Alumni Live 365 Guest Blog: Dr. Jim Nicell discusses sustainability on campus (Part I)

Alumni Live 365 Guest Blog: Dr. Jim Nicell discusses sustainability on campus (Part I)

Sustainability has a long history at McGill.  For example, over the years, we have made a number of formal international commitments such as the Talloires and Halifax Declarations, put in place supporting policies (e.g., Environmental Policy, Paper Use Policy), established various coordinating groups, and carried out numerous initiatives to make sustainability a priority in the life of the University. We have also put in place many flourishing research and teaching programs, most notable of which is the McGill School of Environment.  While so much has happened in the past, very recently we have taken some particularly important steps toward enhancing the sustainability of McGill’s operations in support of our academic mission.

I hope you agree that this is a very important goal. Think of it… McGill has a population of almost 42,000 people and is presently the single largest real estate operation on the Island of Montreal, with 36 hectares downtown, 650 hectares on the Macdonald Campus, 228 buildings and almost 8 million square feet of building space – not to mention 1000 hectares off-Island at the Gault Nature Reserve plus other properties. Given our size and the support systems that are in place, you could reasonably claim that we are almost a city unto ourselves; however, we can’t ignore the inextricable connections we have with the cities, lands and populations in which are properties are situated.  And, due to our size and the population we serve, we can’t ignore the fact that we have very significant impacts, whether it is consumption of energy, water and material resources, greenhouse gas generation, waste and pollution creation, among many others. We should also acknowledge that we are the stewards of very unique and fragile properties, with a very significant inventory of historic buildings, cultural collections and, of course, green spaces that are the jewels in our crown.

In recognition of this, in February 2009, McGill opened its Office of Sustainability whose mission is to create a culture of sustainability at McGill. Furthermore, we are now undergoing wide consultations throughout the McGill community on a draft Sustainability Policy in the hope that we can achieve a common understanding of what sustainability means to us and to state our aspirations for the future.  In this draft policy, we have summarized our aspirations over the long term, as follows:

McGill University aspires to achieve the highest possible standards of sustainability on its campuses and in its day-to-day activities through its academic practices, in its facilities and their operations, and by its outreach to the broader community.  We strive to be a leader in research and education, creating and communicating the knowledge required for humans to live sustainably at the local, regional and global scales.

Of course, a policy is not going to make McGill sustainable by itself. It simply helps us set our sights on a preferred vision of the future and provides a framework within which we must take action to bring us there. In recognition of this, we are now in the midst of drafting a Sustainability Plan for McGill which will state a series of concrete objectives that we will address over a 5-year period.

Even before the establishment of the Office, and now under its leadership, we have been making important headway on sustainability at McGill.  One independent measure of our efforts is the Annual Sustainability Report Card of the Sustainable Endowments Institute. Over the past three years, our grades have steadily increased from a C- in 2007, to B in 2008, to B+ in 2009, despite the increasingly challenging criteria each year.  The grade in 2009 puts us in the top of the pack in Canada and only one grade level below that of the top grades in North America of A-.  Many of our community members have read these report cards with a critical eye and have asked “Are we really that close to being a sustainable institution?” or “When we finally achieve an A on our report card, will we be sustainable?” The answer to these questions is an emphatic “No.”  Such report cards are simply a reflection of our growing commitment to sustainability and a demonstration of our on-going accomplishments. The goal is long term and requires a renewed commitment to keep up the momentum, meet new challenges and ultimately get where you want to be.  We must choose our priorities, set objectives, take action, and then move onto the next priorities.  Just as our research and teaching commitments will never end, neither will our commitments toward sustainability.

Part 2 of the blog will describe the efforts being made by students and the University administration in support of sustainability projects.

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