by John Heathcliff

As each day passes, it becomes clearer and clearer that UEA’s relationship with sustainability is one of convenience rather than conviction. Revelations about over £10 million of losses from the failed biomass project on the campus and the recently mothballed ‘Generation Park’ in Norwich have demonstrated the fundamental ineptitude at the heart of decision making at the University. Grand, white elephant projects intended to bring significant reputational benefit to the institution as well as new revenues have become undeniable disasters. National media have run the story, highlighting the amount of public and student money spent on failed projects that could have instead been spent on education and effective research.

Looking at these errors in isolation is bad enough. If you join together the dots, it only becomes worse.

A recent proposal to collaborate with the Norwich Rugby Club to develop new facilities near Colney Lane, including a large carpark, has provoked outrage from residents, members of the community, and the Yare Valley Society. It is claimed that the development would cause significant damage to the existing biodiversity in the area as well as blighting the landscape which is valued by many living in the local area.

Academics at the University are world leading in the field of climate science

As is well known, UEA is an institution which frequently markets itself on its environmental credentials. Academics at the University are world leading in the field of climate science and contribute massively to the research that is carried out into climate change modelling and environmental science. You would struggle to find a press release put out by the University’s marketing department that didn’t somewhere mention the buildings on the campus, most recently the new Enterprise Centre, billed as one of the must sustainable buildings in Europe.

(The Enterprise Centre © Dennis Gillbert / VIEW)

The problem is that these marketing ploys are so often not borne out in reality and the University management give with one hand while with the other taking away when it comes to issues of sustainability.

Of course, we should be proud and impressed and inspired by the institution’s strong research outputs on climate change. Our understanding and knowledge of it as an issue would be far diminished without the work of fantastic scientists and academic working at UEA. Of course we should commend the efforts of the University for consistently working to achieve low carbon buildings and minimise the impact of the operations of the institution on the environment.

But we cannot ignore the utter hypocrisy that cascades through the multitude of decisions that are taken by the institution.

simultaneously directly funding and profiting from companies including Shell and BHP Billington

As campaigners continue to point out, UEA continues to hold investments worth over £130,000 in fossil fuel companies — the very industry most directly responsible for climate change and the very kind of energy production that the aforementioned biomass projects claim to be in the business of replacing. What logic can there be behind that decision, to pump millions of pounds into developing ‘clean’ energy — energy whose low carbon status is steeped in dubiety — while simultaneously directly funding and profiting from companies including Shell and BHP Billington. Companies who are actively attempting to undermine attempts to build a sustainable economy and future at the same time as pumping tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere every year.

The logic is clear. The logic behind these decisions is simple: to build a reputation based upon sustainability, promoting what all of the good work that has been done, both in an academic and an operational sense, within the bounds of the campus, especially when there is the potential for additional profit for the University in order to further increase income through additional student fees and research grants.

It’s easy if you understand this framework to also understand why environmentally damaging projects such as the new rugby club at Colney Lane and the continued investments in the fossil fuel industry are allowed to take place. University managers do not have a strong commitment to sustainability or to environmental protection — those concepts are fair weather friends with the Executive Team. When they believe talking the talk on sustainability has direct benefit for the reputation and finances of the institution, they will happily masquerade as passionate environmentalists. When they believe there is more money to be made elsewhere, they will ride roughshod over their paper thin values and happily ignore the pressing need for institutions to act responsibly in the age of climate change and in relation to the environment.

Thankfully, more and more people are clocking onto that. The media has begun to pick it up. And finally, UEA’s chickens are coming home to roost.

Featured image © UEA Linkedin

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