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U of T Academic Wood Tower rendering courtesy of MJMA and Patkau Architects

Canadian colleges and universities are starting to dream big about sustainability. Curriculum renewal, low-carbon buildings, fossil fuel divestment, and increased multi-institution collaboration top a growing list of commitments by Canadian post-secondary institutions. But is it enough, given the climate emergency?

“Movement is happening, but it is all about accelerating change,” says John Robinson, the University of Toronto’s presidential advisor on the environment, climate change and sustainability, emphasizing the urgency of the moment. A sustainability scholar who heads a university committee of senior administrators, faculty, students and staff, Robinson warns that “the longer we take, the worse the consequences.”

U of T embodies both the progress and the unfinished agenda to date. The university promises a net-zero-emissions campus by 2050 and a 40% reduction in the carbon footprint of its investment portfolio by 2030. Nudged by Robinson’s committee, the campus serves as a “living lab” for upper-year students to work on real problems identified by university departments. So far, 100 students participate, with 1,000 students a year expected over time. U of T is also constructing a new 14-storey timber-framed academic tower and a 750-bed residence built to “passive house” standards that limit energy demand to a fraction of what is used in a conventional building.

In academic innovation, Robinson’s committee and university departments are creating curricular and co-curricular pathways for any student to earn sustainability credentials in or outside the classroom.

“We are trying to make sustainability a defining characteristic of U of T,” Robinson says.

Equally ambitious is the University of British Columbia, which in 2020 placed first in Canada and seventh globally in the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings of commitment to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In a 2019 victory for student activists, UBC committed to full divestment of fossil fuel endowment investments “as soon as possible,” promised carbon neutrality by 2050, and declared a climate emergency. Last June, UBC president Santa Ono was named to lead the University Climate Change Coalition – with 22 research universities in Canada, the United States and Mexico promising accelerated efforts.

“There is so much work to do and so much [information] to share; competition only gets you so far,” Ono says. “The enormity of the climate change threat to humanity is so large that the sooner we can get away from that to open sharing of information and very strategic collaboration – the sooner we get there the better.”

He views students as allies. “We have learned from them, not only regarding the urgency of divestment but also how they view the world, what they would like to see in the curriculum and what kinds of projects they would like to work on.”

Michelle Marcus, a fourth-year environmental science student and divestment lead with Climate Justice UBC (formerly UBCC350), says that “student leadership has been critical to getting UBC to the place it is at, so continuing to empower and support students is going to be critical.” For example, Climate Hub was introduced in 2018 for university-funded, student-driven projects (for which they receive pay or course credits) on environmental and social justice issues.

Sustainability increasingly looms large in the curriculum. Montreal’s Concordia University, which aims to end fossil fuel endowment investments by 2025, last year joined the UN’s Decade of Action campaign to achieve the 17 SDGs by 2030. The university estimates that 82% of departments now offer sustainability content, up from 65% five years ago. Meanwhile, Concordia’s John Molson School of Business (JMSB) plans to add social and environmental responsibility to its core undergraduate curriculum starting this fall.

“We have learned from students, not only regarding the urgency of divestment but also how they see the world.”
– UBC president Santa Ono

“Right now, what is missing is student understanding about the core importance of sustainability issues,” says Jooseop Lim, associate dean of undergraduate programs. The goal, says JMSB dean Anne-Marie Croteau, is to develop “a reflex among students and faculty to think about sustainability issues and to be mindful of it.”

Kamloops university earns platinum for going green

As of September, all students at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., must choose a course (from a menu of more than 5O) tied to citizenship, one of eight university learning outcomes. They learn about ethical decision-making “by considering the social, economic and ecological side effects of everyday actions,” according to a TRU spokeswoman.

One of two Canadian universities with platinum ranking from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, TRU aspires to be carbon neutral, without offsets, by 2030. In 2022, the university will break ground on a 10-year campus electrification project to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 90%. TRU hopes to divert 95% of campus waste from landfill in five years, up from 71% currently, with single-use items like coffee cups eliminated by 2025.

“As a society we have made convenience too important, and we have finally come to the realization that it is just a huge waste issue,” says TRU manager of sustainability programs James Gordon. “We are going to start turning that clock back.”

Colleges are eager to be change-makers too

In 2020, Ontario’s Mohawk College and seven other climate-conscious institutions staked out a national role to train graduates for a sustainable, post-pandemic recovery. “Now is the time … to make sure that it is a resilient recovery and that there is a move to a low-carbon, circular and socially inclusive economy,” says Mohawk president Ron McKerlie, of the mandate of the Canadian Colleges for a Resilient Recovery (CCRR). “There is no point putting billions into infrastructure without at the same time fixing some of the issues we have around climate change.”
CCRR takes its cue from the independent Task Force for a Resilient Recovery that last year urged federal government and industry support for building retrofits, clean energy, cleantech and zero-emission vehicles.

“This is too big an issue for us to tackle on our own,” McKerlie says. Each institution plays to its strength – Mohawk’s Centre for Climate Change Management is a hub for regional emission reduction – while sharing relevant curricula for a post-pandemic recovery. The City School, a successful Mohawk pilot project that retrains unemployed welfare recipients, will soon roll out nationally with other colleges.

“This is our chance to make a meaningful difference to the Canadian economy,” says McKerlie, who predicts that 50,000 workers could be retrained in a couple of years. “If we get the colleges involved, and there is some funding to go with it, we can increase this number significantly.”

College campuses are also test beds for sustainability.

Ontario’s Sheridan College is ahead of schedule to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030. Over the past decade, Sheridan has cut energy use per student by 35% and, since committing to zero waste in 2014, has slashed the volume of waste going to landfill by 54%.

Sheridan is one of the first North American institutions to set European-style energy-performance specifications for new buildings, says sustainability director Herb Sinnock. “At the time, we were looking at German building ratings for [low] annual energy consumption, and we felt if Germany and Austria can do it, we can too,” he says. In 2017, a second wing added to a campus building in Mississauga recorded 50% higher energy efficiency compared to the first wing built six years earlier.

Still, experts say the necessary heavy lifting is just beginning.

“We are definitely seeing a lot of effort, there is no doubt of that,” says Livia Bizikova, the lead for monitoring and governance at the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development. “The challenge is that there are so many things to do, and the question is more ‘Is the effort enough to get to the path to improve sustainability significantly?’”

Jennifer Lewington is an intrepid reporter and writes regularly on many topics, including business school news.

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