union we negotiated hard to get the university to offer staff season ticket loans and to get the cycle to work scheme back in place.
“The cycle scheme is now up and running and with much better terms for staff and independent cycle shops. The university has also provided free membership of the local on-street cycle hire scheme to all staff and students. And it now offers a staff season ticket loan scheme for both bus and rail.
“Another issue for us has been that the car parking allocation is not transparent. It is often about seniority rather than need and does not encourage sustainable or active travel. Some have called for car parks to be closed but as a union we argue that there needs to be a just transition. Some people’s lives are completely set up around the car, and some of those who use the parking are our least well-paid staff. So simply removing the parking would be unjust. We have to come up with a way of transitioning that doesn’t impact on those people unfairly and suddenly.”
Paul says that another key theme that staff identified in the survey was the way the university looks and feels.
“The campus still doesn’t feel as green as we would like it to. But there is now a thriving biodiversity group which is looking at natural planting. People want to do the right thing. If they can see that we have proper segregated recycling facilities and we are visibly doing more to support nature on campus, it encourages people to do more themselves.”
The union has also been involved in campaigns encouraging more responsible, greener investment by looking at better reporting and managing of climate change risk by investment and pension funds. “As a result, the university has now divested from fossil fuel companies,” says Paul.
The union worked closely with students on this and the campaign to get the university to declare a climate emergency. It is also supporting the campaign for the Universities Superannuation Scheme to divest from fossil fuels, tobacco and landmines.
Since the declaration in November 2019, Paul says that activity has noticeably stepped up:
“The university has appointed a Dean for environmental sustainability and he has been keen to ensure that unions are fully part of this work. We would like to see sustainability as part of all the academic course programmes. And a task and finish group has been set up to come up with ideas of what we should do to meet the university’s commitments in view of our Climate Emergency declaration. I think the Covid-19 emergency should help to clarify our work on that.”
Paul explains: “There are still issues that need to be looked – like the number of flights taken by staff at the university and the impact of the university’s international ambitions on its carbon footprint.
“The role of unions is vital in the changes that will need to come because we also need to think through impact on people. It’s not just about being an eco-champion. We need to say, hang on is this going to be good or bad for the people who work here and the people in the supply chain?
“We also need to think about global climate justice. It’s important to make links to campaigns such as the real Living Wage and Fair Trade, to ensure that people are being treated fairly through the whole supply chain.”
If Paul’s story has inspired you, there are lots of ways that you can get involved in trade union environmental campaigns.
The environment is a key campaign priority for UCU. UCU reps in universities and FE colleges across Wales are campaigning for urgent action to tackle the climate emergency.
Many other unions and workplace reps are taking action too. Read about how unions are playing a role in the just transition
Or find out how you can become an environmental or ‘green’ rep yourself – training and support is available.