Comparing MRU, U of C on lowering emissions and adapting to a lower carbon future
By Christian Kindrachuk, Web Editor
Emissions are a leading contributor to the climate crisis, and universities across Canada and the globe can be part of the solution through education and strategies to reduce their carbon footprints. However, not all institutions are alike in their approaches to reducing emissions.
“I think everyone has a responsibility, or anyone who is a part of a larger corporation has a responsibility in sustainability,” says Abisola Allison, a third-year environmental science student at Mount Royal University (MRU).
Allison says universities have a shared responsibility to act on climate change, part of which comes with education on the subject at large and bringing awareness to the issue.
”Some universities have actually successfully been able to have zero carbon emissions with long-term planning and a direct switch from fossil fuels, more education, and a changing infrastructure. I was surprised to see that it actually can be done.”
Compared to other institutions like the University of Calgary (U of C) or the University of British Columbia, MRU does not have a concrete climate action plan in place, but does have eight green campus programs with such topics as energy, projects and operations.
One recent green project at MRU is solar panels that were set up in 2018. Grant Sommerfeld, associate vice president of facilities management at MRU, says the project can be expanded depending on funding.
“The cost of solar generation keeps dropping, the solar panels are cheaper and more powerful every year. So we’ve got a small array sitting on top of the E wing, which is expandable.”
Along with the solar panels, MRU is using combined heat and power (CHP) units to help make systems efficient and reduce costs. Use of CHP technology has saved MRU 2,171 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, according to the university’s 2018-19 annual report.
While MRU does not set specific goals for this type of undertaking, its ability to reduce emissions can be measured by the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS). Currently, MRU holds a silver rating from STARS, based on a comprehensive analysis submitted in 2019.
The U of C is also part of the STARS program and currently holds a gold rating, based on its 2018 submission. This submission included the institution’s climate action plan, which was kickstarted in 2008 when they became a signatory to the University and College Presidents’ Climate Change Statement of Action for Canada.
“As part of that commitment, the institutions that signed that statement were called to issue a climate action plan,” says Jay Campo, director of energy planning and innovation at the U of C and lead on its climate action plan.
“It drove our efforts for climate action for almost 10 years; over those 10 years, we were able to reduce energy emissions about 30 per cent from 2008 to 2018.”
In 2019, the U of C updated its climate plan as targets needed to be adjusted with growth. The campus aims to be carbon neutral by 2050, in line with international agreements that Canada has committed to like the Paris Agreement in 2015.
“Canada committed to reduce 30 per cent of emissions by 2030, I think from a 2005 baseline level. That was the Paris Agreement, and then you see a lot of jurisdictions — progressive jurisdictions around the world and post-secondary institutions as well — aiming for carbon neutrality in 2050,” says Campo.
MRU’s green projects were also guided by the Paris Agreement, as well as the Okanagan Charter and the City of Calgary’s climate plans over the years, says Sommerfeld.
“We didn’t set specific targets based on that. Our goal was to reduce as much as we could based on the capital we had, and based on fine-tuning operations.”
Reducing emissions based on cost has taken a turn recently, due to funding cuts from the Alberta government and the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in setbacks. Government incentive programs and subsidies have helped MRU invest in clean energy techniques, including the multimillion-dollar investment in CHP, according to Sommerfeld.
“I think that the Alberta government should fund universities such as Mount Royal more,” says Meri Topchieva, a policy studies student at MRU. “For climate change policy, you do have to have some type of funding to back that up.”
Universities have different options to offset the pitfall with government funding such as creating a clean energy fund, similar to what the University of Vermont implemented by having students pay slightly more in fees.
“I don’t think a lot of students would be opposed to that fee because more young people are demanding for the changes and I think people are willing to pay to invest in green energy solutions,” says Allison.
Serious progress in emissions reduction at MRU doesn’t seem far off to Sommerfeld.
“I think in 2025, we are going to see a lot more on-site electrical generation. I would hope that we can double or even triple our capacity to the point where we’re generating anywhere from 40 to 60 per cent of our own demand, and I think we’re going to see investments in consumption reduction.”
While that is an achievable goal for the future, students would also like to see change in the short term, because the issue of climate change is something that is important to them and that ultimately affects them.
“I would like to see the leaders of this change, working with the school,” says Allison. “I think that for me, it would be a good investment. It would make the school look good and people want to see changes now. So it would be good for the university to take steps. At least have a plan, that’s a good starting point.”
“I think it’s very important because universities actually develop the mind of the next decade. So if they don’t do it, well, then who will?” says Topchieva.