U of T’s plan to become climate positive expanded to all three campuses

The commitment builds on an earlier pledge to have the historic St. George campus reduce more greenhouse gases than it emits 

(photos by Nick Iwanyshyn, David Lee and Sean Liliani)

All three of the University of Toronto’s campuses are committing to reduce more greenhouse gases than they emit in the years ahead, an ambitious goal that goes beyond carbon neutrality and targets a climate-positive future.

The commitment expands on an earlier pledge to make the St. George campus climate positive by 2050 – a milestone the university now says it will reach well in advance – and is an extension of U of T’s Low-Carbon Action Plan, which looks to curb greenhouse gas emissions by 37 per cent relative to 1990 levels by 2030.

It comes as the United Nations COP28 climate conference gets underway in Dubai, where the President’s Advisory Committee on the Environment, Climate Change & Sustainability (CECCS) and Climate Positive Energy, a U of T institutional strategic initiative, are scheduled to host a variety of events and panel discussions that highlight the role of universities in supporting a clean energy transition.

“U of T is determined to lead by example in addressing climate change – a strategic priority of the university and one of the most pressing issues of our time,” said U of T President Meric Gertler.

“The goal of becoming climate positive on all three campuses is bold and befitting of our mission as an educational institution that strives to make the world a better place.”

President Gertler noted the pledge aligns with U of T’s commitments to the University Climate Change Coalition (UC3), which include climate resilience, and the U7+ Alliance of World Universities, whose priorities include championing sustainability and climate action.

“As a large and globally top-ranked public university, U of T has a responsibility to play a leadership role on this issue by taking actions that will be felt across our three campuses and beyond,” he said.

The tri-campus pledge is the latest step by the university to realize its longstanding goal of building a more sustainable future. That includes its 2021 commitment to divest its endowment fund of fossil fuel investments and make the St. George campus – the oldest, largest and most energy-intensive of the three campuses – climate positive before 2050, as outlined in the campus’s carbon and energy master plan and accompanying technical report.

Among the major initiatives on the St. George campus is Canada’s largest urban geoexchange field beneath Front Campus. Part of the Landmark Project, the geoexchange system is set to become fully operational in spring 2024 and will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 15,000 metric tons annually.

The campus is also modernizing what are some of Canada’s oldest district energy systems via Project LEAP, an effort supported by the Canada Infrastructure Bank. The project comprises a number of retrofit projects – including the replacement of gas boilers with electric alternatives in the St. George campus’s central steam plant – that will help curb greenhouse gas emissions by over 50 per cent by decade’s end.

“The renewal of this infrastructure – much of which is out of sight for the 100,000 people served by the campus each day – offers a chance for us to embed sustainability into the very backbone of campus,” said Ron Saporta, U of T’s chief operating officer, property and sustainability.

Saporta said the expanded, tri-campus scope of the climate commitment “offers opportunities for us to collaborate and share best practices as we work to deliver on key milestones along this journey,” noting U of T Mississauga and U of T Scarborough will publish details of their roadmaps to becoming climate positive in the coming months.

He pointed out that many of U of T’s tri-campus sustainability efforts double as experiential learning opportunities for students through the Campus as a Living Lab initiative, which are part of CECCS.

At U of T Scarborough, sustainable infrastructure efforts include both existing and upcoming projects.

The campus’s oldest building, the Science and Humanities Wing, has been undergoing deep energy retrofits since 2018 – work that will be accelerated in the coming years. Elsewhere, the campus’s geothermal system, which comprises 350 boreholes, will be expanded to 450 by the end of 2024.

U of T Scarborough is also proceeding with new climate-responsible construction projects such as the recently announced Scarborough Academy of Medicine and Integrated Health (SAMIH) and the EaRTH (Phase 2) complex, part of the collaborative EaRTH District initiative with Centennial College.

This fall, U of T Scarborough opened a new student residence, Harmony Commons, that meets the rigorous Passive House standard for energy-efficient construction. The building is equipped with eco-friendly features, including mechanical systems that can capture and re-use heat generated by sunlight, cooking and even body heat. In addition to being energy-efficient, the complex is designed to inspire students to carry forth sustainable thinking into their careers and spheres of influence, and drive change in construction and related sectors.

Wisdom Tettey, U of T vice-president and principal at U of T Scarborough, said the climate-positive commitment is a testament to the university’s global leadership.

“We are delighted to be a part of this tri-campus commitment to a climate-positive future,” said Tettey. “Sustainability is a core consideration in every aspect of U of T Scarborough’s mission of facilitating world-class learning, scholarship and innovation that supports flourishing communities in the eastern GTA and beyond – while protecting the health of the world we all inhabit.” 

Tettey added that he’s confident the commitment will be met even as the campus experiences significant growth in the years ahead.

“We are very confident that the tremendous talent of our faculty, students and staff will be harnessed, in collaboration with partners, to deliver on our goal through ground-breaking research, transformative learning and operational excellence.”

At U of T Mississauga, a key element of the clean energy transition is moving away from natural gas as the primary energy source for heating, hot water and research processes. To that end, the campus launched Project SHIFT, an initiative to carry out deep energy retrofits in the central utilities plant to hasten the shift from fossil fuels to electricity.

The campus is already home to a cutting-edge geothermal system, situated beside the Instructional Centre, and is working to expand solar energy projects across numerous buildings.

U of T Mississauga also recently completed campus-wide energy audits, following which some 240 energy conservation measures were devised for the short, medium and long term.

Alexandra Gillespie, U of T vice-president and principal of U of T Mississauga, said the campus is on track to exceed the targets set by the Low Carbon Action Plan, and is ramping up work towards becoming climate positive.

“Our community is developing efficient LEED-certified buildings, accelerating our transition to renewable energy and realizing our sustainability goals,” said Gillespie, echoing comments she made in U of T Mississauga’s Climate Positive report. “We have strengthened this work through outstanding programs in research and teaching, which continue to extend the power of sustainability learning from our campus into the wider world.”

She added, in the report, that the university has a responsibility to future generations to help forge a more sustainable future.

“I look forward to achieving this goal together and to opening a path to go beyond net zero. It’s the right and good thing to do – for our lifetime and for lives to come.”