Four JCRs declare climate emergencies amid climate crisis

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University College (Castle)’s Junior Common Room (JCR) has joined Trevelyan College, St John’s and St Chad’s College JCRs in declaring a climate and ecological emergency. A motion to that effect was passed at a Castle JCR meeting in November last year.

Trevelyan and St. John’s College JCRs both recognised a climate emergency as part of more comprehensive Environment and Sustainability policies that were passed in Michaelmas term by both respective JCRs. St Chad’s JCR has, on the other hand, adopted Climate Society’s Durham-wide Sustainability Manifesto that commits to declaring a climate emergency.

Palatinate has learned that there are currently active plans to recognise a climate and ecological emergency in environmental policy documents in at least five other college JCRs.

Henry Morris, the Environment Officer of Castle who formulated the motion declaring a climate emergency, told Palatinate that the move was intended to “gain momentum and enthusiasm” for his JCR to pass an Environment and Sustainability policy in 2024.

Mr Morris also expressed hopes that by showing that the student body “really are serious about tackling” climate change, that it would “put pressure on the University to act a little bit faster” on the issue.

Durham University released a statement commenting on the progress being made on environment issues at the University: “Durham is now recognised as one of the world’s leading universities for addressing the most pressing environmental, social and governance challenges facing society today.

“We have made great strides in reducing our carbon footprint and have two ambitious targets: to achieve net zero by 2035 and biodiversity net gain by 2032. We welcome students and staff working with us on these issues.”

“We have made great strides in reducing our carbon footprint and have two ambitious targets: to achieve net zero by 2035 and biodiversity net gain by 2032”

a statement from durham university

Alongside the recognition of a climate and ecological emergency, Trevelyan’s Environment and Sustainability Policy, adopted by their JCR in Michaelmas term, also includes a commitment to “develop more sustainable practices within college.”

This commitment involves a pledge that “all JCR purchases should be carbon neutral or as environmentally friendly as possible” with the avoidance of “purchasing [of] single-use plastics and non-recyclable products.” The policy also encourages more environmentally-friendly practices in the Bar and Buttery.

College environment and sustainability policies were originally formulated from a Sustainability Manifesto drafted by Durham’s Climate Society in 2022, and worked on by the University’s Greenspace Student Environment Group (GSEG), consisting of all of Durham’s Student Environment Reps.

Out of Durham’s seventeen colleges, five have or will have their Environment Officer or equivalent role sitting on their JCR’s executive committee. South College will match St Aidan’s, Hild Bede and St Mary’s in this move, after their JCR membership voted just last week to establish the position of an Environment Officer and add the role onto their JCR exec. St Chad’s new Sustainability and Domestic Representative is set to do the same once that position is elected in March 2024.

Nine college Environment Officers have written Environment and Sustainability Policies for their respective JCRs to put to a vote, but only four (Trevelyan, St Chad’s, Hild Bede and St. John’s) have actually had that policy adopted by their college’s student body. Hild Bede has a Student Representative Council (SRC) instead of a Junior or Middle Common Room, whereas St John’s refers to theirs as the St John’s Common Room (SJCR).

St Mary’s and Van Mildert’s Environment Officers are both in the process of writing an environment policy for their college JCRs. Ustinov, which has a Graduate Common Room, Collingwood, and St. Cuthbert’s all have a non-exec JCR position with a responsibility for environmental issues but none of those three colleges have passed an Environment and Sustainability policy.

The recognition of a climate emergency has not, however, been included in all written environment and sustainability policies in Durham’s colleges. Josephine Butler’s policy, currently waiting for JCR approval, does not have a provision recognising a climate emergency. Hild Bede’s policy, already adopted by their SRC, also does not declare a climate emergency.

Nine college Environment Officers have written Environment and Sustainability Policies for their respective JCRs to put to a vote, but only four (Trevelyan, St Chad’s, Hild Bede and St. John’s) have actually had that policy adopted by their college’s student body

Five Durham college environment representatives have told Palatinate that they are in the process of implementing into their JCRs a recognition of a climate and ecological emergency.

Grey College’s former Environment and Sustainability Officer Grace Harvey, who is the current Publicity Officer on their Environment Committee, informed Palatinate that her college is “in the process of integrating a policy into the constitution and will declare an environmental emergency in one of the first couple of JCR meetings of the term.” This is despite the Environment and Sustainability role being left unfilled since November at the College.

St Aidan’s JCR Exec have prepared a finalised draft of an Environment and Sustainability policy that recognises a climate emergency. This motion has, however, not yet been put to the JCR for official adoption.

John Snow College has not yet written an environment and sustainability policy, but their Environment Agent confirmed to Palatinate that discussions were in place for the College to “follow in Castle’s footsteps and declare
a climate emergency.” Hatfield College sits alongside John Snow College with the absence of a written environment and sustainability policy, however their Sustainability Officer told Palatinate that it is their intention to include the declaration of a climate emergency in that forthcoming document.

An Environment and Sustainability policy has also been written for Stephenson College. The document includes a provision to elevate the Environment Officer role to the JCR exec and to recognise a climate emergency. Their current Environment Officer plans to bring forward a motion to pass the policy at the next JCR meeting of Epiphany term.

Henry Morris, who helps to co-ordinates all the college Environment and Sustainability Officers in Durham, praised the progress being made on taking action against climate change in Durham University’s institutions. He commented that, “[the] direction of change is positive… the University as an institution seems more aware that this is something that they need to be really tackling.

“There is a greater understanding amongst the students […] that has combined to create an atmosphere that makes it a lot easier to start implementing changes [across colleges].”

Mr Morris also told Palatinate that there is still more to be done in environmental policy above the college-level: “There are still serious issues with waste management at the University, including with single-use plastic, big events and balls.”

Last year, Durham University’s council did adopt a new Sustainability Ambition Statement, which laid out a pathway for the University’s activities to achieve Net Zero by 2035, or before. That would represent a 73% reduction in emissions by 2035. This Ambition Statement also pledged to achieve biodiversity net-gain by 2032 through Durham’s Biodiversity Strategy and to minimise waste production.

Durham University has already succeeded in reducing emissions by over 40% since 2008/9. Rosie Semlyen, Co-Head Facilitator of ECO DU, Durham University’s Climate Justice and Action Group, spoke to Palatinate about who bears responsibility for tackling climate change at Durham.

She commented that, “We want the upper echelons of the University to put in some policy that all the colleges then have to follow. But we’re a long way off that. So while we wait for that to happen, we need to push for change from the ground up. Durham [University] does respond to student organising.”

The “University are becoming more open to having conversations with us and working with us. The Students’ Union is on our side. College JCRs are on our side”

rosie semlyen, co-head facilitator of eco du

For ECO DU, the declaration of climate and ecological emergencies by college JCRs is an important step forward. Ms Semlyen said that, “it signals to the University and the management that students care and that this isn’t a conversation that we’re going stop talking about.”

Durham has already placed 19th out of 1,403 global universities in the 2024 QS World University Rankings for Sustainability, which assess universities based on environment and social impact, as well as governance. Durham
placed fifth best in the UK in the same league table.

According to a QS survey in 2022, 79% of prospective international students value sustainability practices when deciding what institution to study at.

Ms Semlyen did acknowledge that she was “absolutely amazed” at the breakthroughs in climate action in Michaelmas term. She stated that the “University are becoming more open to having conversations with us and working with us. The Students’ Union is on our side. College JCRs are on our side.

“I definitely feel that the momentum is growing and I’m really looking forward to seeing what we manage to get done in Epiphany term as well and, in the summer.”

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