Published: 11 November 2021

Engaging a sustainable Surrey: the community and COP26

The Centre for Britain and Europe (CBE), in conjunction with the Centre for Environment and Sustainability (CES), held an ESRC Festival of Social Science event on Thursday 4 November at G-Live to explore the ways in which Surrey can become a more sustainable county. 

Evie Horner
Evie Horner

The two centres came together to collaborate on key issues of sustainability, enabling the voices of local, regional, national, and international actors to be heard, with no better time to be doing this than as the UK welcomes international leaders to Glasgow for COP26. The panel, chaired by Professor Amelia Hadfield, comprised of six members who each brought a different perspective to the issue of sustainability, however, one idea remained central throughout: the individual is responsible for change.

Opening the discussion, Professor Graham Miller, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Executive Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, focused on the sustainability of the University of Surrey, the second university in the UK to announce it will be carbon neutral by 2030. To achieve this pledge, a multifaceted approach has been taken, comprising of both tangible and intangible means of increasing sustainability. For example, whilst the campus generates most of its own water usage via the installation of a water borehole, the university also fosters “sustainably literate graduates”, incorporating sustainability into the curriculum of all courses. To provide a student perspective on the panel, Will Hitt, President of the Politics Society, explored how students can contribute to the fight against climate change. One of the most notable ways being via dietary choices whereby a reduction in meat consumption is an easy way that students can individually assist in the reduction of carbon emissions.

Zooming out slightly to look at the entire county of Surrey, Katie Stewart, Executive Director for Environment Transport and Infrastructure at Surrey County Council explained that “behavioural change” is at the centre of tackling climate change. Although the target has been set for Surrey to achieve net-zero carbon by 2050, Katie Stewart explained that the challenge lies in how to attain this. Whilst Surrey County Council are responsible for creating conditions for emissions to be reduced, it is the duty at an individual level to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle. Philip Riley, VicePresident of The Basingstoke Canal Society brought a different angle to the discussion, elucidating the importance of preserving and utilising the canal network in Surrey. Not only do the canals act as a “wildlife corridor in ecology”, but they also facilitate non-polluting activities such as canoeing and paddleboarding which are beneficial for the health and well-being of Surrey residents.

Dr Erica Russell from the Centre of Environment and Sustainability raised the issue of the Government focusing too heavily on technology as a solution to the environmental problems we are currently facing. The notion of “national or nothing” is insufficient as Dr Russell insisted on the importance of wilful actors- individuals who are happy to stand up and ask questions about the climate emergency. Adding to this, Dr Zoe Harris, lecturer in Environment and Sustainability called on people to “go beyond the echo chamber” and spread the word of sustainability, stressing the importance of questioning others in order to gain an insight into different perspectives. A key piece of advice given was to “vote with your money”, encouraging people to shop only at sustainable businesses, where possible, as a way of operationalising an individual’s sustainable beliefs and morals.

To gain a more quantitative understanding of how attendees at the event perceived the issue of sustainability following the panel discussion, Dr Alia Middleton conducted two polling questions. The first asked individuals to rank seven policy areas (Housing, Crime, Brexit, Economy, Environment and Sustainability, Pensions, and Health) in order of importance. The issue of Environment and Sustainability took pole position, followed unsurprisingly by Health, while Brexit was regarded as the least important. Next, participants were asked how confident they were that COP26 would lead to a substantial change in environmental policy in the UK. The majority (61%) were ‘fairly confident’ in contrast to 11% remaining ‘not very confident'. This use of psephology concisely highlighted the prominence of the issue of sustainability in today’s society, with many hopeful that COP26 will bring about a much-needed change to the way the UK handles the climate crisis.

Both the panel discussion and poll ignited an array of questions from the audience, many of whom left with more questions than when they arrived. However, this encapsulates what tackling climate change is all about, the importance of questioning peers, businesses, local government and national government to name just a few, on their contribution to the global effort to stop climate change. Therefore, I will end this blog post with a question for you: what steps are you going to take to adopt a more sustainable way of life? 

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