There’s a new season in British Columbia. Some are calling the period of hot, dry weather that extended well into fall “Augtober.” The unprecedented drought smashed temperature records and took a toll: on streams, with thousands of salmon dying due to low water levels; on plants and trees, stressed by the lack of precipitation; and on individuals and businesses, who face water scarcity in some communities. Meanwhile, rampant wildfires burning in the area resulted in elevated pollution levels, prompting air quality advisories in Metro Vancouver and the lower mainland. While rain later brought relief, there’s another new fear: arid hard soils will be unable to absorb runoff, which could result in pooling of waters and massive flooding.
As climate change intensifies in our backyards, and around the world, universities clearly have a responsibility to play a pivotal role in addressing the global crisis, says Dugan O’Neil, vice-president, Research and International, at Simon Fraser University (SFU).
“SFU is already a leader in facing climate change head-on,” says Dr. O’Neil, who is also a professor and particle physicist. “We walk the talk,” he adds, pointing out that the educational institution has achieved a 50 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions since 2007.
But where SFU really shines, says Dr. O’Neil, is in its approach to community-centred climate innovation. “It’s at the heart of our identity as an institution, as ‘Canada’s engaged university.’”
SFU works with local and global community partners, including governments, industry, organizations and First Nations, in myriad ways to help them adopt mitigation and adaptation strategies and technologies that confront issues caused by the warming climate, he says. “The effects of climate change at a local level differ from community to community. There is no cookie-cutter approach because the impacts are different, and the resources and situation of every community is different.
Elicia Maine Associate Vice-President, Knowledge, Mobilization and Innovation at Simon Fraser University
" According to a report by the International Energy Agency [IEA], to reach net zero globally by 2050, we will need to mobilize all options, including new technology development. [Yet] 50 per cent of those technologies are not yet developed – they are still in university research labs.
“We listen to communities, and collaboratively and co-operatively help them find solutions that suit their needs.”
SFU takes an interdisciplinary integrated approach, drawing from the broad base of research strengths and all eight faculties at the institution, says Dr. O’Neil. “Partnership and research collaborations may include policy researchers working alongside engineers, collaborating with scientists studying landslides and forest fires.”
This approach includes projects focused on the technology and policy side of mitigation, which look at energy systems modelling with a justice and equity lens, such as the work of professor Taco Niet at the School of Sustainable Energy Engineering and professor Andreénne Doyon from Resources and Environmental Planning, he notes. Or it could be the Centre for Natural Hazards Research conducting citizen science initiatives, “developing and implementing monitoring efforts to be able to alert communities to shifting risks.”
This multiple perspective lens results in a “holistic viewpoint tackling community-specific issues,” according to Dr. O’Neil.
“You can see the impact of SFU researchers on everything: from public policy around economic incentives and strategies to reducing carbon emissions to helping communities adapt and to addressing health risks from climate change and the social inequities that it brings,” he says, “to developing clean technologies, beginning at the very fundamental level with chemistry and physics, right up through engineering – and the creation and spin out of companies that make an impact.”
The link between innovation and climate action is paramount, says Elicia Maine, who was recently named the inaugural associate vice-president, knowledge, mobilization and innovation at SFU.
“According to a report by the International Energy Agency [IEA], to reach net zero globally by 2050, we will need to mobilize all options, including new technology development. [Yet] 50 per cent of those technologies are not yet developed – they are still in university research labs,” says Dr. Maine, who is the W.J. VanDusen Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at SFU’s Beedie School of Business.
“Innovation is an essential piece of climate action in meeting the international targets that we need to mitigate the effects of climate change,” she emphasizes. “Canadian universities are extraordinarily good at invention. We punch above our weight in the top 1 per cent climate-related cited papers in the world.”
However, she believes universities need to step up their game in “moving those inventions out of the lab and into the world where they can make a meaningful impact.
“One of the most important things that we can do as policy-makers is to enable multiple pathways to getting to net zero, and take early actions that enable us to benefit from the upside of uncertainty.”
Dugan O’Neil Vice-President, Research and International, at Simon Fraser University
" The effects of climate change at a local level differ from community to community. There is no cookie-cutter approach because the impacts are different, and the resources and situation of every community is different.
As an example of the “upside of uncertainty,” Dr. Maine points to SFU’s investment in green hydrogen research, led by chemistry professor and Canada Research Chair Steven Holdcroft, co-founder and scientific advisor to Ionomr Innovations. Beginning with fundamental research, “Canada has become a world leader in membrane production that is integral to the production of low-cost green hydrogen,” says Dr. Maine.
There was uncertainty around the development of the technology, she explains, such as durability of the membranes, processing rates, cost of production facilities. However, that uncertainty resulted in a patented, protected invention, a high-potential spinoff venture and interest from companies around the world.
Now, Ionomr Innovations, identified as one of the Global Cleantech 100 companies, is scaling up and commercializing the technology, solving a significant problem by offering a clean-energy alternative while creating economic development for B.C. and Canada.
Dr. Maine says that “a huge breadth of interdisciplinary research and collaboration” helped shaped those results – chemistry, sustainable energy engineering, mechatronics, the faculty of business, the faculty of the environment and public policy.
“If we look at challenges only from a climate or an innovation lens, or if we look at them as being too linear, we reduce our chances of successful outcomes,” says Dr. Maine. “You don’t want to lock into one solution early on or essentially filter out potential future answers to complex problems.
“Moreover, excellence in research and innovation as it relates to addressing climate change needs to be assessed in terms of policies and actions that benefit society. It involves co-creating solutions with the communities impacted and with those who can enact that change.”
SFU’s integrated approach, focused on community and on scaling up through innovation and partnership with industry, represents a key strength, adds Dr. O’Neil. “It’s how we can make the biggest impact on the climate crisis. That’s where I want us to be, and that’s where I think community-centred climate innovation takes us.”
Learn more at sfu.ca/climate-innovation.
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