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Young Adults Struggle to Balance Sustainability with Affordability

The rising cost of living is an obstacle in the drive to live green, but the burden is not entirely on them

by Racy Rafique
A scale with a bag of money on one side and the earth on the other. The money bag is weighing the scale down.
Young adults sometimes feel pressure in balancing their budget when making eco-friendly choices. (Racy Rafique/On The Record)
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Young Canadians say they feel the pressure to make environmentally friendly choices. Unfortunately, those choices sometimes cost more. As they struggle with affording basic necessities, some people feel guilty about not being able to do more to combat climate change.

The planet is dangerously close to crossing the carbon emissions threshold of 1.5 °C in 10 years, says the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The effects would be devastating and irreversible.

Experts say climate action efforts from governments, institutions and individuals are all critical to the fight against climate change. But young Canadians say the rising cost of living is getting in the way.

The November 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, commonly known as COP27, stressed that the pressure is on to implement substantive changes rather than “snazzy promises,” said Julie Segal, conference attendee and climate finance manager at Environmental Defence, a Canadian environmental advocacy organization.

“People always say that we’re the leaders of tomorrow,” said 27-year-old Segal. “First of all, we’re leading today.”

But, as costs of living increase, making eco-conscious choices can make that leadership a struggle.

Affordability concerns rise among students

Eden Schwinghamer says he understands his responsibility to prevent further harm to the planet, but the second-year Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) photography student says financial constraints have proven to be a significant obstacle. 

“I look at my budget and the fact that I’m putting myself through school, I am the only person in this ship with me,” said Schwinghamer. “I look at my bank account and I look at what I need and unfortunately, a lot of the more sustainable options do not line up as being more affordable.”

Schwinghamer says he feels a certain level of guilt for not being able to afford making bigger changes, such as buying more ethically sourced clothes, in his efforts to be eco-conscious. 

His situation isn’t unique. TMU environmental sciences graduate Claire Davis also says she feels guilt about being unable to invest more into green living.

“I do what I can, but there’s only a certain degree of change people can individually contribute to protecting the environment,” she said.

Concerns about the costs of living have been increasing among young adults. According to Deloitte’s Global State of the Consumer survey conducted in October, about half of Canadians aged 18 to 34 expressed worry about their finances and 43 per cent said they felt their financial situation has worsened over the past year. 

One of the major concerns for young Canadians is rent affordability. According to a Statistics Canada report from July, 53 per cent of people aged 15 to 29 reported worrying about their ability to afford shelter costs – over 2.5 times more than older Canadians.

Nearly half of Canadians have found themselves purchasing cheaper alternatives of household items and foods to cope with inflation, but these products are not always the most environmentally sustainable. With more immediate concerns about affording basic needs such as food, rent and transportation, green living ends up taking a backseat.

Climate action a shared responsibility

Segal stresses that “we need to move yesterday” when it comes to combating climate issues, but the responsibility should not just be on young people. “This isn’t a personal or individual burden for young people, nor for anyone,” she adds. “We need systemic changes.”

According to a 2021 report by Canada’s Energy Sector, among the G7 countries, Canada showed the greatest emissions increase since signing the 2016 Paris Climate Accord — an international treaty aiming to limit global warming.

At a local level, TMU itself has seen an increase in some of its emissions. Most buildings on campus rely on a centralized steam network – which burns fossil fuels to generate energy – to keep them heated. TMU’s emissions report shows that steam emissions for the 2021/2022 academic year were up 12 per cent from the previous year. This increase can be attributed to the “gradual return to campus,” said president Mohamed Lachemi in an email statement.

The report also shows that energy emissions are almost 10 per cent higher than the university’s average emissions from the past 12 years. Lachemi attributes this increase in natural gas consumption and related greenhouse gas emissions to the growing population of students over the past decade – and therefore additional buildings – which means more energy is needed to sustain them.

“Decarbonizing existing buildings that are currently reliant on steam infrastructure requires a significant amount of planning and investment. We recognize this needs to be a focus to reduce the carbon footprint of our campus,” Lachemi said. 

The school is currently hiring a consultant to complete a feasibility study to help inform its decarbonization strategy, he added.

“It’s just not enough,” says Davis, the TMU graduate. She says she wants to see the school divest from corporations that contribute to carbon emissions, adding that “these corporations also do things to protect the environment, but I think [the university] should reform its process into how it decides these things.”

Current, future eco-friendly strategies

TMU currently invests in the Balanced Endowment, Foundation and Trust (EFT) Fund offered by Fiera Capital, an independent asset management firm. This fund owns shares and bonds in fossil fuel companies, meaning TMU’s money is reinvested into these fossil fuel companies. 

The financial institutions that manage these investments now also employ some environmentally friendly strategies to reduce their carbon footprints, Davis says. Fiera Capital’s EFT Fund joined a net zero managers association in 2021, which includes a group of asset managers that are “committed to playing a more active role in battling climate change,” said Lachemi.

Lachemi says the school will continue to work with Fiera Capital and “take steps to address climate change challenges through active discussions.”

The university has some innovative sustainability initiatives of its own. TMU athletics finance manager Gina Vaccaro is leading the Branded Materials Transition Project, which takes TMU’s Ryerson-labelled merchandise and finds innovative ways to reuse, rebrand, recycle, upcycle and downcycle them.

Since September, the initiative has collected 10,000 kilograms of materials that would have ended up in landfills. 

Vaccaro stressed that students and young people don’t need to buy more in order to be environmentally sustainable. “If you want to make more sustainable choices, really try and simplify,” they said. 

Buying less and reusing more is one of the easiest ways to make eco-conscious decisions in your daily life, they add.

Segal says although the fight might seem hopeless at times, it’s important to stay optimistic. 

“When things aren’t moving fast enough, or when we get resistance for moving towards climate action, we don’t put our hands up and we don’t get dejected or look elsewhere,” she said. “We think, ‘Okay, this democratic system is built to listen to my voice.’”

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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