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  1. Spotlight
15 July 2021updated 09 Sep 2021 8:51am

Why global sustainability starts at home

Government, academia and industry must pull together to combat the climate crisis effectively

By Christine Ennew

Research-intensive universities are global assets playing a leading role in responding to the world’s major challenges. The climate emergency is one such challenge – a wicked problem without respect for borders or politics. University of Warwick researchers are undertaking ground-breaking research to address the climate emergency, working collaboratively across disciplines to bring new perspectives, ideas and solutions forward. We are partnering with industry, other universities, and public bodies to ensure real-world impact is realised.

While we know that a global approach is critical to addressing climate issues, we recognise that universities also have explicit social and civic responsibilities in the towns, cities and regions in which they are based. By using Warwick’s campus as a “living lab” for real-time innovation and research, we can uncover and respond to issues at the heart of our communities and build meaningful responses; we can discover and test what solutions are effective in addressing real-world challenges and share our solutions across the UK and the globe. To solve global problems, we need to work globally, but we must also deliver locally.

Green transport

A climate emergency has been declared across the West Midlands. The West Midlands Combined Authority set a regional target of net-zero emissions by 2041, and the University of Warwick made a commitment to reach net-zero carbon by 2030 from our direct emissions and the energy we buy, and to achieve net-zero carbon for both direct and indirect emissions by 2050. Achieving these targets holds the key to creating jobs, improving regional connectivity and delivering economic opportunity – contributing to the levelling-up agenda in the West Midlands.

Green, clean transport is a priority if we are to achieve net zero. The expansion of local rail services, enabling the adoption of active travel modes, and increasing provision for advanced electric charging networks are all currently being supported and delivered regionally. However, it will take a generational effort to redesign and repurpose our regional networks to ensure they’re clean and green. It takes technology, which in some cases is not commercial, or even conceived of yet, to deliver the change we need.

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At Warwick, green and clean transport is an important driver for campus planning and development, for our research, and for our relationships with industrial partners. From battery technology to disruptive new tech known as Very Light Rail (VLR), our work will be critical to delivering a clean, regional transport system, and leveraging it to deliver economic growth.

Leading by example

According to 2017 figures, the University of Warwick contributed over £1bn to the regional economy and is one of our region’s largest employers, employing almost 7,500 staff directly, and over 9,400 indirectly within the West Midlands.

The campus is as big as a town, in terms of size and population, and offers a great location to trial cutting-edge transport solutions. We can engage highly mobile students and staff in testing new transport strategies and approaches. In 2020 we launched the Future Transport Showcase, a two-year pilot in partnership with Transport for West Midlands and partners, which involved the introduction of new sustainable transport modes to campus, creating incentives for nudging changed travel behaviours, and undertaking behavioural analysis to understand what approaches are proving effective and why. The data and insight will help to inform regional and national policy.

Working in partnership

We cannot reach net zero, and beyond, without the private sector playing its part. The University of Warwick has pioneered partnerships with the private sector, particularly through academic department WMG’s successful collaborations between academia and the public and private sectors, which have delivered battery packs for hybrid buses, digital security for autonomous vehicles, and autonomous transport pods for short journeys.

WMG has also been working closely with regional and industrial partners to deliver the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre (UKBIC) in Coventry. The facility is funded by the government as part of the Faraday Challenge and has been set up to commercialise battery technology for electric vehicles, which will be critical to the phasing out of petrol and diesel engines. In aviation, we have been working with Rolls-Royce and partners to develop energy storage systems for planes. Its £80m investment into energy storage solutions is expected to create around 300 jobs by 2030.

WMG has also been working with industrial partners to develop VLR, which could provide a lightweight, energy-efficient rail service with low manufacturing and operating costs. Not only will this technology increase mobility in urban areas, it could also allow us to re-open disused branch lines across the West Midlands and the UK. Our research and insights are being tested in Dudley before a planned roll-out in Coventry.

Delivering real-world solutions

None of this matters unless it can be transferred into the real world to power the real economy, meeting the demands of society at large.

The government made levelling-up the economy a keystone of its legislative agenda, alongside the pursuit of net zero. The reality is that the latter can feed the former and help rebalance the UK economy. As an example, our recently announced proposal for a new 48.8-hectare eco park, incorporating public recreational space, nature reserves and renewable energy generation, is designed to support the shift towards sustainable and active regional transport modes, including an improved connected network of regional pedestrian and cycle routes, and creating a boarding point for any future VLR services to the campus. It will also form part of the university’s transport strategy to help champion more sustainable transport links to, and surrounding, the main campus, including a possible nearby future train station, and roads configured to better support additional environmentally friendly forms of transport.

Whether through UKBIC, VLR, the Future Transport Showcase, or greening our campus, we’re helping to create new jobs, improve transport connectivity and deliver economic growth. Battery technology created and developed in our laboratories can be scaled up through UKBIC and commercialised in UK gigafactories to deliver solutions for renewable energy distribution, and for use in land, sea and air transport.

As a university, we believe we’re a critical partner and enabler of the green transport revolution as we green our transport system to achieve net zero and support the development of the regional infrastructure, and we’ll continue to deliver for our own community because, ultimately, change starts at home.

Christine Ennew is provost at the University of Warwick