A ‘living lab’ of sustainability
Western’s commitment to sustainability and reducing our carbon footprint
By Debora Van Brenk, BA’86, MA’87
Heather Hyde nods towards the greenery of the rain garden in front of the Physics & Astronomy Building and then makes a more expansive gesture across campus to where Western’s new Ronald D. Schmeichel Building for Entrepreneurship and Innovation is taking shape.
“This is campus as a living lab – a dynamic and, we hope, ever-improving example of responsible energy use and sustainability,” said Hyde, Western’s sustainability director. The rain garden has become a miniature ecosystem as it sprouts native plants and attracts insects while collecting runoff during thaws and heavy downpours, instead of sending water to hard-surface storm drains.
The entrepreneurship building, meanwhile, will become Western’s first net-zero building, with geothermal heating and cooling, a green roof and triple-glazed windows.
This year, Western was named the top university in Canada, and third in the world, in the Times Higher Education global ranking of campuses working towards the United Nations’ Sustainability Development Goals.
Universities have a responsibility to be leaders in practicing and promoting sustainability. Just as we have been inspired by institutions around the world, we hope to do the same for others,” said Lynn Logan, Western’s vice-president, operation and finance, and co-chair of the president’s advisory committee on the environment and sustainability.
Western’s efforts to decarbonize and reduce its environmental impact are extending to its Operating & Endowment Fund (the Fund), with a commitment towards responsible investing. Decarbonization is a key measure in Western’s inaugural Responsible Investing Annual Report, which outlines principles, beliefs and commitments under the university’s Responsible Investing Strategy & Pathway. Western has committed the Fund to be net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, or sooner. “Divestment alone does not make a truly meaningful impact when other investors can simply acquire those high-carbon investments,” said Logan.
Western’s efforts to decarbonize and reduce its environmental impact are extending to its Operating & Endowment Fund (the Fund), with a commitment towards responsible investing.
Decarbonization is a key measure in Western’s inaugural Responsible Investing Annual Report, which outlines principles, beliefs and commitments under the university’s Responsible Investing Strategy & Pathway. Western has committed the Fund to be net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, or sooner.
“Divestment alone does not make a truly meaningful impact when other investors can simply acquire those high-carbon investments,” said Logan.
Western joined the University Network for Investor Engagement (UNIE) in February 2022, which engages companies in the investment portfolios of participating universities, focusing on accelerating the transition to a low-carbon economy in key sectors where advocacy can make the biggest difference, including energy, utilities, finance, transportation and manufacturing.
A recent analysis of Western’s long-term public equity investments shows the university’s carbon footprint is now 65 per cent less than it was in 2015. Between 2019 and 2020, that carbon footprint dropped by 31 per cent.
Western intends to divest from any fossil fuel company that fails to demonstrate tangible progress toward realistic decarbonization pathways by 2030.
In the near-term, Western has committed to invest 10 per cent of the Fund in sustainable investment strategies by 2025. To date, the university has made investments in a renewable-energy infrastructure fund and an energy transition fund, representing 5.2 per cent of the Fund once fully invested. Total investment value of these commitments is estimated at US$70 million.
Campus and beyond
On campus, Western is accelerating existing measures and taking new steps to reduce greenhouse gases by at least 45 per cent by 2030, relative to 2005 levels, and towards achieving net-zero emissions from campus operations by 2050.
Part of its plans to reduce greenhouse gas include an ‘energy loop’ across campus, which includes several components. An upgraded chilled water network will provide year-round operations and allow for the sharing of excess energy between buildings. New buildings and retrofits through the deep energy retrofit program will be designed to integrate with the energy loop, resulting in approximately 60 to 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases.
Recognizing that environmental stewardship requires both innovation and collaboration, Western joined the University Climate Change Coalition (UC3), made up of North American research universities working to accelerate local and global solutions to climate change through teaching, research and building community resilience.
Member colleges and universities commit to mobilizing their resources and expertise, scaling campus initiatives into the broader community, and working with other global leaders towards mutual climate solutions. They also agree to host regional climate forums, develop best practices and establish and nurture new collaborations.
More square footage, less footprint
As sustainability at Western takes place from the ground up – as with the ground-sourced heating and cooling of the Ronald D. Schmeichel building – it also takes place from the pipes out.
The university’s power plant is at the heart of new and planned industry-leading innovations, which include systems that capture flue gases, and redirects that energy to supplement the work of chillers that provide conditioned air to buildings and laboratories as needed. There’s also a plan to install electric boilers to reduce the carbon footprint even further.
Western has invested heavily in deep energy retrofits for several buildings – including the Western Student Recreation Centre, where reclaimed “waste” energy will help heat the pool – to improve their function, efficiency and consumption.
Hyde noted the number of buildings at Western has increased significantly since 2005, with new residences, labs and classrooms. But Western’s greenhouse-gas emissions have dropped by about 35 per cent in that same time period.
She noted Western’s Open Space Strategy prioritizes pedestrians, cycling and public transit over car traffic.
Facilities Management is planning to buy electric vehicles for its fleet as existing gas-powered trucks and cars reach the end of their life spans.
Western is also planning additional electric-vehicle charging stations on campus.
“Someone who hasn’t been to campus in a while won’t necessarily see improvements to our power plant or our greener investment portfolio, for example. But they won’t have to look hard to see some obvious changes in our priorities and how we interact with the environment and the land,” Hyde said.