Do we practice what we preach? UW campus record on climate action suggests maybe not


Did you know that the University of Waterloo has committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2050?

This year a great team of in-house experts in the fields of sustainability, energy efficiency, buildings, and other specialities have been working hard to lay out a plan for the campus to reach those goals. But they need the support of students, faculty, staff, and especially top administrators.

Without a strong commitment of time, money, and other resources from our campus leaders, this may just be one more inspiring report that never fulfills its potential. We cannot let that happen.

The primary source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from UW comes from burning natural gas to heat the buildings (65.5 per cent of emissions in 2017).  This is followed by student and employee commutes (21.9 per cent) and emissions from electricity use (9 per cent).

Achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 will therefore largely be a matter of reducing emissions from heating buildings and encouraging students and employees to use active or public transportation.

Buildings last a very long time. How a building is designed can have a huge impact on the energy it uses and the emissions that it generates over its lifetime. That is why it is imperative that all new buildings be designed with zero emissions in mind.

The current goal of LEED Silver is not enough; it can be achieved with only marginal improvements in energy efficiency over the building code. The Evolv1 Building north of campus shows that erecting a building that generates on average as much energy as it consumes (net zero energy) is possible, is affordable, and is beautiful.  We CAN do it.   

Of course, we also need to reduce emissions from our existing buildings.  We have several hundreds of them, and retrofitting these buildings for energy efficiency takes time, planning, and financial investment. But energy efficiency retrofits also save operational money over the long term. If we are to reach net zero emissions by 2050, the time to start retrofitting is now.  The time to start planning for a low-emission replacement for our aging district steam heating system is now.

But do we practice what we preach? UW has always showcased itself as a leader in sustainability and climate action research and education. This is most evident in UW’s academic programs such as the Master of Climate Change, the establishment of the Sustainability Solutions Network, and the cutting edge research lead by faculties such as the Faculty of Environment. But while UW has been leading the way in terms of research on climate action and sustainability, much less can be said about climate action on our very own campus.  The campus laid out a goal to become a recognized leader in sustainability in the Waterloo Region by 2020 in their Environmental Sustainability Strategy (objective E5), yet in the Regional Sustainability Initiative, our campus has a single target: waste diversion.  Conestoga Mall has more and greater targets. That is embarrassing.

Let us all raise our voices and demand an ambitious, achievable, and fully supported plan to become carbon neutral by 2050.

Heather McDiarmid and Adam Morgan
Masters of Climate Change students


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