Back to top

VC's Comment: Meeting the climate challenge

17 September 2019 | news

Professor Grant Guildford
Vice-Chancellor, Victoria University of Wellington

Climate change is the most significant challenge facing the world today and it is important that the university sector plays its part in meeting that challenge.

We can do this through our teaching and research, by reducing our own carbon footprint, and through participation in positive, collective action.

At Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington, we have just completed a week of sustainability-related talks and events, Toitū te Ao—Sustainability Week, culminating in the launch of our detailed plan to reduce our carbon footprint.

Universities are evidence-based organisations. We conduct research on climate change and we teach our students about its current and future impact. We take seriously our responsibility, through research-informed public commentary, to help address the ignorance, complacency and self-interest that has for too long surrounded the global challenge of climate change.

The consequences of climate change and ocean acidification will be grave and irreversible unless the world’s energy supply is rapidly decarbonised.

We’ll see our oceans become more acidic, threatening the viability of corals, planktons and other marine life. The resultant failure of food webs and the changes to ocean temperatures and currents will lead to a high risk of marine ecosystems collapsing and the loss of the fish stocks on which much of the world so heavily depends.

We’ll see rising sea-levels coupled with storm surges threaten our low-lying islands, our deltas and our coastlines. We’ll see stronger tropical cyclones, changing rainfall patterns, and more intense droughts and floods which, together with increasing salinity of groundwater, will put food security at risk.

Human and animal health will be compromised by malnutrition, extremes of temperature, wildfires and increased biosecurity incursions—especially from arthropod-borne infectious diseases.

And of course we will be confronted by the political, cultural, economic and military consequences of mass migration when the one metre of sea level rise expected this century displaces the 200 million people currently living within one metre of sea level—most of whom live on the shores of the wider Pacific including the crowded deltas of our major trading partners in Asia.

Universities have a critical part to play in combating this unfolding disaster. At Wellington, we have cut the university’s carbon emissions by 15 percent over the past decade despite our growth. Our Council has recently approved a commitment that the university will be net carbon zero by 2030 as well as further reducing our gross carbon emissions by 20 percent over same period. Our plan to reach net zero carbon includes transitioning away from natural gas as our heat source and generating electricity on site through solar panels.

We are also exploring greener building development, with a flagship project being our proposed Living Pā, which draws on sustainable building practice and mātauranga Māori. Further steps include introducing a five percent levy on air travel by staff, the proceeds of which will be used for carbon offsets and to fund sustainability initiatives proposed by staff. And lastly, we have begun preparations to re-establish totara-dominant forest near Wellington and further afield, providing biodiversity benefits as well as carbon insets.

Our zero-carbon plan is ambitious but bold action is needed if the world is to avert the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change. Along the way, we will be sharing ideas and discussing new approaches with our communities and partners to help New Zealand achieve its zero-carbon aspirations. Holding Toitū te Ao—Sustainability Week, has provided an opportunity for such discussions, as has the upcoming School Strike 4 Climate through which young New Zealanders are taking charge of their own futures by way of civic action. We will need much more leadership of this type if we and future generations are to collectively overcome the challenge of climate change.