Carbon Neutrality Strategies Employed at Universities
Written by: Elle Eyestone
Edited by: Ada Collins
Across the globe, universities are establishing goals to decrease their carbon emissions. Initiatives include signing on to campaigns, expanding environmental education programs, and launching projects to restore local landscapes (Over 1,000 universities, 2021). Already, several universities have made significant progress - for example, American University became the first higher education institution in the US to achieve carbon neutrality in 2018, and the Chiba University of Commerce became the first university in Japan to run entirely on renewable energy before 2025 (Mcallister & Accomando, 2023; Over 1,000 universities, 2021).
Here in Canada, 75% of universities currently have sustainability strategies (Action for net zero, 2023). Efforts include implementing environmental study programs, creating research opportunities, enacting sustainability awareness strategies, and developing partnerships to advise their planning (Action for net zero, 2023). Universities Canada (2023) has identified 6 principal actions to guide universities in their sustainability efforts:
Currently, McGill University has a goal of becoming zero-waste by 2035 and achieving carbon neutrality by 2040 (McGill Climate, 2022). Initiatives such as the McGill Sustainability Projects Fund (SPF) and the McGill Climate and Sustainability Strategy 2020-2025 are key examples of McGill’s effort to achieve their goals, and they seem to be somewhat effective. As of December 2022, more than 100 student groups at McGill were focusing on sustainability, the SPF had funded over 300 projects, and McGill was a top performer in the 2022 Sustainable Campus Index (Building a culture, 2022).
Despite these successes, McGill has faced criticism for greenwashing and selective measurement. In her McGill Tribune article, Lily Cason (2022) argued that McGill’s on-campus “green” ads and numerous online posts about the success of their sustainability efforts are misleading and deceptive. Cason explains that McGill’s carbon footprint measurements exclusively include scope 1 and 2 emissions; this means any burning of fossil fuel, which can account for up to 75% of fossil fuel emissions, is not accounted for (Cason, 2022). McGill continues to invest in many fossil fuel companies that produce a staggering amount of CO2 annually, cause the destruction of Indigenous lands, and pollute water sources (Cason, 2022). McGill does not publicly comment on these shortcomings so that they can continue to present themselves as a “sustainable” institution (Cason, 2022).
These criticisms underscore McGill’s need to continue improving their sustainability endeavors - can we truly consider McGill a “sustainable” institution given their investments in fossil fuel companies? I would argue that McGill must take these very valid criticisms under consideration, adjust their method for measuring emissions, stop investing in destructive companies, and become more transparent with their student body. As universities continue to outline their plans to become carbon neutral and reduce waste production, they must properly frame their successes and failures in order to hold themselves accountable and fully meet their goals.
Action for net zero. Universities Canada. (2023, July 6). https://www.univcan.ca/priorities/action-for-net-zero/
Building a culture of Sustainability. McGillReporter. (2022, December 1). https://www.mcgill.ca/channels/article/building-culture-sustainability
Cason, L. (2022). Greenwashing at McGill: McGill Tribune. McGill’s Greenwashing Machine | The McGill Tribune. https://www.thetribune.ca/mcgills-greenwashing-machine/
Mcallister, L., & Accomando, J. (2023, August 22). Seeking carbon neutrality in the education industry. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/legal/legalindustry/seeking-carbon-neutrality-education-industry-2023-08-
McGill Climate & Sustainability Strategy. Sustainability. (2022, September 14). https://www.mcgill.ca/sustainability/commitments/sustainability-strategy
Over 1,000 universities and colleges make net-zero pledges as new ... United Nations Environment Programme. (2021). https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/press-release/over-1000-universities-and-colleges-make-net-zero-pledges-new-nature