Rose Sauvage De Brantes, BA English and Japanese
It is the 20th of September 2019. Yesterday, SOAS declared a climate emergency. Today, delegations of SOAS staff and students are assembling in the streets of London to join the Climate Strike, while Unison is holding lunchtime talks by environmentalists in the Paul Webley Wing. But what led to this event, and what does a climate emergency mean for SOAS and its future?
A climate emergency had previously been declared by the Students’ Union . In May 2019 the Student’s Union declared a climate emergency. The premise being that there is an ongoing ecological crisis resulting in the mass extinction of many species, water and food shortages, extreme weather, conflicts and displacements.
Daniel Selwyn, who proposed the climate emergency motion, noted at the UGM that Britain bears historical responsibility for these crises, as fossil capitalism was financed through the profits of racial slavery and spread through colonialism. Consecutively, he stated that in order to maintain a livable planet for all, it is our responsibility in the Global North to take action and oppose all forms of capitalism, nationalism, militarism, and fascism that profit from ecological and social violence.
Following the approval of this motion, the SU, SOAS Unison, and SOAS UCU wrote an open letter to the school’s Trustees appealing for SOAS to declare a climate emergency and thus take responsibility for its historical complicity in producing social and ecological harm under the service of colonial and imperial power.
Through this plan, by implementing several carbon reduction projects, the school has exceeded its original target of 48% by 2020. In 2015 its emission reduction reached 58%.
SOAS started taking initiative in reversing climate change in 2010, putting in place its Carbon Management Plan. Through this plan, by implementing several carbon reduction projects, the school has exceeded its original target of 48% by 2020. In 2015 its emission reduction reached 58%. And after an extensive student-led campaign in 2015, SOAS has also agreed to divest from investments in fossil fuels.
From now on, SOAS will work towards a net-zero emissions target by continuing the renovation of its facilities with more energy-efficient infrastructures. A Climate Action Group will be set-up and led by environmental change experts closely cooperating with the SU, UCU, Unison, and SOAS estates team to oversee the implementation of policies and initiatives. The group will focus first on carrying out a climate risk analysis and producing a new action plan, which includes banning single-use plastic on campus, reducing business-related flights, and ensuring green investments. Secondly, on including education about climate justice and sustainability across SOAS curricula.
In concert with the climate emergency declaration, SOAS joined Global Research Alliance for Sustainable Finance and Investment to collaborate with researchers from other institutions.
Consecutively, a SOAS Centre for Sustainable Finance was established in Spring 2019 to develop knowledge on sustainable finance in both the Global North and South. The goal is to understand how to align financial systems with sustainable development for a smooth transition into a low-carbon era.
But student Narjiss Seffar wants SOAS to go even further. Seffar proposed a motion for the SU to join the Earth Protectors, a global collaborative movement to protect the Earth by setting different goals and guidelines, hoping that the school will follow in the SU’s footsteps. While some are concerned about this being just a greenwashing campaign, Seffar’s union believes that attaching a title to the School’s name would embed a spirit of duty in SOAS’ words.
Nonetheless, this amazing progress is not met without remarks. SOAS did commit to a zero-carbon emissions plan, however, it didn’t set itself any time frame. And even though it was requested in the open letter, SOAS didn’t mention in its 2020 plan divesting from institutions profiting from massive exploitation of natural resources, climate and ecological crisis.
Furthermore, since SOAS is yet to collect data on scope 3 emissions (like food waste or business travel), and since constructing a new curriculum is a complicated process, the implementation of these steps will likely take time.
‘That’s why, meanwhile, we are trying to put in place workshops through the Students’ Union’, says Prachi Singhal, the proposer of the motion for mandatory environmental education. ‘It is important to continue lobbying SOAS for changes. Some things, like better waste management, could be done quite easily, without having to wait for data. We are in an emergency after all.’