The U of M: a leader in campus (un)sustainability

The direction of grassroots environmental initiatives can be frustrating. It’s all fine and dandy to have “awareness campaigns” and righteously tell students to save their Subway napkins, but perhaps we need to think bigger. There are larger issues to worry about, and more effective ways to focus our activist efforts.

The key is to think in terms of policy and systems. What is the university’s policy on new building construction and renovations? How can we use less energy, use it more efficiently and recycle waste energy? Could we move towards getting two-thirds of our food locally? How could the university encourage a major increase in bussing, biking and carpooling?

How does the U of M compare to other universities on these sorts of issues? The Green Report Card, based in the U.S., studied the sustainability of 300 North American colleges and universities for 2009. Among the 17 Canadian universities included, the U of M scored a C-, finishing a truly inspiring second to last. That’s not going to get our university on any honour roll.

Predictably, a number of U of M officials have questioned the methods used for the report card. Perhaps they should keep their questions to themselves, as sometimes the report’s methods worked in the U of M’s favour. The 2009 report for the U of M gave a grade of A for the “administration” category, citing the existence of a sustainability committee. They overlooked the fact that the committee is collecting dust — it has not met in over a year.

Regardless of its fairness, the report card allows us to take a look at innovative ideas other universities are employing to become truly sustainable. Anyone who cares about sustainability will not be satisfied until we are making headlines as the green university. We are a long way from that.

To its credit, the U of M has set a target of LEED Silver for all new buildings. LEED is a highly credible certification program that measures the sustainability of buildings. The new Aboriginal House is awaiting LEED Gold, and the new Welcome Centre has already received LEED Silver certification.

But what does a “goal” or “target” mean? At the University of Alberta, all new buildings require LEED Silver certification. Five new buildings are pursuing LEED Silver or greater, including one which captures rainwater for toilets and has waterless urinals. Come on people, even the folks from the tar sands are showing us up.

With Project Domino aiming to raise five new buildings at the U of M and Smartpark in the next three years, a LEED mandate becomes all the more important. If we want to become leaders in sustainability, why not require all new buildings to be LEED Platinum (the highest level)? It may be more expensive, but costs are slowly recovered over time through energy savings. While we are talking sustainability, why don’t we do away with the new Monsanto building and let the corporation keep its “franken-food” to itself?

Our friends from the tar sands are also making strides in sustainable transportation. The University of Alberta boasts car- and bike-sharing programs, free access to light rail transportation downtown and a 70 per cent discount on bus passes. In comparison, the U of M keeps all cars and bikes to itself, we receive only a 20 per cent discount for the bus, and light rail is nowhere to be seen. Of course, the last point must be taken up with the City of Winnipeg and the Rapid Transit System. York University, in Toronto, offers two free shuttle busses and indoor monitored bike parking, complete with showers. While visiting the University of Ottawa, I enjoyed crossing the Rideau Canal on a pedestrian bridge that makes walking safe and convenient for students. I believe U of M students have a similar watery obstacle that often must be crossed.

The University of British Columbia purchases $4,700 of food from its highly successful student-run farm. The UBC Farm features 24 hectares of productive land, including honey bee hives, free-range chickens, and a medicinal garden. The U of M Student Farm, while not the same scale as UBC’s, was very successful this year, and there is no reason why it cannot continue to bloom (admit it, you like the pun). The farm already supplies some food for Degrees, and it would be great to see production expand to supply Aramark’s many campus outlets. Perhaps it could even turn out to be profitable and supply some students with jobs (because environmentalists have to remember that profit is not always evil).

Over the years, the U of M has taken some significant steps towards sustainability, but so has every other university. At this point, we’re nothing special. But there are success stories on campuses across Canada and the world from which we can derive inspiration.

Sean Goertzen is the coordinator for the U of M Campus Greens and is in his third year of environmental studies.

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