“We need collective leadership”: Durham’s Climate Society President on solving climate change at university, part two

Read part one here.


Luke Alsford: How important to the Climate Society is your College Sustainability Policy? How difficult is it to implement that kind of policy in Durham? 


Cosmo van Steenis: Very difficult, but not impossible! The Sustainability Policy is hugely important to us because we run lots of events and we’re building lots of student engagement. What we really want to do now is figure out how we’re going to deliver impact on campus and how we’re going to transform Durham completely so that it’s more sustainable than the future. The policy is a really important step for that. Each college is meant to have an environment officer, some don’t and some environment officers aren’t particularly engaged. Some are on college execs, some aren’t. Many are not really sure what their remit is, either. It’s a bit confused. Colleges themselves, especially JCRs and MCRs, are often fairly wasteful in how they run balls, food waste, plastic cup usage, and so on. So, the point of the College Sustainability Policy is for all the different colleges to sign up to a single unifying document that can set a strategic vision and have a bunch of things to implement. We’ll have a manifesto statement, which we will want every single College President and Environment Officer to sign, as well as anyone else who wants to sign it. Then we’ll have a suite of policy options which people can integrate into their constitutions as they see fit. The most important thing is having a properly elected Environment Officer in each college, who has regular meetings with the Principal, the Catering Manager and all the other important people in the college. They also then come to the collective group, where all the different college environment reps get together to talk about what they’re doing. That structure allows for a much better, faster, and clearer conversation about sustainability to start happening.



LA: I was speaking a couple weeks ago to the St. Aidan’s President and we talked a lot about the cost of balls and formals and there is a big debate on how high costs can shut out students. I did see that one of your proposals was for JCRs to purchase carbon credits, to offset carbon emissions and then for that purchasing to be included in ticket prices. I wonder, do you think that’s something students would want at this time?


CS: We’re undecided as to whether we’ll actually have the carbon credits line in the policy. It definitely won’t be in the manifesto statement, so it’ll be something colleges only sign up to, if they want to integrate it. It’s not a policy we’re mandating. I think carbon credits have a really valuable role to play in the world, but I do not think they should be used to offset people’s emissions. Carbon credits should only be used after you’ve exhausted all other possible options for internal decarbonization, because they are a way of channeling finance to emissions reductions projects. They’re not a way of saying, “We’re net zero, because we’ve funded a rainforest in the Amazon.” So, I think the carbon credits line to be honest in the policy is slightly misleading and needs a complete rethink. If, for example, you’re running a ball and you have some you know vast roller coaster ride, which is just really carbon intensive and you can’t really do anything about it. Then, by all means, offset that through planting some trees, through a local biodiversity schemes, through purchasing carbon credits, but that shouldn’t be your go to option. It should be your final last-case scenario. JCRs do not have all the money in the world, and they’re not going to be able to invest enough money in carbon credits to make a real meaningful difference. I do not need to fuel the fire by commenting on the expense of college balls! From a sustainability standpoint, college balls are intensive on emissions. So, as we re-think what a college ball looks like and the costs of it, we should have a think about how can we have fewer things, that are better quality, that also produce fewer emissions and result in a lower ticket price. I think those conversations really align. 


Cosmo van Steenis


LA: I know if some of my relatives were reading this interview, they would be thinking, “What is the point of achieving net zero in Durham or in College JCRs, when China and India are pumping out billions and billions in carbon emissions?” What would you say to them?


CS: I think that a lot of people are scared and worried about climate change as a whole, because it seems like such a difficult challenge to overcome, and it’s impossible to know where to start. If you focus on the fact that, the Chinese are producing emissions far beyond our control, then I personally get so depressed about it, that I don’t want to do anything about it. I think what you have to focus on, especially with climate change, is what you can do in your own community and how you can start to make a difference where you have control over, because that will then start to have repercussions. For example, emissions from colleges are not going to be the difference between us achieving 1.5 degrees or not. However, if we set a really groundbreaking and progressive policy on carbon emissions from Durham colleges, then our fellow students at surrounding North Eastern universities and then also at Cambridge, Oxford, Edinburgh, all the rest, will start to look at us and think, “That’s really interesting, how can we also do that?” For example, Cambridge colleges sustainability audit all of their college balls, which is something that we don’t do. Also, if students see that we’re taking sustainability really seriously as a University, both new students will be really interested in coming here, and you’re bringing in people, who maybe aren’t so aware of climate change and motivating them to change their habits and become more sustainable themselves. That will then have a butterfly effect across the globe. 


LA: Four or five years ago, when Fridays For Future really took off and students were missing school, I feel that students and young people were really engaged in climate causes. Do you think students are as engaged now, a few years later and post pandemic? 


CS: From what I’ve seen personally in Durham, we held four events last term and over 400 students came to them collectively, which signals to me, that there is huge appetite for getting involved in climate. I think what’s difficult, especially after COVID, is that it is really difficult to know how you start to get involved. Our mission is to provide people with easy, accessible opportunities to get involved in climate, action and also access information on climate change. From there they’ll do amazing things with that. I think there’s I think there’s huge appetite for engagement on climate change, but it is just difficult to know where to start, and so hopefully we can be a starting point for a lot of people at this university.


LA: I know that Durham Climate Society is not following radical tactics like Extinction Rebellion, but I did see that Extinction Rebellion are pausing their radical tactics, because they do think it is alienating the public. What are your thoughts overall on whether climate activism is alienating and if the student protests of a few years ago have had a negative effect?


CS: I am in two minds about it, because I completely understand the anger and the frustration. If you are a member of Insulate Britain, and you’ve tried to talk to the government, you’ve tried to talk to corporations, you’ve tried to talk to different public sector organizations, and none of them listen to, then it’s difficult to know where to go. We are facing mass global extinction. A billion people are going to lose their homes by 2050, because of sea level rises. It is not an issue to joke about, and so if we have to stand in the middle of the street and stop cars, in order to get people thinking about it, then fine. Personally, I don’t see the value in doing that. I think that protesting is really important, because protesting starts to get people interested and aware of a conversation. In order for that to have any impact where it matters, you need to start collaborating with powerful individuals. If you’re standing outside the building, waving a sign at the people inside, eventually, you’re going to be locked out of the conversation entirely. We have raised a lot of awareness around the issue, now the question is, how do we create solutions which have a meaningful impact? There’s still lots of room for protesting, but it is no longer just enough because there’s such an urgent need for action.


The Climate Society’s COP 27 Debrief 


LA: On your Instagram, there was a poll asking your followers if COP 27 was a success, and only seven percent of people said that COP 27 was. I would like to end on an optimistic note, but I am not sure how optimistic the answer is! Do you have hope that COP 28 and more climate activism can be a success and that student voices can play an important role in that?


CS: At COP 26 in Glasgow, there were huge number of demonstrators outside of the buildings shouting about climate change, which forced people in the buildings to make more radical decisions. You can argue that one of the main reasons for the failure that was COP 27, was that in comparison to that, the Egyptian police stopped any protests from happening and arrested a whole bunch of protestors. I do not have a huge amount of hope for COP 28. It’s in the UAE, which is the biggest oil producing nation on Earth, which is an interesting choice for where to host the climate conference. 

I am quite excited about COP 29, because Lula and Brazil is trying to host that and he is a fantastic climate leader. If COP 28 were to be were to be a huge success, what would happen is the UAE agrees to cut its oil and gas production and transition to renewable energies, which would be amazing. I don’t know if that’s going to happen or not. I think at this point we can’t care too much about what global governments are doing, because they’re not entirely acting on our behalf, and so the question we as students have to ask ourselves is, “How can I start to shift the conversation and the agenda now, in my own sphere?” Whether that’s through applying to sustainable internships or whether that’s at your grad job, you start to get a conversation going about sustainability, or you plant some trees in your college gardens. Whatever it is, start doing something, because that will make you feel empowered to start making more change, and that is eventually what is actually going to make the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees.


Featured Image: Cosmo van Steenis

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Our YouTube Channel