Double duty for research institutions

University and college campuses not only produce the new knowledge we need for a greener future: they are also test sites for implementing it in real life

Campuses are like mini cities. They have buildings, roads, green spaces, parking lots and, of course, people. Like cities, campuses are consumers of energy and producers of emissions, so they also face the challenge of reducing their carbon footprint. Yet campuses have an advantage — a concentration of innovative research labs and talented thinkers. 

Our collective efforts to fight climate change require new knowledge and the crucible of new knowledge is higher education. Postsecondary institutions have a responsibility to produce research, but also to set an example for how new ideas can be implemented in real life. To that end, institutions are aiming to be models of sustainability and serve as living laboratories to evaluate new ways to build carbon-neutral communities.  

Institutions across the country have adopted practices to make their campuses greener. The University Health Network in Toronto, for instance, created community gardens on the roofs of the University Centre and the Bickel Rehab Centre. York University, also in Toronto, has a zero-waste program, uses green cleaning products, and runs the Las Nubes Eco-Campus in Costa Rica to support the protection of the biological, ecological and social values of the Las Nubes Biological Reserve. The University of Alberta in Calgary also has a zero-waste policy as well as the Prairie Urban Farm, which aims to promote alternative and regenerative ways of growing food in urban areas. Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. signed the United Nations-backed Race to Zero Campaign and has committed to be net zero by 2035.  

Institutions are also reassessing their physical environments and building new, sustainable facilities that serve as classrooms and labs. For example, the Canal Building at Carleton University in Ottawa features experimental plantings on the roof and adjustable solar blinds and gauges to find the optimal temperature setting for the building’s interior. Several universities, including Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s and Université Laval in Québec City, use the heat generated by their high-speed computers to warm some of their buildings. Campuses across the country are adopting these new building technologies, offering students and faculty healthier, more sustainable settings in which to learn and conduct research. 

Researchers and students at these institutions also help advance our understanding of the causes and impacts of climate change and to develop sustainable approaches and technologies to mitigate these impacts on the environment and our lives.  

Over the last decade, the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) has invested more than $360 million in more than 800 research infrastructure projects at 91 institutions across Canada that are dedicated to meeting the challenges of climate change and environmental sustainability. This investment has included projects that are developing wireless charging systems for electric vehicles, implementing biofiltration systems for groundwater treatment in remote regions, integrating bioremediation processes for mining companies, studying melting sea ice, and protecting coastal waters by studying the environmental impact of invasive marine species brought in via ships’ ballast water. 

In the CFI’s most recent Major Science Initiatives competition, which supports leading-edge research and promotes the transfer and application of knowledge to the benefit of society, the importance of environmental research was evident with eight of the 17 awarded facilities focused on environmental issues. They include the Ocean Tracking Network at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Ocean Networks Canada at the University of Victoria in B.C., the Experimental Lakes Area — a unique, open-air freshwater laboratory in Kenora, Ont., the Canadian Research Icebreaker the CCGS Amundsen, which studies the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of climate change on Arctic communities and territories; and the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics at the University of Guelph, a global leader in the development and application of DNA-based systems for species identification. 

On April 22, we will see students and faculty picking up litter along roads and on riverbanks on campus and around their communities. Their contributions to sustainability do not end there. They are inventing new ways to live sustainably every day. For them, every day is Earth Day. We are all custodians of the future, but none are more committed than the researchers and students at Canada’s colleges, universities and research hospitals. 

Green campuses, innovative ideas, living labs and research are part of the solution to mitigate the impact of human behavior on the environment. They are essential to help improve our quality of life and bring us closer each day to a net-zero future, and that is something worth celebrating on Earth Day.