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Roar Sits Down with KCL’s Assistant Principal for Climate and Sustainability

The courtyard of Strand Campus. Photo by Emma Carmichael, Photography Lead.

Roar sat down with Professor Frans Berkhout, who was appointed inaugural Assistant Principal for Climate and Sustainability in February 2023. Dr Berkhout discussed King’s College London’s (KCL) changing climate policy, his ambitions for the future and the recent postponement of the university’s net zero commitment from 2025 to 2030.

Professor Berkhout leads a team with a budget of nearly £6 million over an initial three year period. “At the end of last year, the university agreed a comprehensive plan to embed climate and sustainability into everything we do”, he said, “and it created a new structure which I lead, which is set to deliver that […] I lead a small delivery team of about ten people sitting in the Vice Chancellor’s Office that work with the faculties and the Directorates to achieve the goals that we’ve set around climate and sustainability.” 

He is proud of the work that King’s has been done so far, but characterises the approach as “fragmented”. He argues that work is needed to build on the “history of grassroots activism” at KCL: “what we’re trying to do now is really consolidate that in a single plan, with a single delivery unit, and a single reportage and accountabilities that go through the Vice Chancellor.”

In February, just before Dr Berkhout’s appointment, King’s also released its Sustainability Action Plan, “the first proper synthetic document” which brought together the disparate strands of the university’s climate strategy. The plan contributes to five streams of King’s overall climate strategy: education, research, net zero, philanthropy and engagement and communication.

Education and Research

For Professor Berkhout, education is the most important contribution that King’s can make to averting the climate crisis. “I can tell you now: every single job our graduates do are [sic] going to have to deal with the climate crisis”, he says. “This is universal now. It’s everywhere. And everyone, whatever they do […] is going to be confronted with this. So we need to equip all our graduates with that awareness, climate literacy and sense that they can do something.” As a result, the university has made the commitment that “every single King’s student will have embedded in their curriculum, within three years, aspects which are relevant to climate and sustainability”.

On research, Professor Berkhout is realistic: KCL has committed to a “fourfold increase in research income in the climate and sustainability space” but “King’s, in research terms, has not been a leader in this area for the last 20 years”. Instead, he argues that KCL has a specific niche to fill – focusing on the solutions to climate change. “The real question today,” he states, “is how we do sustainability transitions: how we change energy economies, how we change behaviour, how we change supply chains […] but at the same time, making sure that those transitions are fair and just.”

Net Zero – A Watering Down? 

Dr Berkhout clearly has lofty ambitions for King’s, but how does he square these ambitions with the recent pushing back of King’s commitment to achieving net zero by five years, delaying the goal until 2030? He argues that the change is due to a move away from offsetting. “The way most corporates think”, he says, “[is] that you basically buy off your guilt, you tell the world you’re net zero and in fact you haven’t done anything. You’re not really serious about your own emissions, your actions. We’re saying no, we’re uncomfortable with that way of doing things.”

The focus, Professor Berkhout argues, should be on absolute emissions. However, Roar put it to him that King’s has also watered down those commitments. Existing plans had a target of achieving a 50% reduction in energy emissions from a 2017-18 baseline by 2025. New plans see a planned reduction of 25% of Scope 1 and 2 emissions (those that King’s produces on its campus and directly through its own activities) from a 2018-19 baseline, also by 2025. Given that energy emissions make up such a large proportion of overall Scope 1 and 2 emissions, isn’t the new target weaker?

Dr Berkhout argues that the focus needs to be not just on energy: “it’s the total number that we want to be reducing”. Challenging the contention that KCL’s climate goals have been made weaker, he says that “If anything, we’ve brought greater attention to our commitments related to net zero, but also other aspects through this new university-wide initiative, King’s climate and sustainability, through creating this central delivery unit – which never used to exist before – and by having senior level attention on this continually […] People are looking over our shoulder that we’re achieving these targets and real reductions in a way that just never used to happen before.”

“Far from weakening our commitments, what’s happened in the last year is a real strengthening and a focus on these kinds of commitments and a connecting together of what we’re doing right across the university and in everything we do. I do believe that what we’re doing, what I’m doing, with this new team, with this new plan, is a serious acceleration and deepening of what we had before.”

New Travel Policy

Dr Berkhout acknowledges the need for progress, citing the “striking” statistic that, per student, King’s produces over 700 kilograms of carbon dioxide per year. As evidence of KCL’s commitment to climate progress, he points to a forthcoming sustainable travel policy for King’s business trips, which will see domestic flights banned, as well as international flights to locations that are reachable by land-based transport within five hours. This will include Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam.

He argues for policies and approaches “which are proportionate, which are feasible, which are economically responsible, so that we move forward in a positive direction in terms of emissions, but also doing things that people find acceptable and doesn’t make it too difficult for people to comply.”

Investments

Given King’s considerable endowment, its investments can make a significant impact. King’s fully divested from fossil fuels in 2021, but Professor Berkhout recognises the need for continued progress: “We can always go further, because then the question is, ‘Well, how are you using the investment capital you have to positively accelerate the net zero transition? You’re not investing in arms manufacture and fossil fuels and so on, but aren’t you investing in windmills and photovoltaics and electric vehicles?’ And I think that’s a reasonable question. I think there has been an attempt in the last year or two to instruct our fund manager to become more activist… The message we want to give to the College is, in its management of its endowment funds, it should be maximising positive investments and not just making zero the negative investments.”

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