Carbon neutrality has become synonymous with running a sustainable operation in the fight against climate change. So far, universities are finding it a hard practice to implement. Only a handful of post-secondary institutions in Canada have become carbon neutral. So, what would it take for Ryerson to join this exclusive club?
What is carbon neutrality?
To become carbon neutral is to balance your carbon emissions with offsets. For example, one mature tree absorbs 22 kilograms of carbon per year. If you emitted 22 kilograms of carbon and then planted a mature tree, you would be considered carbon neutral.
Which universities have already achieved carbon neutrality?
In Canada, Université Laval and École de Technologie Supérieure are carbon neutral. This goal is made much easier in Quebec due to the province’s ability to source the bulk of its energy from hydro. In British Columbia, publicly funded schools became carbon neutral after the province passed legislation requiring that all provincial public sector organizations follow a process to achieve carbon neutrality. On the other side of the country, Cape Breton University built a wind farm that helped it achieve carbon neutrality in 2016. Perhaps the most globally recognized university to accomplish the feat is the London (U.K.) School of Economics, which achieved it through the installation of solar panels, LED lights, and a change in energy sourcing (among many other things).
What would need to change at Ryerson?
According to Ryerson’s Sustainability Office in Facilities Management in Development, one of the main things that would have to change would be its use of steam. The school uses steam for heating both air and water in 80-90 per cent of the buildings on campus, and it accounts for approximately 65 per cent of Ryerson’s operational carbon footprint. Steam itself is clean, but it is produced using natural gas.
“Because fossil fuels are used to produce steam and it is energy intensive to produce and distribute, it has a large carbon footprint,” the Sustainability Office said via an email statement.
Philip Walsh, a professor of entrepreneurship and strategy and a principal investigator at Ryerson’s Centre for Urban Energy, says that while steam generated by natural gas isn’t clean, it’s much better than oil. “I look at natural gas as a transition step,” he said.
The Sustainability Office acknowledges that steam is difficult and expensive to graduate from, but Walsh says that there is still room for Ryerson to improve within the current steam system. “If we could improve efficiency of the use of steam in various buildings, that would reduce the amount of natural gas that’s being used and reduce our carbon footprint,” he said.
This lack of efficiency rings true more so in Ryerson’s older buildings, which weren’t built to today’s environmental standards. “The building with the largest carbon footprint on our campus is Kerr Hall,” the Sustainability Office said via email. “(That) is a significant reason why it was designated for replacement in our Campus Master Plan.”
Beyond replacing its largest emitter, Ryerson will be releasing a “Carbon Reduction Roadmap” sometime in the future. The document will be penned jointly by the Sustainability Office and the Climate and Energy Working Group. It will include “associated targets to work towards carbon neutrality,” according to the Sustainability Office, along with “GHG (greenhouse gas) emission reduction targets and timelines, areas of focus, key initiatives and enabling factors.” The Carbon Reduction Roadmap does not yet have a release date.
Along with reducing emissions, the other side to the carbon neutrality issue is what offsetting measures firms can take to actively absorb carbon. There are internal offsets, like planting trees or storing energy through solar panels, but Walsh says anything akin to Cape Breton’s wind farm is trickier to implement in an urban environment. A lack of space and tall buildings casting long shadows are part of the issue, but so is the additional cost. “That’s what’s making it somewhat problematic for a public academic institution that doesn’t have a lot of access to funding,” Walsh said.
Of course, Ryerson could be carbon neutral tomorrow if it wanted to be. A market is emerging for carbon credits, in which firms can purchase surplus offsets that other people have made and use it towards their own carbon balance. According to Don Dewees, a professor emeritus from the University of Toronto’s Department of Economics, this capitalistic solution leaves room for shady operators. “The problem is quality,” Dewees said. “A carbon offset is only useful if it represents somebody else doing something that they wouldn’t otherwise have done that takes CO2 out of the air.”
Dewees takes issue with the lack of regulation for carbon offsets. “If you buy carbon offsets, how does anybody know what you bought? Are they telling the truth? Who are they?”
Costs and education
As with anything that alters the way a university runs, becoming carbon neutral could cost Ryerson a pretty penny. “The cost of education is going to go up if we wish to be carbon neutral,” Walsh said.
So, how do you get students who are already paying ridiculously high tuition costs to hand over even more in the name of climate change? Educate them on the difference they can make.
“A huge role for universities and institutions is socializing the climate crisis,” said Stewart Dutfield. As acting manager of public energy initiatives in the City of Toronto’s Environment and Energy Division, he is tasked with making Toronto carbon neutral by 2040. He added that large institutions like Ryerson should articulate where and why they are making changes, and explain how actions like replacing single-pane windows with double panes is lowering the school’s carbon footprint. The London School of Economics is planning on taking education one step further, as they’ll be adding “carbon impact food labelling” to menus so students know the emissions produced by what they’re eating.
The rhetoric of us being “all in this together” has been overdone in the past two years, but it is perhaps more true with the climate crisis than with anything else. Despite how imposing it may feel, individuals (and what is an institution without individuals) have the power to change our planet’s gloomy prognosis. “If we don’t start with what we have now at Ryerson, we’re not contributing,” said Walsh. “As long as we can contribute, we’re doing some good.”