How Leicester is driving the move from climate talk into climate action

With COP28 well underway, and with University of Leicester research making significant contribution to the agenda of the year’s biggest climate conference, Professor Sarah Davies, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Science and Engineering at Leicester, discusses the importance of COP28 and the University’s dedication to environmental sustainability:

The urgency for climate action has reached a critical point as global temperatures soar to unprecedented highs, and communities face the devastating consequences of extreme weather events. Against this backdrop, the 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP28, is a key platform for world leaders to translate dialogue into decisive action. Taking place in Dubai from November 30 to December 12, COP28 is an opportunity for nations to collaborate in addressing the climate emergency bringing governments, industry and academia together to develop comprehensive strategies. 

In a recent blog, I outlined how the University of Leicester is actively working on an Environmental Sustainability Masterplan, outlining commitments to improve its environmental impact. Through a data-led approach and collaboration across the University, we aim to have a significant impact on our sustainability. Our strategy focuses on avoiding negative environmental impacts, adapting to a changing world, and creating positive impact through education and innovation. The University is actively working on reducing its own carbon emissions from energy consumption, achieving biodiversity net gain, and promoting responsible consumption through sustainable procurement practices. 

These are the actions we are taking locally. As a University, our researchers have the opportunity to address international challenges and contribute to key debates. So at COP28, the University of Leicester, with its commitment to ground-breaking research, is playing an active role in shaping the discussion on sustainable solutions and climate resilience on the global stage, using our research expertise and heritage in space, environment and health. 

Our Institute for Environmental Futures champions transformative research to deliver practical solutions. Researchers within this institute are instrumental in exploring innovative approaches to one of the most complex problems that science has ever needed to address and, emphasizes the importance of actionable strategies on a global scale. As a recent paper from our institute notes, the challenge of understanding the impact of climate change, and therefore recognising how best to respond, is interdisciplinary. The historic COP27 decision to establish and operationalise a loss and damage fund for nations most vulnerable to the climate crisis will be discussed again at COP28. 

So as COP28 unfolds, the contributions of Leicester's interdisciplinary Institute for Environment Futures are poised to influence discussions and shape the trajectory of international climate initiatives. Our contributors at COP28 will focus on the importance of the natural world and biodiversity (Professor Heiko Balzter) and key discussions and informing commitments around methane emissions (Dr Harjinder Sembhi and Dr Cristina Ruiz Villena).

At COP27 the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) announced the launch of a new satellite-based system designed to detect methane emissions. Methane has a shorter lifespan in the atmosphere compared to carbon dioxide, but has a higher warming potential. Reining in methane emissions could have a more immediate impact in limiting climate change compared to longer-lived greenhouse gases. 

COP28 will continue to address monitoring and verifying methane emissions through a number of dedicated sessions on this important topic lead by the United Nations Environment Programme, European Space Agency and the UK Space Agency. Hence the involvement of Dr Cristina Ruiz Villena and Dr Harjinder Sembhi. Dr Sembhi’s work on methane emission rates from landfill sites uses a combination of data from satellites with a relatively coarse spatial resolution (7km) over large areas combined with data from other space-borne imagers with sensors that offer better resolution (tens of metres) that can map methane sources in more detail but with very limited areal coverage.  

Whilst natural methane emissions are primarily from wetland sources with anthropogenic sources, including landfills, oil and gas systems, coal mines and agriculture. Led by Leicester, the Self-Learning Digital Twins for Sustainable Land Management, is an example of addressing emission from agriculture and will bring researchers, from the Universities of Leicester, Bristol and Loughborough together with industry leaders and the farming community to deliver intelligent computer code that can produce advice how to reduce these emissions. A digital twin is an up-to-date representation of the real world. It is updated based on satellite information, field instrumentation and other data. As a University we recently signed up to the Turing University Network. ‘Environment and Stability’ is one of their three Challenges. Data science and Artificial intelligence are critical to maximising the use of existing data and support the development of new sensors. 

If we are to change to green technologies, we will need to use metals whose cost, rarity, or strategic availability are imminently limiting (e.g. battery storage, dependent on a supply of Ni, Li and Co; solar power systems, requiring Te, Se and In; and electric vehicles, needing Cu, rare earth elements, Al, and Ni). At Leicester, researchers are funded to investigate ensuring a sustainable and secure supply of Earth resources to society, whilst minimising the environmental footprint and maximising socio-economic benefit. Meeting resource challenges in a societally and environmentally sustainable way requires a holistic approach to research and innovation from geoscientists, chemists, engineers, environmental scientists and sociologists.  We need green chemistry and novel solvent systems to support material processing.

As a leading UK university committed to influencing positive change, the University of Leicester is steadfast in its dedication to environmental sustainability. Through innovative research, strategic planning, and active participation in global initiatives like COP28, Leicester is at the forefront of driving solutions for a sustainable future. Our efforts are recognised in the QS World University Rankings: Sustainability, which reviews the various ways in which universities are taking action to tackle the world’s greatest Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues. In only its second year, Leicester has risen to be in the top 15% of institutions driving sustainable development forward.

In conclusion, COP28 is not just a gathering of nations; it is a call to action, a commitment to move beyond climate talk and into meaningful climate action. The University of Leicester and its staff, as Citizens of Change, are playing a key role in shaping the narrative and contributing to tangible solutions. As COP28 progresses, the world looks to leaders to forge concrete plans, and Leicester stands as a beacon of hope, showcasing what is possible through collaborative efforts, innovative solutions, and actionable commitments. The journey towards a sustainable future continues, and the University of Leicester remains a steadfast partner in this global endeavour.