When Canada’s environment minister, Peter Kent recently spoke to the media about the importance of ‘ethical oil’ in Northern Alberta, this proved just how hollow the federal governments’ commitment to sustainability actually is. Those within the governing party on Parliament Hill would be wise to revisit the true meaning of the word sustainability because it has nothing to do with the ethics of oil.
First envisioned and articulated in 1987 within the United Nations Brundtland Commission report, sustainability was described by the report authors as a foundational development strategy to best meet: “the needs of the present [generation] without compromising the ability of future generations from meeting their own needs.” It has since evolved to encompass almost every facet of daily life. The omnipresence of sustainability in daily life is attributable to the increasing pressures brought on by climate change.
Arguably those organizations that have the greatest stake, in advancing sustainability initiatives are public institutions such as: hospitals, crown corporations, universities and trade schools. This is because they are the most immediate connection that voters have with their elected representatives. While all public sector organizations claim to be sustainable, few genuinely are and fewer still are ecological role models.
Within the context of the British Columbia public sector, the modern university is stepping up to the challenge of climate change. To get an inside track on how universities tackle climate change, I spoke with Rita Fromholt, a sustainability coordinator with the University of Victoria’s Campus Planning and Sustainability Department back in the fall of 2010.
The role of the Campus Planning and Sustainability Department, according to their online vision statement is to, “to improve quality of life on campus and in the community by ensuring that sustainability is integral in campus operations, teaching, research and partnerships.” Fromholt and her colleague Dan McKinnon, another campus sustainability coordinator who also works with Neil Connelly, the Director for the Office of Campus Planning and Sustainability to advance green solutions on campus. Established in 2007, the Campus Planning and Sustainability Office have made great strides in a few short years. This is due in large part to the formative work of former campus sustainability coordinator Sarah Webb.
Webb was an invaluable and an influential member of the campus community, who was largely responsible for pushing the universities’ Board of Governors to adopt the current Campus Sustainability Action Plan for 2009 through until 2014. This action plan is a framework document, designed to guide the efforts of Webb’s successors. Among the largest challenges currently facing the Office of Campus Planning and Sustainability is the Greenhouse Gas Reductions Target Act of 2007.
This provincial statue mandates that public institutions to be carbon neutral by 2010, failure to comply with this government directive has forced public sector organizations to pay a fee of $25 to the Pacific Carbon Trust, for every ton of greenhouse gases emitted. To mitigate the financial burden of buying costly carbon credits, the Office of Campus Planning and Sustainability determined where to trim wastage by conducting an energy audit of their business operations using the Smart Tool.
The Smart Tool is a software program developed by the British Columbia Climate Action Secretariat for government ministries and public institutions to track their ecological footprint. This is made possible by imputing data for emissions generated from such things as: fleet vehicles, annual electricity and natural gas bills, paper usage and fugitive emissions. The SmartTool revealed that the University of Victoria’s annually produces 225,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions. This is an extremely large number, but according to Fromholt it is a little misleading because it does not account for greenhouse gases generated by travel.
Travel by staff and students, is one of the largest point sources of emissions at the university, but it was not included within the energy audit. This is especially odd when compared to government ministries who force their staffers to report their travel miles during their own Smart Tool energy audit sessions. Judging by the tone of her voice, this selective application of the Greenhouse Gas Reductions Target Act is an ongoing source of frustration for Fromholt, “think about if we did include travel, all the professors and students and all these international programs that are flying [students] around the world, you would see our number go way up.” Not one to revel in setbacks, Fromholt was eager to push ahead with an ambitious strategy to achieve a 20% reduction in green house gas emissions to 2007 emissions levels by the end of the 2011 academic school year. To meet her goal requires a greening of campus culture.
Her emission reduction strategy for the University of Victoria is based on personal and group empowerment by providing access to environmental education, “I am working with BC Hydro on a whole workplace conservation awareness program”. But getting the campus community to access existing programs and information seems to be a struggle, “Some people don’t even know that staff have 50% off [of] monthly bus passes. We only sell 600 a month and I am shocked.” These ongoing instances of inaction or lack of buy-in for new green initiatives, is not because of indifference but rather because of lack of perceived personal benefit for the some 4500 people that work at the University of Victoria on a daily basis.
“The problem that we have at a big institution is that there is no financial incentive for anybody to conserve, at home you don’t want to pay such a high [bill] so you know [to] shut off your lights and turn down the heat but nobody pays the bills here. There is one bill and one person pays it, there is no accountability.” Her solution is to imbue employees and students with a sense of collective ownership motivated through things such as waste reduction challenges and the creation of green teams within the different residence buildings and departments on campus. With this noble goal in mind, she has more than enough connections to make this outreach initiative effective for staff members, but it is an ongoing struggle for Fromholt to connect with the student population because of their transient nature. She explains that student insights are important but are often overlooked during the universities consultation process. Therefore to counter this phenomenon, she has made a concerted effort to hire work-study and co-op students to help her connect with student body. Recent work study hire Kelsey Mech, an environmental studies and biology student is an ideal candidate to bridge the communication gap between the administration and the student body because of her extensive involvement in student environmental advocacy groups such as Common Energy and the Go Beyond Project. When asked about the future, Fromholt has some bold ideas upcoming.
One of these ideas, which is soon to become as reality, is a revolving green fund. This idea first originated at Harvard University. With an initial investment of $250,000 from the business faculty, this new program sounds great but what is it, “It is a pot, so people submit an application with ideas about how to conserve energy and water, things that we can measure as savings of money.” The beauty of this program is that it will be revenue neutral, “Murray the energy manager will probably be the first one to submit an idea, so if we changed all the lighting in here [the bookstore and café] or in the library we could prove that over five years it could pay back the investment in savings. That is the savings that pay back the loan, so UVic is paying less to their utility bill to BC Hydro so that is how the loan is paid back.” Rita Fromholt is a true agent for environmental change at the University of Victoria, everyday her work helps to set the foundation for a green future for those who, choose to live, learn or work at the University of Victoria.