Interview: Sustainability in our City

AURORA DI RIENZO interviews Seher Ghurfoor about the ‘Sustainability in our City’ conference on Saturday 2nd Feb.

The shift towards a more sustainable future has been on the global agenda since Paris COP21 in 2015. Governments have been at the head of this, implementing new policies and plans for making countries and cities more sustainable. The insufficiency of these effort has been starkly exposed by the alarming statistics from the October 2018 IPCC report. Yet, how can sustainability be implemented at a local scale? The ‘Sustainability in our City’ conference aims to tackle just that.

To give you an insight on what the conference is about, we have interviewed one of the main organisers, Seher Ghufoor, a third year Geography student and UCL Sustainability Officer.

What is the ‘Sustainability in our City’ conference?

The conference is a chance for students to lead the conversation on sustainability by showcasing their research and projects related to various aspects of sustainability in the city and our lives. It’s also – crucially – a chance for the public and other students and members of the community to learn about practical everyday sustainability, how we can live lifestyles that are beneficial to other people and the environment.

What are the aims of the conference?

I hope this conference will showcase the interesting, dynamic and fun side of sustainability! It’s not just policy and saving trees – it encompasses every aspect of our lives, and I really hope people engage with all of it. Another really important aim was the student focus – it’s completely student-led, by myself – the Sustainability Officer – and an amazing set of UCL sustainability ambassadors that signed up to help with student sustainability efforts at UCL and the SU, and students will be running interactive stalls, giving speeches, engaging in panel discussions. I hope this will not only be beneficial to the speakers but provide fresh insight into sustainability efforts.

Who attends the conference? Or more importantly, who does not and should?

All are welcome! The public as well as UCL staff and students – we want everyone to come along.

Why is it important for universities like UCL to be more conscious of issues concerning sustainability within cities?

Universities like UCL are leading in research on climate change and sustainability – we have advanced departments like the Bartlett dedicated to this kind of research – it would be so detrimental if we weren’t practicing what we preached and sharing knowledge with the public – not to mention hypocritical! As part of the city, we have a responsibility to it and its citizens and environment. No doubt global universities like UCL can afford to spend on sustainable developments, and actually, they are. There’s a lot of misconceptions.

Who should be responsible for raising awareness of sustainability within cities? Who should drive the change? Governments, schools, private institutions…?

Regarding sustainability at UCL, we have solar panels everywhere they can be. UCL East is set to fulfil environmental standards far above what’s needed according to law. All of the food and goods in cafés are ethically sourced, all cutlery is biodegradable, not to mention the dozens of student-led projects encouraging plastic free campuses, zero food waste and increased vegan/vegetarian options. Sustainability actually runs through life at UCL (quite rightly!) but we just don’t hear about it.

Would you say that UCL is doing enough to be a more sustainable university? If yes, how so, and if not, in what ways could UCL do more/ what are the most important sustainability issues to solve?

The Sustainability in our City conference is a conference where students will particularly be sharing their own research with sustainability in so many different aspects, and they will also be sharing their projects. For example societies and volunteering projects that have been working on sustainability projects will be presenting their work in interactive stalls. We also wanted to provide a platform where students could talk about sustainability and to lead the conversation and to diversify the way in which we think about sustainability within the city.

In a way everyone has a stake in it because everyone should be engaged in sustainability. But I think that companies and institutions like UCL should be making the biggest efforts in sustainability as not only do they have the financial and knowledge capacity to enact change, but what they do will have a trickle down effect on consumers and everyday behaviour. Government policy should also foster sustainable activities within industry to support this.

Tell me a bit more about your initiatives that are making UCL a more sustainable university?

I started my own environmental initiative called the Environmental Justice Project where we teach school kids about the intersection between environment and social justice. I’m also the Sustainability Officer so I am leading this conference and have been organizing it all year alongside other interested students and CAS.

How can we as students be more conscious and help cities become more sustainable?

As students, we can just be more mindful of our everyday choices. Every single choice we make has a multitude of impacts because of where it is sourced, because of the fuel it uses, the packaging that we waste, where the food is sourced and where clothes are made. As far as possible, we have to make ethical choices and be informed.

What will our cities look like in 20 years?

I reckon in 20 years’ time our cities will look most different based on the type of transport they are based off on. I think diesel and petrol will be completely phased out or just be hybrid and electric. And I think the air will be cleaner for that. I’m just talking about London. Other cities will be going through different changes, and will be capturing through different types of energy sources depending on the kind of climate that they have. Countries between the tropics particularly will be more reliant on solar panels. These are my hopes at least, I don’t know exactly what will happened. But I think this is where energy within cities will be changing and becoming more sustainable.

The Sustainability in our City conference will take place on Saturday 2nd February from 11:00 – 16:00 in the Jeremy Bentham room, UCL. All are welcome.