Sustainability Symposium 2019

DOROTTYA AGOSTON covers UCL Climate Action Society’s Sustainability Symposium. 

Let us imagine climate change as an alien attack against our planet. Just by imagining it, we can almost feel the warlike way humans would respond. As a society, we need to tap into that feeling, that ‘war energy’, and take immediate action against global warming. 

After last year’s huge success, the UCL Climate Action Society returned to organise its flagship event, the Sustainability Symposium, on the 5th of October. This year, the three panels of the symposium were centred around corporate responsibility, sustainable consumption and inclusivity within climate action. 

The event opened with a short welcome from Aliza Ayaz, founder and chair of the Climate Action Society. She was followed by Sustainable UCL’s Joanna Marshall-Cook, who outlined the university’s strategy regarding climate action. Marshall-Cook presented the idea that a university operating within a sustainable framework can be a model for a sustainable society. Her introduction also aimed at raising awareness to the importance of giving the tools and opportunities to UCL students to be able to maintain a sustainable lifestyle during their years of studying. 


Aliza Ayaz chairs a discussion with Ellisa Calliari and Luisa Miranda Morel. photo courtesy of Shanti Giovannetti-Singh


The symposium offered a broad range of speakers from academics to activists to those working in the corporate sector. It proposed the question: who should lead the change? Answering the question ‘Should the C-suite (a cluster of a corporation’s most important senior executives) or Government Lead the Change?’ Paul Ekins, Professor of Resources and Environmental Policy and Director of the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources, identified several sources of change:  governments; businesses; consumers and investors, along with developers of new technology. Professor Ekins concluded that change is an impossibility until governments and corporations enable each other to make better environmental choices. Michelle Lynch, founder and Director of Enabled Future Limited, also emphasised the importance of integration between the C-suite and government, but reminded us that it’s not enough to pass policies in favour of climate action. The policies have to be formulated to avoid unintended consequences. For this to happen, the consequences of governmental and corporate action must be better understood and, as Kofi Mbuk, co-founder and CEO of VesBox pointed out, action and regulations themselves must be clearer and more transparent. 

Nonetheless, the main question in each of us remains: what can we do as individuals? To answer this question it’s essential to understand that, in the words of Paul Ekins, “we are all just individuals.” Some of us may have greater effects on the environment, but we all caused Climate Change and only we can solve it. Therefore it’s more important than ever not to just ask for change, but to be the change. As the famous quote from Gandhi goes: ‘If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.’ On a political level, as citizens, we have an obligation to hold our governments responsible; on a business level, as ‘future investors’, we can invest in green projects. But above all, we are consumers, and it’s up to us to change our mindsets first to enable real change. 

The second panel of the symposium was concerned with this aspect of sustainability. Vegan educator, public speaker and content creator Earthling Ed highlighted the power of individual choices. The attendees heard about the adverse effects of animal husbandry and possible ways to replace animal products in everyday life. However, the potential consequences of the use of these alternatives were only superficially mentioned and not debated. This was in spite of demand for more in-depth information about the dietary changes we can make that help the environment. 

The role we play in climate action as consumes was best summed up by Tara Button, founder and CEO of BuyMeOnce, an online store selling sustainable and durable products, and author of A Life Less Throwaway. According to her, it’s not only physical change that matters, but also the way we feel inside about the decisions we make and the way we live. Consumers are driven by self-serving needs, and while we require things as humans, we must focus on what we actually need and the quality of what we buy. Without being broached directly, it was implied that our current, growth-based capitalist economics is at odds with tackling the climate crisis. The conclusion of this panel was that in the long run, it’s worth investing in more expensive but durable products. 

This argument, however, asks whether climate action and a sustainable lifestyle is or could be inclusive. As Ilishio Lovejoy from Fashion Revolution, an organisation promoting transparency and sustainability within the fashion industry, pointed out, we approach climate action from a middle-class perspective. This problem was returned to multiple times during the symposium. Despite this, it must be noted that generally, the convention reflected a lack of diversity and a Western perspective on the issues at hand. During the third panel, Elisa Calliari, Research Associate at the UCL Department of Political Science, asked whether ‘the richer you get, the more you care about the environment’. She shared a story from her research project in Tuvalu, Polynesia, where she encountered a government official. When asked, ‘are you personally afraid of global warming?’ he replied, ‘No, I’m not, I know that Jesus will save me.’ Evidently, it is not only the ‘poor’ who are yet to join the climate movement, but those in power too. 

According to Luisa Miranda Morel from C40 Cities, inclusive climate action has three main pillars: inclusive process, impact and policies. The whole vision needs to be inclusive. She reinforced that climate action is a transition process and highlighted the significant role of young people within this process. In addition to engaging with youth, the convention emphasised that when shifting our mindsets, we ought to reach back to older generations and import some aspects of their lifestyle into our own (such as buying less and investing in more durable products, along with passing these products down to future generations). The importance of cross-generational climate action cannot be overstated. At the same time, during the second panel an audience member asked whether the best thing we can do for our planet is to not have children. In response, Tara Button asked us to imagine a childless world – does it have a meaning? So much of what makes us human is passing on what we know and what we care about to future generations. Climate action is above all a fight for the future, the future of humanity and the future of our planet. 

For me, the main lesson of the symposium was ‘power resides where men believe it resides’. This ‘Game of Thrones’ quote may have only been used during the convention to grab the attention of the younger audience. However, there is something in it: the idea reinforces the importance of individual and societal action in effecting change.

On the 16th of October UCL announced that, as part of its sustainability programme, the university will completely divest from fossil fuels by the end of this year. Sustainable UCL also promises to be a net zero carbon university by 2030.

Find more information about the Sustainability Symposium and UCL CAS’s upcoming events here.

Feature Image Courtesy of Alice Devoy