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Why those school climate change protests matter, a lot

The climate change protests earlier this year brought over a million people onto the streets in cities across the world. Not just any million people though – a million young people.

Photo by David Holt

Youth Strike 4 Climate is the name of the international movement of school students who took part in the demonstrations to demand action on global warming. In the UK it’s being led by a couple of organisations like the UK Student Climate Network. They’re marching again in July but the big one is coming in September. If you’re thinking of a nice city break w/c 20th September, you may want to bring your placard.

Before I go on – this article isn’t about climate change, per se, so I’m not going to dwell on the message the protesters are trying to convey. I’ll just come straight to it – these guys are right (obviously). We must confront climate change. We all need to take responsibility. And we need to act now, not in twenty years. *steps off soapbox*

Thinking beyond their message, there are two stand-out things about these protesters. Firstly, the number; tens of thousands of young people in the UK took to the streets. And I bet for every child who protested there are twenty more who wanted to but couldn’t for whatever reason (parents said no, couldn’t get transport etc.)

What else matters? It’s their age. They are all very young – many just 13 or 14. Why is this important? Well, it goes back to the numbers. You may not realise it but the number of young people in Britain has been in decline. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reports that by 2021 the population of 18 to 20-year olds will have fallen by 10% since 2014. That’s why some UK universities are experiencing a tough time at the moment with falling student numbers and declining revenues.

We’re seeing a big decline in young people now, but the ONS is forecasting huge growth to come. There may not be many 18-year olds, but there’s hell of a lot of 13 and 14-year olds. From 2021 to 2030 the ONS states the population of 18 to 20-year olds will rise by around 20%. That’s another 300,000 people. And that trend is set to continue way beyond 2030.

I work within the university sector and I think this trend is very interesting, for it’s the universities who will be vying for the attentions of this emerging generation once it comes of age. It represents a huge surge in their customer base. Competition will be intense though – there are more universities now than ever, and there are other appealing pathways a young person could follow like apprenticeships.  

What can universities be doing now to prepare for this? How can they position themselves so that they attract this wave of youth?

Well that all depends on what their customers (i.e. future students) want. Any interesting trends that we can see? Any signs of what young people value these days? Let’s think for a minute………oh yes, how about those climate protests that got millions of teenagers off their phones and onto the streets? You don’t need a market strategy consultant to tell you what young people care about. You just need to train your eyes on the streets of Britain (and beyond) on the 20th September.

Universities know this though. You saw a wave of declarations announcing a climate emergency after the protests in Spring. You saw the likes of Bristol, Newcastle and Glasgow University all announce their net zero carbon plans. Many other institutions are following close behind and will be making their own plans known in the coming months.     

It’s obvious that sustainability has shot up the agenda. Most universities know why they need to do it, and they know what they need to do (reduce their emissions). The big question is how. How do we become zero carbon?

The answer is strategy. As many of you will know there is no single technology or solution out there that lets you flick a switch and achieve carbon neutrality (except maybe the off switch to the incoming meter). Just like the smart grid transition, you need to take a systems approach. Start with the objective, identify the parameters and timeline; don’t look at technology until the end.

Let’s think about some of those technologies – PV, storage, smart metering, LED lighting. It’s tempting to focus on the differences, but it’s more important to look at the interdependencies. Salespeople love to tell you that it’s their product which will solve all your problems; but the truth is more complex than that. Your car might have the most powerful engine in the world, but without the tires it’s going nowhere. The universities who successfully eliminate their carbon footprint will be the ones who understand how to piece the jigsaw together. They will succeed by combining multiple different technologies; leveraging the interdependencies that exist to maximise efficiency and effectiveness.  

I don’t think there are many organisations who have the same experience and expertise in this area as Siemens. We really understand energy tech and how it can be used to achieve a strategic objective, especially in the higher education sector. How do we know? Because we’ve done it. On projects with universities like Keele, Oxford and Lincoln in the UK, and with other institutions around the world we’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. It’s not easy, far from it. And we’re at the leading edge, so we’ve learned the hard way – win, lose and draw – but we’re innovating so that’s ok. On every project we get stronger, more creative and more ambitious.

With Keele, we showed them how they could reduce emissions by 4,000 tonnes of CO2 per year and generate millions for the local economy, which was the aim of their Smart Energy Network Demonstrator project.  At Lincoln, we’ve just provided a pathway to net zero carbon in a timeline that would make them the first university in the world to achieve it. We’re working with many other institutions to help them achieve their objectives; understanding and realising their aspirations together, in partnership.

And don’t forget, the university campus of today is the city of the future. What we’re developing in these small towns is the type of solution you’ll see in the smart city of 2040. That’s why Siemens is so interested in campuses – they are the proving ground, the test bed. The things we’re learning and doing here today will have relevance for everyone living in the metropolises of tomorrow. Once we’ve shown how a campus with 15,000 people can be zero carbon; our next task will be scaling that to a city of 15 million people.

But I don’t want to end by talking about us. This is much bigger than us. Siemens may be one of the world’s largest tech and engineering companies, but the future is not ours. It belongs to the billions of young people around the world. It’s their world we’re shaping. And we know what they want – they want change – so let’s get on and deliver it.  

Written by Simon Burgess

If you want to know more about local energy systems visit www.siemens.co.uk/localenergysystems