Although we are not experiencing intense hurricanes or brush fires, as a northern country, Canada is more sensitive to climate change than its southern neighbours. The 2.5 degree Celsius increase in Canada’s average temperature over the last 50 years has had major impacts: from diminishing ice caps to shrinking lakes to a forestry industry decimated by pine beetle infestation. According to climate scientist, James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, we only have 10 years or approximately 3,000 days before our ability to affect climate change becomes irreversible. In this context, urgent action is critical and everyone must contribute, especially universities.

Universities can affect climate change in two important ways. First, day to day campus operations directly impact the environment because campuses are run like small cities. They provide water, collect garbage, collect recycling, manage fleets of vehicles, build roads and buildings, and set patterns of land use. Second, and most importantly, our universities train tomorrow’s leaders.

To understand what action Canadian universities are currently taking to reduce climate change, our firm, Busby Perkins+Will, surveyed twenty institutions of various sizes, locations and operating endowments about their operations and curriculum. The results reveal consistent strengths and weaknesses in all schools.

Canadian universities are educating themselves on sustainability issues. Most universities are members of green organizations such as the Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC) and the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (ASSHE). Furthermore, most universities have also made public written commitments to sustainability. For example, Canadian universities are among the 350 signatories of the Talloires declaration established in 1990. It was the first official statement made by university administrators of a commitment to environmental sustainability in higher education and incorporates sustainability and environmental literacy in teaching, research, operations and outreach.

The results of Talloires were largely symbolic and resulted in little change. A decade and a half later, science has reached a consensus that global warming is real. The American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment (PCC) was created in 2006 calling on university presidents to commit to addressing climate neutrality by minimizing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The PCC mandates universities to set their own timeline for becoming climate neutral—the point where their operations will have no adverse impacts on the climate. For example, Ohio’s Oberlin College’s plan is particularly progressive and strives for Climate Neutrality by 2020—without carbon offsets— which would nearly meet the 3,000 day action plan. PCC support has surpassed Talloires virtually over night. The 500th signatory has just been recorded.

In contrast to Talloires, the PCC is all about action. The steps outlined in the commitment are worth reviewing: 1. initiate a plan to achieve climate neutrality as soon as possible; 2. initiate tangible actions to reduce greenhouse gases while the comprehensive plan is being developed; and 3. make the action plan and progress report publicly available.

In the first step, within two months of signing the commitment the institution is required to create a framework to guide and implement the climate neutral plan. Most Canadian universities surveyed already have sustainability managers in place. In fact, Canadian universities are sustainability coordinator pioneers. For example, Freda Pagani founded Canada’s first Campus Sustainability Office at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and successfully led university programs to reduce energy, water, paper and greenhouse gas emissions. The Sustainability Office is widely recognized as a leader and has consulted with many North American organizations.

The second step establishes a baseline. Within one year of signing, the signatory must complete an inventory of greenhouse gases including emissions from electricity, heating, commuting and air travel. Despite most universities having central heating and cooling plants and central electricity generation or purchasing, surprisingly few Canadian universities have greenhouse gas inventories in place. Furthermore, our experience working with Canadian universities has shown that many buildings on central plants are not adequately metered. What is remarkable about this is that baseline information is easy to obtain. The University of Toronto, for example, established its greenhouse gas inventory in 2001 with a combination of building monitoring data and a survey of fleet vehicles and commuter patterns.

Once the baseline is in place, the third step is to establish a target date for climate neutrality with interim targets and goals. Less than a quarter of the universities surveyed have any greenhouse gas reduction plans in place. As part of step three, universities must also adopt tangible actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the short term while the comprehensive plan is being developed. More than 30 percent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the construction and operations of buildings. For university campuses, the statistic is even higher because there are no emissions from industry. For example, Oberlin College’s buildings represent 70% of their greenhouse emissions. As one of the largest building owners in the country, Canadian universities have an enormous inventory of existing buildings that use a significant amount of energy. In this context, the best strategy for emissions reductions is to reduce energy demand as much as possible and switch to climate neutral fuels such as biomass, wind or hydro electricity. Common energy reductions include re-lamping buildings with energy efficient lighting, adding extra insulation, or installing high efficiency boilers. Less than half of the respondents turn off their buildings when not in use— we do it at home, why not at work—commonly referred to as a building setback policy. Campus buildings are largely vacant on evenings and weekends. As a result, a building setback policy can save a school a tremendous amount of energy and operating expenses.

Renovating existing buildings is also an excellent way to reduce emissions both from an operations and embodied energy perspective because the number of existing buildings vastly outweighs the number of new ones being built. For example, UBC’s Renew program is a $300 million initiative that restores aging buildings. Rather than spending money on maintenance every year, the university spends in one lump sum to renew the buildings for a fraction of the cost of building a new one. With this program, short life cycle building systems such as heating, ventilation, power and lighting are replaced at the end of their life span with energy efficient systems. Building envelopes are also upgraded and classrooms and social spaces are reconfigured to suit current learning methods. The result is a renewed stock of energy efficient buildings for a fraction of the amount of embodied energy required for a new building.

With the introduction of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) rating system into the North American market place, more universities have started looking at their design standards for new and retrofit buildings. New campus buildings should be built to LEED standards. About half of the universities we surveyed have some LEED compliant new and retrofit buildings. Across Canada, fifteen percent of LEED registered projects are higher education buildings (compared to less than 5% in the US). Given the small number of campus projects undertaken, this demonstrates that schools are committing to green building. But in most cases this appears to be for demonstration purposes only. Very few schools surveyed have a mandatory policy that all campus buildings must pursue LEED certification. Canadian cities on the other hand are more proactive according to our research. For example, the Town of Canmore (population: 11,599—less than many universities surveyed) mandates LEED Silver for all new municipal buildings. Our research has shown that cities across Canada are mandating minimum LEED performance for their own buildings—universities have not followed suit.

As one of the largest building owners in the country, Canadian universities have an enormous inventory of existing buildings that use a significant amount of energy.

While there is much to be done to improve our existing and new buildings, the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in Canadian universities is the central plant. Central plant heating and cooling systems are common across Canadian universities. Central plants and the network of tunnels that go with them are a huge investment and significant opportunity to reduce GHG emissions. Through our work with the University of Calgary, we have learned that there is enormous potential for heat exchange between different buildings. Conventional laboratories, for example, contain scientific equipment that emit large amounts of heat. Dormitories, on the other hand, are buildings containing people that require heat during winter. One building is a heat generator while the other requires heat and they are both networked via a system of warm water pipes. These buildings could transfer heat back and forth without requiring any input from the central plant—heating for free.

If all buildings are on a single loop system, switching to a climate neutral fuel such as biomass or fuel cell can convert all buildings to climate neutrality. Conventional stand alone buildings are not networked in this way so switching fuel sources is very expensive. Biomass central plant systems are currently in use at the University of Iowa and the University of Idaho, among others. The business case for alternative fuels is improving every day as the price of petroleum based fuels increases. However, universities that are not able to finance a central plant fuel conversion in the short term should consider purchasing green power such as hydro or wind where available. Our survey response shows the uptake on renewable energy is slow.

Part of the Presidents Climate Commitment (PCC) tangible actions also include making sustainability part of the curriculum and student learning experience. Within the past 10 to 20 years, universities have begun to realize that global warming can no longer be considered an independent issue to be discussed by climate scientists. Its subject matter is now the purvey of architects, economists, ecologists, and engineers. Interdisciplinary study now has biologists sitting together with building designers. Business and environmental students have even begun taking courses together. The cross pollination and fluidity from one discipline to the other will likely be the cornerstone of most university’s curricula in coming years. For example, the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) proposed for UBC brings together academia, industry and government to provide solutions for sustainability. The building will be a true living laboratory. Its building monitoring and assessment lab will be a space where building materials and systems can be monitored and tested on an ongoing basis for sustainable performance criteria.

Furthermore, universities are becoming think tanks for climate research. Higher education research on climate change has informed the public’s awareness. Canadian universities have been leaders on such subjects as restoration ecology, rising sea levels, effects on agriculture due to rising temperatures, climate change adaptation, and loss of species diversity. For example, Laurentian University’s Living with Lakes project will go beyond the LEED Platinum rating. For the first time, an academic facility is being designed for a 2050 climate with heating and cooling systems intended specifically to adapt to warmer winters and summers.

The final stage of the Presidents Climate Commitment (PCC)—that signatory universities make their action plan, emissions inventory, and progress reports publicly available by providing them to AASHE for posting and dissemination— is of utmost importance so that others can follow their example. While no Canadian institutions have signed on to the PCC, a similar made-in-Canada version has recently been announced. In March 2008, six British Columbia university presidents led the charge and have signed on to the Climate Change Statement of Action for Canada. In order for real change to occur, however, others must quickly follow suit. Only then can Canada show the world how to make climate neutral universities a reality.AM

Brian Wakelin is Associate Principal and Kathy Wardle is the Director of Research and a Senior Associate at Busby Perkins+Will, a Vancouver-based firm which is a leader in “green design” architecture.