U of T plans on-campus efforts to offset flight emissions

Sustainability plan to offset aircraft CO2 emissions: Close up of an airplane jet engine
(photo by Thom Lang/Getty Images)

A University of Toronto initiative to offset emissions from university-funded air travel is reaching for the skies by ensuring every kilometre flown supports sustainability projects across the three campuses.

U of T will be the first Canadian university to enact a mandatory institutional carbon offsetting program for U of T-funded air travel, charging a fee for every kilometre flown and reinvesting that money into projects that lower campus emissions and provide other sustainability benefits.

While the U of T community is being encouraged to consider whether lower- impact alternatives to air travel – such as virtual meetings – can meet their needs, some flying will still be needed to maintain U of T's international presence as a leader in post-secondary education. Ron Saporta, U of T’s chief operating officer, property services and sustainability, says the Air Travel Emissions Mitigation Initiative is designed to minimize the impact of this ongoing, necessary air travel while taking steps to mitigate climate change close to home.

“We're drawing on our institutional knowledge and resources to find carbon reduction opportunities in our own backyard,” Saporta says.

The mitigation initiative, which is expected to roll out this term, will see the university collect a fee for every kilometre flown on operational dollars to be directed into a fund that will support sustainability projects across its three campuses. The fee will initially be based on a $30-per-tonne carbon levy and is expected to increase in the future, in alignment with federal and global carbon policies.  

This strategy will allow the university to vet and invest in high-quality U of T initiatives, rather than outsourcing responsibility to a third party where the university would have no control over the initiative or its implementation, Saporta says.

“We’re holding ourselves to our own high standards to ensure these initiatives have a meaningful and lasting impact.”

Estimates suggest that, prior to the pandemic, U of T's air travel emissions were more than 50,000 tonnes per year, equivalent to roughly half of emissions from on-campus energy consumption.

The mitigation initiative is projected to generate more than $300,000 in its first year, Saporta says. A tri-campus advisory committee, comprising a range of subject matter experts, has created a set of principles to allocate funds to projects based on their potential to reduce or capture greenhouse gases and provide positive co-benefits to the university community. Projects are expected to focus on carbon reduction opportunities related to energy, food, waste, and transportation.

In addition, while many carbon offset programs charge a flat rate per flight, U of T’s mitigation initiative will calculate its fees based on distance travelled, making for a closer correlation between air travel emissions and mitigation measures.

The first project, slated to launch this spring, involves reforesting a 1.5-hectare section of land at the Koffler Scientific Reserve at Jokers Hill, a U of T research site near Newmarket, Ont. The project will be a collaboration between the Sustainability Office on the St. George campus and the forestry department in the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design.

The mitigation initiative – which comes as the COP27 UN summit this past November called on leaders around the world to take collective climate action – is the latest in a series of sustainability-focused initiatives undertaken by U of T, which was recently ranked second globally out of 700 universities in the first-ever QS sustainability ranking.

That includes divesting from all direct fossil fuel investments in its endowment portfolio and working toward the divestment of all indirect ones by 2030. The university also has a plan to make the St. George campus climate positive before 2050, an effort that involves Canada’s largest urban geoexchange field under King’s College Circle set to be in operation by the end of 2023. As well, Project Leap has secured financing to cut emissions in half by 2030 at the St. George campus.

U of T Mississauga’s Sustainability Strategic Plan, meanwhile, features more than 100 targets and more than two dozen goals. Its New Science Building, for example, will feature a geothermal system that will cover 90 per cent of the building’s energy load.

And, in fall of 2023, U of T Scarborough will open the country’s largest passive house student residence while continuing to reimagine the campus’s accessible and sustainable open spaces through the award-winning Valley Land Trail, research and teaching farm, and other green spaces.

Scott Mabury, U of T’s vice-president, operations, and real estate partnerships, says air travel emissions are the next piece of the carbon puzzle since they are an indirect contributor to the university’s overall carbon footprint – and that the initiative is yet another example of how U of T is doing its part to become a global climate leader.

"We strongly believe that global change starts at home," Mabury says. “We plan to draw on the ingenuity of the U of T community to help us come up with innovative ways to make our three campuses more sustainable – and share those ideas with the world.”

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