Declaring a Climate Emergency as a University: UPF Barcelona

Climate strikes have swept the world recently with Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg and Fridays for Future demanding action be taken on climate change. The strikes have brought global attention to one of the world’s greatest social and environmental issues of our age.
However, what do these strikes mean? Is it just a moment in time, or are these strikes leading to change. Extinction Rebellion has focused their attention of Government as well as empowering citizens to have a voice. On top of this, other institutions are also declaring climate emergencies. 

What is Extinction Rebellion?

Extinction Rebellion started in the UK with about one hundred academics signing a call to action regarding climate change in October 2018. They describe themselves as ‘an international movement that uses non-violent civil disobedience in an attempt to halt mass extinction and mimimise the risk of social collapse.’

Their first demand is that ‘Government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change.’

This led to the UK being the first country to declare a climate emergency. 

According to Climate Emergency Declaration website, as at 22 June 2019, 669 jurisdictions in 15 countries have declared a climate emergency. Populations covered by jurisdictions that have declared a climate emergency amount to 121 million citizens, with 36 million of these living in the United Kingdom. This means in Britain roughly 53 per cent of the population lives in areas that have declared a climate emergency, 49 per cent in New Zealand, 32 per cent in Canada, and around 15 per cent in New Zealand, Switzerland, and Spain.

The Sydney City Council has recently announced a climate emergency in Australia as well as a number of other councils.  

What is the role of Universities?

I was fortunate enough to meet with Ester Oliveras, who is an Associate Professor and sustainability lead at Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF) in Barcelona. After the Catalan Government declared a climate emergency, UPF was the second University in the region to declare. We discussed the rise of student interest in sustainability and social entrepreneurship as well as what it means to declare a climate emergency. 

UPF has an ambitious initiative called Planetary Wellbeing which aims to research solutions to deal with climate change and social inequality that can be used by Government, civilians and businesses. This was led by the Dean of the University and the leadership has been actively driving the climate change agenda, including declaring the climate emergency. ‘In many other Universities the climate emergency declarations have been led by students, but at UPF the leadership feel very strongly about the role we can play to act on climate change.’ Ester explained the importance of leadership at the University to ensure coordinated efforts across their departments and campuses. 

Ester also discussed why Universities should be declaring a climate emergency. ‘Universities play an important role in society to bring the latest research to our students as well as businesses, Governments and Not For Profits. Our students will have the latest research so they can be lead the change we need.’ 

Students have opportunities to study social innovation and sustainability across various departments.  

What does it mean to declare a climate emergency?

Declaring a climate emergency varies depending on the institution, location and people. However, the most important thing is that there are a range of actions underpinning the declaration. The declaration should have the rationale and align to the broader messaging of the climate emergency. 

For UPF, on their second plenary session for the Planetary Wellbeing Initiative, the leaders declared a climate emergency. From their declaration:

UPF feels fully called to act in view of the fact that the planet’s natural resources continue to  deteriorate at an unprecedented pace and recognizes this as an emergency that, as proposed by the  UN, requires drastic strategies which, in the case of climate require achieving a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by  2030. In this sense, UPF feels committed to these strategies. 

From the declaration, the University is mobilising a climate emergency working group to ensure governance and management of the three key areas of action. Their focus is on 3 key areas:

1. Research

The University launched a call for research projects around Planetary Wellbeing topics which is being funded through an endowment of 146,000 euros. A critical part of the research is that they are promoting and encouraging multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary research and collaboration. As the global issues are very complex, it is important a range of disciplines can work together to find innovative solutions. 

2. Internal Policy

Ester is leading the internal working group to create policies and initiatives across employees and campuses to reduce the impact on the environment. ‘Currently we are calling for ideas to reduce our impact on the environment from our students and professors. It is important we get ideas from everyone to ensure they are engaged and ready to act when these policies are enacted.’ Ester said that some of the main focus areas are waste management and green spaces. On top of the ideas, Ester is building a roadmap for policies, procedures and infrastructure to ensure they align with their climate goals. 

3. Teaching

Social entrepreneurship is a growing field within the planetary wellbeing studies. ‘At first we wanted our students to build social businesses in this module however we found that students needed to spend more time understanding the problems in order to build a business.’ Their focus now is to empower students to deeply understand complex social and environmental challenges as well as show case studies and examples from around the world of emerging business models. 

‘The most important thing we need to do is empower our students so they can act. Climate anxiety is a real problem. People know we need to change but don’t know what to do. We need to give them a vision as well practical actions that change the culture and mindsets of our society.’ This was a really fascinating point because Ester discussed the challenge between knowledge and action. The reality is we need speed up the change but in reality many of us feel paralysed because the issue is so large. 

What can you do? 

There is a role for all of us to play in driving action on climate change. Here are some ideas:

  1. Share this with your University: If you’re a student or connected with a University, share this article with your lecturers or tutors to start a conversation about declaring a climate emergency. 
  2. Extinction Rebellion:  Follow Extinction Rebellion by signing up to their newsletter on their website as well as following them on social media. There are also local Extinction Rebellion pages for various locations. 
  3. Chat to your local Government: You can see if your local Government has declared a  Climate Emergency on this website. If they haven’t, here is a fantastic resource from an Australian grou about how to engage with local Government. They have an awesome range of resources and tools you can use to get going! 


Social activists are putting pressure on Governments, businesses, universities and other institutions to act on the climate crisis. A response to this pressure is for these institutions to declare a climate emergency. It is important that the operative word is ‘act’ not just ‘declare’.  The challenge with institutions declaring climate emergencies is the ongoing accountability. A strong climate emergency should have a roadmap with actions, resources and measurement to ensure progress is being made. One of the key points that came from the discussion with Ester is that time is of the essence. We cannot continue to talk about climate change, we need to swiftly move to action. 

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