Home Code Red From green buildings to greenhouse gas emissions: breaking down the state of sustainability at Ryerson

From green buildings to greenhouse gas emissions: breaking down the state of sustainability at Ryerson

by Kayla Zhu
Ryerson Image Centre in the spring. (Riley Snelling/Ryerson Image Centre)

Last year, Ryerson University declared that being “champions of sustainability” was one of its core values. But, is that true?

In September, the university provided an update on its sustainability initiatives through the Sustainability Progress Report 2021.

The report includes “a select number of key achievements, programs and initiatives” across three areas: academics, operations and engagement. The areas build on the sustainability office’s last sustainability progress report released in 2017.

From retrofitting older buildings for energy efficiency to adding new environmental courses to the curriculum, the report highlights some of the ways Ryerson is cutting back on emissions on the operations side, while advancing sustainability on the academic and research sides.

Ryerson scored a silver rating in the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s sustainability tracking, assessment and rating system (STARS).

STARS is a self-reporting framework for colleges and universities to measure their sustainability performance. 

Here’s a breakdown of Ryerson’s current known sustainability efforts, and where students, faculty and experts say they could do better.

Ryerson’s greenhouse gas emissions

Every year, the sustainability office tracks the university’s annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, categorized into three scopes. 

Scope one emissions are produced directly by sources owned or controlled by an organization (natural gas boilers and diesel generators).Scope two emissions are produced indirectly by products or services purchased by an organization (electricity and district steam).Scope three emissions are all other indirect emissions produced as a result of an organization’s activities and operations (waste and business travel).

According to the report, total GHG emissions across all three was down 4.6 per cent in the 2019-2020 year from the previous year. This decrease is attributed to the campus shutdown in March 2020 due to the pandemic.

The university emitted 16,057 tonnes of CO2e in the 2019-2020 year.

The greatest decline in GHG emission was in scope two emissions, whereas scope one and scope three saw similar or greater levels of emissions.

In the 2019-2020 school year, steam and natural gas —  used for heating buildings and water on campus — accounted for 72 per cent of all GHG emissions.

Despite the pandemic, business travel, including air, mileage, car rentals and taxis, made up 14  per cent of all emissions that year.

In the GHG emissions sources on campus 2019/2020 table, the sustainability office did not include commuting as an emission source, despite commuting being listed as emitting 9,253 tonnes of CO2e that year under the annual GHG emissions trend 2014-2020 table.

In the fall 2020 semester, the sustainability office established a climate and energy working group, made up of staff, students and faculty, whose goals are to establish GHG emission reduction targets and a plan to achieve those targets.

Ryerson has yet to release any of these GHG reduction targets, lagging behind schools like the University of Toronto, York University, the University of British Columbia and many others that have already set targets and published plans to achieve them.

On the progress report website, the sustainability office said the next step is the development of the university's first sustainability action plan (SAP) “to establish goals and chart the course for future sustainability efforts.”

The office of administration and operations said in an email that it does not have an exact date for the SAP release, but the goal is to publish it in early to mid-2022. It will “include short and longer term GHG emissions reduction targets,” the office said in its email.

John Robinson, a public policy professor at U of T, said these targets are necessary because staff need to know what they’re working towards and be rewarded for achieving those targets. Most importantly, he said, institutions need to move beyond net-zero goals to net-positive goals.

“Those kinds of targets are crucial, and they need to be very ambitious,” said Robinson. “That’s just the world we’re living in, we need to move far and fast.”

U of T committed to becoming climate positive — meaning they will remove more carbon from the atmosphere than they emit — by 2050.

As a part of its low carbon action plan, U of T is working to create the largest geoexchange system in Canada on its downtown campus, reducing an estimated 15,000 tonnes of GHGs per year.

The King’s College circle geothermal project consists of several hundred boreholes, drilled deep underground, that will store “surplus heat, generated by mechanical systems in the summer, for use in the cold winter months.” Natural gas and electricity consumption from buildings accounted for 42.8 per cent of carbon emissions in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area in 2018, according to The Atmospheric Fund.

"Our buildings have been very ineffective, not just from an energy point of view, but from an energy use point of view"

Ryerson architectural science professor Umberto Berardi, who is also a Canada Research Chair, said these emissions are something remote learning could help curb.

“The value, indirectly, that distance teaching can provide in cutting transportation emissions of the community going there for sometimes not necessary reasons, I think this is where the world needs to reconsider and reposition ourselves,” he said.

Berardi said Ryerson maintained its heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems during the pandemic, even when faculty and students were not around and buildings were unused. 

“Our buildings have been very ineffective, not just from an energy point of view, but from an energy use point of view,” he said. “People are not there, why are we conditioning the offices?”

Campus as a living lab

Robinson, who also co-chairs U of T’s presidential advisory committee on environment, climate change and sustainability, said flagship buildings and projects like the geoexchange field are not only important markers of the school’s commitment to its GHG reduction goals, but they’re also ways to learn about highly advanced systems.

Once completed, there will be an underground classroom where students can see the geoexchange process at work and study its performance, according to Robinson. He believes that all universities should be treating their campuses as “living labs.”

“Everything that goes on in the building should be studied, worked on and improved on from a sustainability point of view,” he said.

One of Ryerson’s flagship sustainability projects coming up is the Smart Campus Integration and Testing Lab (SCITLab), a research and development lab that will showcase and test new smart-building technologies and net-zero solutions.

Led by architectural science professor Jenn McArthur, SCITLab will test control strategies for residential and commercial smart building applications, such as low-carbon air and water heat pump systems, lighting, communication systems and more smart building systems.

In 2019, Ryerson opened two new leadership in energy and environmental design (LEED)-certified buildings: The Centre for Urban Innovation and the Daphne Cockwell Health Sciences Complex (DCC). 

Both these buildings include key sustainability features like smart-building technologies that can turn lights on and off and adjust the climate based on occupancy levels and submetering — a system that allows researchers and staff to collect real-time utility data to study how occupants use energy and water.

For Berardi, some standout technologies in these two buildings include high-performance windows, high accuracy and control options in the HVAC system and high quality insulation.

However, he said he feels that Ryerson “lost some opportunities” to improve the condition of some buildings over the pandemic, citing energy efficiency and air quality as areas of improvement for some buildings.

“The fact that we didn't have that many people around in the university, it would have been a much better way to fix some major issues,” he said. “[The pandemic] was clearly unexpected and unplanned, so it's understandable, but I think it’s a missed opportunity.”

Investment strategies

In recent years, Canadian universities’ investment practices have been another area where community members say sustainability falls short, as investments in high-GHG emitting industries like the fossil fuel industry have been called into question.

In June 2020, 16 Canadian universities signed “Investing to Address Climate Change: A Charter for Canadian Universities,” committing to reduce their carbon footprint through strategic investment practices and incorporating environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors into their investment management strategies. 

Signatories, including U of T, UBC and more, also pledged to “regularly measure the carbon intensity of [their] investment portfolios, and set meaningful targets for their reduction over time.” Ryerson University did not sign the charter. 

A spokesperson for Ryerson’s Treasury and Investing Services said while the university did not sign onto the charter, they are “currently in the process of participation” in the University Network for Investor Engagement program.

The program is a “climate-aligned portfolio investor engagement program” for university endowments and pension plans, which aims to use universities’ power as institutional investors to address the drivers of climate change in their portfolios, according to the spokesperson.

Fossil fuel divestment has been a rapidly growing student movement in Canada in recent years, with Laval University, Concordia University, UBC, University of Guelph and Université de Québec à Montréal all committing to full or partial divestment since 2017. Divestment is the process of selling investments in a specific industry and foregoing future investments in that industry.

At Ryerson, endowment funds — monetary donations made to the university — consist of a non-expendable pool of funds that earns investment income and grows at the inflation rate. In the 2019-2020 academic year, Ryerson’s endowment fund had a market value of $144.4 million.

The endowment funds policy on the website outlines how the university establishes and maintains its endowments, and was last approved in August 2007. It is currently under review, according to the spokesperson.

The investment policy for non-expendable funds, which governs the objectives and principles of the investment of endowment funds, was last updated in September 2018.

On the 2020 endowment webpage, the university said its investment portfolio “is generally conservative while focused on high-quality companies that are predominantly environmentally responsible, socially ethical and practise good governance.”

Ryerson’s endowment is currently managed by the Board of Governors’ finance committee and external investment managers at Fiera Capital.

The university spokesperson said Fiera “employs multiple investment strategies in the management of Ryerson’s endowment funds and ESG considerations are integrated into the investment process of each investment strategy” but also noted that ESG considerations are “unique to each strategy.”

In August 2021, Fiera joined the net zero asset managers initiative, which includes a group of asset managers committed to supporting the goal of net zero GHG emissions by 2050 or sooner.

As of 2019, Ryerson owns units in Fiera’s balanced endowment, foundation and trust (EFT) fund, which owns shares and bonds of fossil fuel companies like Pembina Pipeline, Suncor Energy, Keyera Corp and Enbridge Pipelines, according to a copy of the fund obtained through an access-to-information request. 

Divestment is a “powerful tactic” in addressing the issue of fossil fuel companies wielding enormous economic and political power in Canada directly through the institutions we are a part of, said Michelle Marcus, a student organizer with Climate Justice UBC and Divest Canada.

She said that universities, whose purpose is to support and prepare students for the future, are “not actually following its mission” because it is upholding an industry that is “actively threatening our futures.”

"If they're not divesting at this point, then this means they are actively choosing to side with the fossil fuel industry"

She said divestment campaigns help people “connect the dots” to see how institutions that students spend so much time and energy in are directly contributing to the issues we are facing.

While Robinson thinks there are other ways to have a “bigger impact on carbon emissions through investment strategies,” he also said divestment has a “hugely symbolic” value.

“The power of divestment, in my mind, is less about the actual effect on carbon emissions of the individual divestment decision and more about the institution standing up and saying, ‘we're going to be publicly in support of this movement off fossil fuel,’” he said.

Ultimately, Marcus said it’s impossible to reduce emissions until we change our political climate. She sees Harvard University’s recent divestment announcement as a “really big turning point.”

On Sept. 9, Harvard announced they would divest its remaining fossil fuel investments, a major victory in the divestment movement as the school currently has the largest endowment fund in the U.S. at $41.9 billion.

“The university with the largest endowment fund is divesting. Everybody knows that this is actually in our universities’ financial interest to divest from fossil fuels,” she said. “So if they’re not divesting at this point, then this means they are actively choosing to side with the fossil fuel industry.”

Communication and engagement with students and community members

Beyond reducing GHG emissions, Ryerson’s sustainability efforts include engaging students in sustainability-related activities and leading climate change research.

A spokesperson for the office of administration and operations said it is currently focused on expanding its sustainability ambassadors program, and is also working with the residence team to develop and implement a new residence sustainability leadership program. 

Berardi said that these sustainability-focussed programs and zones are the “most valuable thing that differentiates” Ryerson from other universities when it comes to sustainability education.

“We go beyond the simple curriculum and provide opportunities for people to meet each other,” he said. “Ryerson students have a nice balance between fundamental and applied knowledge.”

For Ryerson master’s of building science student Simran Munde, placing second in the office division of the U.S. Solar Decathlon Design Competition was a “great learning opportunity” in the area of architecture she is passionate about: sustainable design.

The team designed a self-sustaining net-zero office that shares surplus energy and water with nearby buildings, with each member assigned to different specialties like HVAC, architectural design and more. “The way everything came together, it was a really great experience and we took away a lot of valuable skills that we can apply to the real world,” she said.

Munde said she’s “aware” of newer buildings like the DCC and Student Learning Centre, and their sustainability-focused designs, but feels that for the typical student, more communication and engagement around what sustainability initiatives are going on around campus is needed.

“It's important to get the word out and get people involved in becoming part of the solution, whether that’s things like the Solar Decathlon or on campus programs that help to make people aware of how to help this global emergency we're dealing with,” she said.

This article may have been created with the use of AI software such as Google Docs, Grammarly, and/or Otter.ai for transcription.

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