A Close Examination of the University’s Environmental Stewardship and the Road Ahead

by Maya Honda-Granirer, Staff Writer

Photo source: U of T’s Climate Positive Campus Strategy

At the end of 2023, U of T was named the most sustainable global university in the 2024 QS World University Rankings, with an environmental score of 98.4. In the past ten years, the university has made significant efforts to advocate for environmental stewardship and conscious investment practices. These efforts include sweeping commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a Climate Charter to Canadian Universities which came to be signed by 20 universities across Canada, and the divestment from all fossil fuel company investments. In light of this promising news, let’s take a look at U of T’s recent commitments to climate action and how well they are being adhered to. 

In 2018, U of T announced its “Low-Carbon Action Plan” to be rolled out between 2019 and 2024. This plan focused primarily on lowering carbon emissions, with the ultimate goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 37% compared to 1990 levels by the year 2030. In concrete terms, U of T’s three campuses emitted roughly 117,000 tonnes of equivalent carbon dioxide or eCO2 in 1990. In 2018, eCO2 emissions were slightly over 114,000 tonnes, and U of T pledged to lower emissions by over 40,000 tonnes of eCO2 by 2030. The Low-Carbon plan consisted of diverse carbon reduction strategies, including producing means of clean energy and carbon capture, distributing energy more efficiently, and reducing the campuses’ overall energy consumption.  

Since the plan began, U of T has made large strides to realize its ambitious and progressive climate goals. In 2020, the university’s eCO2 emissions sat at 93,000 tonnes, showing a significant decrease from 2018 levels, but nonetheless above the plan’s 2024 target of lowering emissions to 85,000 tonnes. 

Numerous additions  to U of T’s three campuses have emerged and continue to emerge from the Low-Carbon Action Plan. One notable example is the expansive geo-exchange system which sits below King’s College Circle – 250 meters underneath, to be exact. Over 370 U-shaped pipes were placed in boreholes to form a complex water-circulating system. This water takes excess heat from buildings during the summer and stores it underground. The heat can thereafter be circulated back into buildings when wintertime comes. This greatly reduces the need for energy-intensive heating and air-conditioning systems. 

The Low-Carbon Plan also saw the installation of solar panels to offset 200 tonnes of eCO2 and the redesigning of energy distribution in U of T’s Central Plant to recycle otherwise wasted heat and convert it into hot water. It also saw the start of construction of the St. George Academic Wood Tower, which will be the tallest mass timber and concrete hybrid building in North America once it is complete in 2026. 

Thus far, the Low-Carbon Plan appears to be yielding success, considering the innovative and large-scale architectural, engineering, and environmental upgrades that have been realized at U of T’s campuses. That said, we don’t yet know whether U of T has met its carbon reduction targets for the Low-Carbon Plan. We will have to wait for the university’s report, which is likely to be released in late 2024 or early 2025, once the plan officially comes to fruition. 

U of T’s ambitious goals and carbon reduction initiatives did not stop with the Low-Carbon Plan. In 2021, the university announced its pledge to become climate positive – in other words, to go beyond net-zero emissions by further removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to achieve ‘carbon negative’ – by 2050. This will be achieved through at least 80% absolute carbon reductions on-campus, and up to 20% by local off-campus clean energy production. 

Photo source: U of T’s Climate Positive Campus Strategy

The Climate Positive Plan entails a significant redirection of U of T’s energy sources, with a shift from reliance on natural gas to electricity and renewable energies. This will be achieved via the upgrade of old and energy-intensive infrastructure, the strategic placement of nodal networks across campus to foster faster energy redistribution and the construction of an interconnected network of electrical switching stations that will help to reduce power outages in areas of dense energy demand.

U of T also plans to eliminate steam generation for heating and modernize the Central Plant to run on electricity rather than natural gas. We can also expect to see more renewable energy initiatives, including an off-campus solar farm at the Koffler Scientific Reserve. 

The Plan also emphasizes the responsible management of  U of T campus’s growth, as the St. George campus is projected to nearly double in size in the next 30 years. In the detailed initiatives outlined by U of T in their Climate Positive Plan, the optimization of existing spaces before expansion to new spaces and buildings is highlighted. Additionally, all new buildings will be designed with strict carbon emission and energy consumption targets in mind. For instance, a newly planned student residence building at Spadina and Sussex will use an underground geo-exchange system and become the lowest carbon-emitting residence on the St. George campus. 

Overall, the Climate Positive Plan offers an optimistic outlook for U of T’s future as a global institution leading the way for progressive environmental stewardship. The plan is innovative, and does not rely on a single new building, energy source, or major change to reach its goals. Rather, it describes a multifaceted and holistic effort to change how the University operates, whether that be in its energy, construction, or investment ventures. 

That said, some U of T students feel that 2050 is too late for the university to become carbon-negative, given the dire urgency and threat of climate change. They feel that the university’s plans for climate action are too little, too late, and that the university should be on course to pursue more rapid change. 

The criticisms highlight the importance of continuous scrutiny and public engagement to ensure the university remains accountable in its pursuit of sustainability. It is up to students, faculty, and members of the public alike to hold U of T accountable for its commitments made in both the Low-Carbon and Climate Positive plans. We should assess whether the university is on track to fulfill its climate goals and advocate for more impactful change where possible. 

U of T’s ambitious strides underscore a commitment to a greener future, but the echo of student concerns reminds us all of the pressing urgency of climate change that requires both innovation and accelerated action.

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