'Making an impact': U of T to scale sustainability efforts in 2023

toronto skyline with a u of t solar panel roof in the foreground
(Photo by David Lee)

The University of Toronto has planted the seeds of climate action – and sustainability more broadly – and expects to see them flourish in the year ahead.

Kristy Faccer

Kristy Faccer, director of the President’s Committee on the Environment, Climate Change & Sustainability (CECCS), says that U of T can be an even greater agent for sustainable change by strengthening and expanding our work with community members and partners across its three campuses, in Toronto, Canada and globally.

“We've made this great investment and it is paying returns in terms of impact across and beyond U of T,” Faccer says. “Now it’s time to think more about how our work is advancing a more sustainable world and improving the lives of society around us.”

The university’s progress to date is outlined in the 2022 CECCS annual report ­– an effort that contributed to U of T being ranked second in the world in the inaugural QS Sustainability Ranking.

Faccer spoke to U of T News about how U of T is building on the five-year foundation laid by the CECCS to scale up its ambitions in the years ahead.

 U of T recently ranked second in a global sustainability ranking. What do you take away from that achievement?

The big takeaway for me is how much U of T has really accomplished since CECCS started its work five years ago, and that the impact that we're having on the community is being felt. The ranking is a great validation that we have earned our place among a group of very well-respected peers internationally, and that we're headed in the direction we envisaged.

What are some of the highlights of U of T's sustainability journey thus far?

In terms of specific initiatives, we struggled to narrow down the ones to list on our five-year milestone map in the 2022 report because we had so many developments to celebrate.

One example is the introduction of the sustainability pathways program, which clusters courses and co-curricular activities with a common theme of sustainability to allow students to explore the subjects from various perspectives.  When fully mature, the program will offer every student at the University of Toronto the opportunity to gain from and be recognized for their sustainability learning, engagement experience and their leadership skills. The scholar tier is already available to most undergraduate students at U of T on two of the three campuses and in the largest faculties. 

We also have a database of Campus as a Living Lab projects and an inventory of courses that provide students, partners and staff with the opportunity to experiment and contribute to real-world pressing sustainability and climate solutions and to build on the foundation of others.

We've introduced the Climate Positive Campus plan to have the St. George campus reduce more emissions than it emits by 2050and we've already made rapid progress. That’s a pretty exciting thing that’s attracting a lot of attention and some new partners, including the Canada Infrastructure Bank.

The Scarborough campus is host of SDGs @ U of T, a proposed Institutional Strategic Initiative working to advance the 17 Sustainable Development Goals outlined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. We have a very wide range of faculty members doing research around the SDGs at U of T and the initiative has exciting plans to connect interdisciplinary expertise and leadership to relevant work on every single one of the 17 goals. 

U of T Mississauga will be launching a scholar program this fall, and already hosts the master of science in sustainability management program. Around the world, business schools are often criticized for not really taking the realities of sustainability into account when teaching future leaders. This master's program really takes that to heart by training people not just to be skilled managers, but also sustainability agents and leaders.

How will U of T build on this progress in the years ahead?

Whenever you start something new at a large university like U of T, you first need to plant “a thousand flowers,” as CECCS co-chair John Robinson says, then help them grow and branch out. We've built initiatives that are already centres of activity on campus – and that are making an impact. We now need to focus on fostering further growth – bringing in more members of our community, broadening our reach and scaling initiatives so that they're more widely accessible.

At the United Nation’s COP27 climate conference, U of T co-convened a meeting of university networks that collectively represented more than 900 institutions from around the world. We realized that if global universities partner and collaborate we can drive climate action at a different scale and make a real impact on pressing climate issues. I think you’re going to see a lot more coming out of this area of our work. 

What specific initiatives can we look forward to at U of T this year?

For students, we’re really excited about the recent launch of the sustainability citizen program, one of the three tiers in the sustainability pathways program, which recognizes students for sustainability-related co-curricular activities. The goal is to give students, regardless of what degree they’re pursuing, a chance to engage in sustainability issues at their own pace with more opportunities for experiential and interdisciplinary learning and engagement. We will also pilot the leader tier of the sustainability pathways program, which will support students become agents of change and leaders in sustainability after they leave the university.

And we have our annual Adams Sustainability Celebration, which recognizes sustainability impact being made by  students, faculty and staff and an Innovation Prize Pitch Competition on March 3 at Hart House when six teams vie for $25,500 in prizes. 

For emerging scholars, we’ll have a transdisciplinary co-production workshop focusing on research and developing solutions to real-world research problems in partnership with community members, governments or businesses.

We also, of course, have more and more coming out to the Climate Positive Campus plan, including an air travel emissions initiative launching any day now from the Sustainability Office at U of T St. George.

What role do you expect universities to play in the years to come? 

The next step is really thinking creatively about what is needed and what we could do better together. In Egypt, we had representatives from over 900 universities from around the world. How do we really activate our collective potential in a way that hasn’t been done before and moves the dial on climate action? How can we engage more actively to advance the implementation of climate goals across all sectors and parts of society, including but not limited to national government policy?

One of the real strengths that came out in those conversations is that universities like the University of Toronto are very sought-after partners. We are test-driving physical climate solutions and new financial instruments on campus, we are thinking about how to influence financial flows to address the climate challenge, we are actively developing new climate-proof technologies and have extensive expertise across so many fields. We have super active and engaged students that are helping to shine the light in the right direction. And we have a real interest in doing what we can to facilitate impact through our combined assets in ways that drive toward a better future for all.


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