On 21st May, the University of Sheffield announced that it has signed a low-carbon electricity contract – one that uses energy generated 100 percent entirely from solar, wind, and hydro. This is fantastic news! For years, the University has bought its electricity from Drax Group, which generates electricity by burning coal and biofuels (see an account of why biofuels are bad by Axe Drax here) and is at the forefront of UK corporate greenwashing. The University has taken a commendable, evidence-led step forward in its efforts to tackle climate change.
The decision also represents success for our campaign, UoS Energy Switch, which was formed to work towards this outcome almost two years ago. Working constructively with the University, we have influenced how it spends literally millions of pounds every year. The campaign was made possible by the work of a large group of volunteers willing to dedicate hundreds of hours to working to challenge the status quo. We were motivated by the demands of climate justice, but always began with research and invested in relationships among and beyond the campaign team. This allowed us to build a professional, inspiring, and ultimately effective campaign.
As well as the student campaigners, the decision would not have taken place without the uncompromising support of the Student’s Union. Credit must also go to many of the individuals working within the University, who worked thanklessly behind the scenes. Previous and ongoing campaigns have also played a vital role. At the University, this includes trailblazing work done by the Divestment Campaign and previous sustainability committees. In recent years and reaching more widely across society, Biofuel Watch, Fridays for Future, Reclaim the Power, and Extinction Rebellion have dramatically expanded the boundaries of what is possible.
We should recognise that there is a sense that this victory is bittersweet, in that we have not fundamentally changed the rules of the game. While this switch to low-carbon is a step in the right direction, this year has nonetheless seen the construction of a gas-fired power plant at the heart of our campus. This will produce much of the University’s electricity going forward, partly undermining the decarbonisation of our grid electricity. But we should also take heart in the fact that once again a smart, student-led campaign has persuaded the University to change its practices to be more compatible with a fair world.
Hopefully this campaign’s success provides some inspiration for further action. On campuses across the UK, work must continue on decarbonisation, for example by challenging fossil fuel infrastructure, reducing academic flying, and tackling unsustainable procurement practices. And there are many issues that are intimately connected to these. Climate injustice is rooted in and perpetuated by colonialism; how can we join with struggles to decolonise Universities? How can Universities encourage fairer local economies and facilitate a just transition away from high-carbon industries?
If you don’t work in a university, but happen to be reading this; there are many important and impactful changes to be made within all workplaces. The divestment campaign, which asks for pension funds and other investments to not support fossil fuels, is well established and has lots of materials available online. Otherwise, Seeds for Change provides useful tools for starting your own campaign.
If you’re a student at the University of Sheffield and are interested in campaigning, get in touch with the SU development officer.
If you’d like to read our initial report that set out the case for the switch, please click here.
Keep your eyes peeled for a more in depth reflection of the campaign.