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Ethical implications of the impact of our research on climate change

Our research plays a critical role in understanding and fighting climate change challenges, but it also generates carbon emissions and environmental impacts.

Considering the climate impacts of how we conduct our research is an important element of research integrity and ethics. Recognising this, University of Bath has committed to reducing the carbon emissions associated with undertaking our research where possible, through our Climate Action Framework Principles.

This approach is reflected by funding bodies and partners who are increasingly demanding research proposals consider and reduce their effect on the environment. For example, UKRI’s Environmental Sustainability Strategy and Wellcome Trust’s Guidelines on Good Environmental Practice both detail their commitments to reducing the environmental impacts of their funded research.

What should I include in response to the question under ‘Climate action and environmental impact’ in the ethics process?

It’s helpful to include as much detail as you can in your answer to this section – we would suggest including the headings below, noting how you have factored carbon reduction into your proposal for each section, and being honest about where this has not been possible. Guidance and advice for each heading is provided further down this page.

  • Research partner or funder’s approach: Please indicate that you have ensured your research partner or funder’s approach aligns with climate action.
  • Reducing emissions from travel: Please outline the expected travel requirement of your research (including for any recruitment, fieldwork, conferences or any other requirements). What measures have you taken to reduce emissions from this planned travel?
  • Reducing emissions from energy use: Please outline where you believe the significant contributors to your energy use will be as and explain the measures you’ve taken to implement efficiency measures through equipment usage, laboratory setup, data and sample storage, and any other related actions.
  • Reducing emissions from materials and equipment used and purchased: Pleas outline any measures you have taken to share or use existing equipment. If your research has extensive use of materials involved, please focus your answer on this area to outline materials required and the measures you have implemented to keep this to a minimum, and any areas where you have been able to optimise for a circular economy.
  • LEAF Sustainable Labs programme: Is your lab signed up to LEAF and, if so, what level is it certified at? Please outline any procedures or practices you have implemented through LEAF relevant to carbon emissions savings in this project (if not already covered in the questions above).

Understanding your research partner or funder’s approach

When proposing to work with a research funder or industrial partner, you should consider their associated climate impact to identify any conflicts of interest that could cause or suggest influence, and to ensure they’re also committed to reducing emissions from research.

  • What is the core business of your research partner or funder? Is there disparity between their work and reducing the impacts of climate change, or the area of study for your research?
  • What steps has the research partner taken to reduce their emissions?

In the past, some industrial partners have funded research that aims to deny and disprove climate science. While much has changed since then, researchers should consider implications of association with funders or partners.

Reducing carbon emissions from research

As a university, carbon emissions associated with the way we travel and the products we buy account for more than 75% of our overall carbon footprint, and we have committed to at least cutting this by half by 2030. Looking at this in the context of our research, there are three main areas to focus on to reduce associated carbon emissions; these are:

  • Travel
  • Energy use
  • Materials and equipment

Find out more about how you can reduce carbon emissions from your research following our guidance addressing travel, energy use, and materials and equipment.

Research work in laboratories is fundamental to our work at the University but it is energy and resource intensive. Consideration should be given to how emissions from your research can be reduced from the initial proposal stages and throughout. To improve laboratory sustainability and efficiency, University of Bath operate the LEAF programme. Find out more about LEAF and how you can get your lab involved.

Principles to follow

In line with research ethics, all of our research should adhere to the principles of responsibility, integrity, and doing no harm. In the context of climate change and environmental impacts, this includes:

  • Researchers have a responsibility to avoid harming humans, animals and ecosystems that are directly and indirectly impacted by the research process and results, taking account for long-term, indirect or unintended consequences of the research. In the context of climate change, research should be undertaken in such a way that is commensurate with a 1.5°C world which includes, for example, limiting travel (particularly by plane) and resource use.
  • Researchers should take responsibility to define between the theoretical impact of research within current systems against practical potential in a rapidly changing world. For example, research that reduces emissions from a technology that is being phased out for cleaner alternatives or that won’t be used in the future, should calculate potential impact based on these changes.
  • Researchers should account for the systemic causes of climate change and consider the ethical implications of whether these systems are supporting or being compounded by the research. For example, working with partners or funders who are seeking to justify actions that cause climate change, should be avoided.

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