On Campus

How green is your university?

A new study says Canadian unis don’t always practice what they preach

The University of Northern British Columbia’s moniker “Canada’s Green University” is trademarked. And for good reason. In the age of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and David Suzuki’s near-sainthood, universities will certainly be competing for “green students” as environmental studies becomes more and more popular. But as universities move towards sustainable campuses and expand environmental studies programs, some experts worry that the greening is only skin-deep.

In Ontario, applications for environmental studies programs spiked by 37 per cent compared to the same time last year, according to numbers released by the Ontario University Applications Centre in February. The number of students who cited environmental studies as their first choice jumped by 48 per cent.

Whether because of the popularity among students or the genuine viewpoint of university administrators, Canadian universities seem at first glance to be enthusiastically embracing sustainability. Most have made some kind of public written statement about climate change and are members of groups such as the Canada Green Building Council or the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. Most also employ full-time sustainability coordinators (UBC’s sustainability office is considered a North American leader).

But signing up for membership doesn’t necessarily mean that universities are implementing the necessary changes, according to an article to be published next week in the environmental issue of Academic Matters magazine. The article, written by architect Brian Wakelin and environmental scientist Kathy Wardle, presents findings from a survey of 20 universities that gives an idea of what actions they are doing to slow climate change.

“Universities, since they are focused on teaching their students to be professionals, have done a pretty good job of embedding sustainability in their curriculum,” Wardle said in an interview. “But they are not necessarily applying the technologies to their own buildings. We would ask them: if they are supporting [sustainability] research, how can they lead by example by applying it on campus?”

Read Wakelin and Wardle’s article as well as more green university coverage in this month’s issue of Academic Matters, a publication of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.

The various projects at Canadian universities show that there are many ways to implement the research. “Universities can be viewed as small cities in that they manage their own water, garbage and some generate their own energy,” Wardle explained. For instance, the University of Calgary is looking into exchanging heat between buildings. Also, Laurentian University has a building with heating and cooling designed to adapt to warmer weather as the climate changes.

Wardle’s firm Busby Perkins&Will decided to survey universities after doing a similar survey of Canadian cities. They chose 20 universities of different sizes from across the country. Nine universities replied to the survey. The information for the remaining 11 was gathered from publicly available data. “The universities that didn’t want to respond are in the process of working through policy,” Wardle said.

The firm gathered information about curriculum, research, waste management (composting and recycling), energy consumption, water use, administrative leadership, and other initiatives such as transportation services and long-term plans.

The results were mixed. While it seems that Canada’s higher education community is dedicated to educating students about climate change and new technologies, they don’t always walk the talk. For instance, less than half of the universities surveyed shut down heating and lighting in buildings when they are not in use, such as on weekends and in the evening. For universities — because they don’t have industry like a city does — operating buildings accounts for a huge portion of their greenhouse gas emissions. At one American college, for instance, buildings operations account for 70 per cent of emissions.

This means that reducing energy consumption in buildings is key. But many universities have outdated buildings containing original equipment. Retrofitting existing buildings with more efficient lighting, heating, and water facilities is by far more efficient than constructing new buildings. However, many institutions complain of infrastructure under-funding and maintenance is not always apriority.

Alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar power, are also a key opportunity for universities, according to Wardle. But only four of the 20 universities surveyed are pursuing this option (one more is looking into alternative energy).

Over 500 American universities and colleges have signed the “Presidents Climate Commitment,” which is a pledge to set a timeline and action plan to become climate neutral. A Canadian version of the PCC was launched this spring by the presidents of British Columbia’s six public universities. But one of the problems with reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the survey found, is that a surprisingly low number of universities had no way of measuring their emissions. It seems that Canadian universities have a long way to go before reducing significant emissions.

Robert Corry, an associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of Guelph, questioned whether his campus is doing all it could to reduce climate change in another article in Academic Matters this month. “My campus is not green,” he wrote. “It has a greenish hue.” He commends Guelph’s five-year plan to reduce energy use and a recent decision by the students’ union to put $4 million over 12 years (which will be matched by the university) towards improving water, light and heating systems on old buildings. But he also notes that delayed maintenance and outdated infrastructure makes the task of greening campus daunting.

Although Guelph has recently updated their recycling program, has an active sustainability coordinator, and participates in a Zerofootprint program launched by Guelph president Alistair Summerlee, Corry isn’t satisfied. “Universities ought to be places for innovation, leading-edge thought, field experimentation, observation, and reporting,” he wrote, adding that Guelph doesn’t offer one of his students a suitable place to observe the green rooftops he’s studying.

Corry sees many possibilities for Guelph, including experimentation with alternative sources of energy such as solar and wind power. He also points out in his article that Guelph’s science complex opened in 2007 earned no Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating, a set of sustainability standards for new construction.

Wardle also points to LEED standards as a way for universities to improve sustainability. “New campus buildings should be built to LEED standards,” Wardle and Wakelin wrote. “Our research has shown that cities across Canada are mandating minimum LEED performance for their own buildings — universities have not followed suit.”

Seven of the 20 universities have a policy mandating LEED standards (two more are considering policies), and about half have some LEED certified buildings. 10 per cent of current LEED certified construction projects in Canada are higher education buildings, compared to five per cent in the US. Considering that 30 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions comes from construction, universities could be leading the way in this regard.

LEED isn’t necessarily the only way for institutions to implement sustainable designs for new buildings. For instance, although Simon Fraser University is gearing away from LEED standards, they are designing buildings with energy conservation technology, green roofs, and rainwater collection, Wardle says.

Designing sustainable buildings isn’t only about installing efficient light bulbs. “When designing a new building, you need to look at unique opportunities and synergies with surrounding buildings.” One example of possible synergies is using heat from a lab in neighbouring dorms.

All in all, Wardle is optimistic about the future of sustainability at Canadian universities. “They are heading in the right direction. They are not saying that climate change is not real,” she said. “The next step is implementing.”

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