As world leaders and scientists convened this month for the United Nations climate change conference in Paris, Canadian post-secondary institutions were signaling their plans to do more for environmental protection and adaptations to reduce their emissions. Everything from composting and banishing plastic bottles and paper cups, to installing beehives and wind turbines are part of national mitigation efforts to address climate change.
Through campus support for protecting the environment and making green choices, many Canadian colleges and universities are implementing sustainable food practices and energy systems. By 2014, 110 of 220 accredited institutions in Canada had adopted sustainability policies. Approximately half have also signed onto either national or international sustainability commitments.
A total of 26 campuses are now bottled water free. The University of British Columbia is a zero-waste campus. The University of Winnipeg has banned paper cups. Concordia University has initiated the process of divesting from fossil fuels. Cape Breton University is installing wind turbines. And garden rooftops, low-flush toilets, and energy efficient lighting are all making their way onto campuses across the country.
“There is so much potential for initiatives that bring together groups and individuals from various backgrounds to discuss sustainability efforts in ways that intersect with a variety of progressive goals,” said Andrew Bieler, a postdoctoral researcher with the Sustainability and Education Policy Network (SEPN) who is examining strategic plans and other initiatives from post-secondary institutions with a focus on sustainability.
Some have committed to a holistic approach — rather than a reductive approach — to build sustainability into the curriculum and culture of the university. According to SEPN, post-secondary institutions in larger communities, and in British Columbia and Quebec, score highest on their uptake of sustainability initiatives.
The University of Northern British Columbia is one campus internationally recognized for its green practices. The university has gone so far as to trademark its identity as “Canada’s Green University.”
“We model our university as a living laboratory for research, learning and experimentation,” said UNBC’s sustainability manager Kyrke Gaudreau. “And it has proved remarkably successful.”
Its BioEnergy Plant on the Prince George campus uses gasification to convert sawmill residue from lumber production into useable heat in the form of hot water, which has offset roughly 85 per cent of the fossil fuels previously used to heat the core-campus buildings. The university next launched a Sustainable Communities Demonstration Project to expand its renewable energy production, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fuel purchase costs.
But it’s not just renewable energy that has put UNBC in the spotlight. It also boasts commitments to food and sustainability through a university farmers’ market, getting more local, sustainable food onto campus, collaborations with First Nations, and an organic garden and compost program that includes food services, ground maintenance, the residences and the campus community.
Gaudreau says UNBC is currently working on a new academic plan that will position sustainability as a core principle, “evidenced by the foci of our scholarship: environment and natural resources; First Nations and Indigenous issues; Northern community sustainability and development; and health and quality of life.”
SEPN has identified that claims of a sustainability focus are increasingly a selling point in attracting students, faculty and funders, but cautions about institutional greenwashing where sustainability policies and related high level initiatives such as signing of declarations can act as “sustainability fixes,” giving the appearance of taking steps towards protecting the environment while a higher priority remains given to the institution’s economic considerations.
“There are both overt and subtle forms of greenwashing,” Bieler said. “In the overt sense, there are obvious examples such as the University of Calgary’s Centre for Corporate Sustainability, previously funded by Enbridge. Usually, the more subtle forms of greenwashing appear in strategic plans through the use of vague or segmented definitions of sustainability that allow for the openness of the concept as a gesture to stakeholders, with a focus on financial and operational activities.”
Michael Waglay, the coordinator of Meal Exchange’s Beyond Campus Food Banks project, also works to link sustainable practices to social and environmental issues on campus.
“Meal Exchange provides opportunities for students to get involved in food ethics and sustainability,” he said. “Food is a powerful way to connect people. If students care about food issues, we can encourage them to take action for just and sustainable food initiatives.”
He noted that almost every university and college campus across Canada now has a food bank, and students are one of the fastest growing groups of users. He argues institutions need to respond to the food crisis and one way to do this is to move away from profiteering from food sales.
“Administrators need to make access to education more affordable, first by reducing tuition fees but also through supporting local food options and reviewing their approach to food services.”
One success story Meal Exchange took part in was securing funding for a greenhouse at Memorial University in Newfoundland — a province not well known for its agricultural potential. Memorial also manages a community garden.
Waglay says campus gardens are a good place to start talking about climate change and access to local foods. “The more campuses source their food locally, the more they reduce emissions in transportation and promote good food access.”
Other campuses are taking steps to promote urban agriculture and support access to nutritious food. Ryerson University’s willingness to experiment with a rooftop farm produced more than 8,000 pounds of produce this summer. In 2013, after pressure from students and faculty for an alternative food strategy, the university hired an executive chef who established a “Ryerson Eats” brand to reflect a vision that gives priority to locally sourced and campus-made food.
“All of these initiatives are in the right direction but there still is more to do to cultivate political will to make systemic change,” said Waglay.