Meeting the challenge: Climate change and sustainability at U of T

photo John Robinson
“Society is asking universities to engage with the big problems,” says Professor John Robinson. “Sustainability is one of the ways it can be done” (photo by Geoff Vendeville)

The University of Toronto’s first presidential adviser on the environment, climate change and sustainability says he and members of the new committee he heads are determined to create more opportunities for all parts of the university – faculty, students and staff  – to collaborate on sustainable practices.

“Quite concrete things are happening. Quite ambitious things are happening,” said John Robinson, a professor at U of T’s Munk School of Global Affairs and the School of the Environment in the Faculty of Arts & Science. “There is a ton of work taking place in research, in teaching and in operations – but generally people aren’t aware of each other.” 

Making those connections is one of the first priorities for Robinson and the newly created committee, which includes faculty and staff members, as well as students and an alumnus. A change in institutional culture will be required to integrate the operational and academic activities, Robinson said, but doing so is essential for U of T’s campuses to become test beds for research and innovation in this area.

Plans for how that change might happen are outlined in the first annual report from the Committee on the Environment, Climate Change and Sustainability. The committee, along with Robinson’s advisory position, follow from President Meric Gertler’s “Beyond Divestment: Taking Decisive Action on Climate Change” report. 

The committee began meeting in February and uses its first report to lay out its three areas of focus and the definition of sustainability that will guide its work. 

“As the country’s top research university, it’s important that U of T show leadership on these vital issues, in our core academic mission and in our operations,” President Gertler said. “The committee members are taking great strides to enhance our contributions, building on the great work that is already happening across our three campuses.”    

A core theme in the new report is the need for all parts of the university to work together. 

“In most universities, sustainability goes on operationally through energy efficiency programs and academically in research and teaching. The two worlds never connect,” Robinson explained. “If you can create an integrated approach, it is amazing what can happen.”

Robinson said he witnessed this first-hand when he led a similar initiative at UBC, and noted universities in the U.K. are adopting a similar approach. 

Even so, he said transforming U of T’s campuses is just the first step. Involving community partners also is essential so that the lessons learned can be applied elsewhere. 

“Society is asking universities to engage with the big problems, and we want to do that. Sustainability is one of the ways it can be done,” he said. 

Since the Committee on Environment, Climate Change and Sustainability first met, its members have begun work in three areas:  the campus as a living lab, the university as an agent of change, and curriculum innovation. Its members have compiled a preliminary inventory of 614 existing courses that contain sustainability content and, among those, a subset that also includes an opportunity for community-based learning. 

They also have identified possible new living lab projects and potential partners from the public and private sector that could be involved in the projects.   

The committee is taking a broad approach in its work, defining sustainability as encompassing both human and environmental well-being. It plans to emphasize “regenerative sustainability,” which looks for ways to reduce damage or harm, and, when possible, to improve both the environment and human well-being. 

Such an approach, Robinson said, might include buildings being designed to improve productivity and help the environment, as opposed to just not doing damage. 

Among the committee’s many ambitious goals is its aim to offer students in every discipline an opportunity to add sustainability to their program, and to have thousands of students involved in sustainability projects on and off campus.

“This is a huge opportunity for U of T to show leadership and to engage in a very visible and active way in all three domains – teaching, research and innovation – and in partnership with the private sector, the public sector and civil society,” Robinson said. 


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