Judging by the number of green initiatives and innovations, Canada's colleges and institutes appear determined to show the world they are fertile ground for furthering environmental sustainability. Their green activities are varied and diverse, affecting the curriculum, areas of research, campus management and community outreach, says Denise Amyot, president and CEO of Colleges and Institutes Canada (CICan).
"Colleges and institutes have been leading the way in environmental sustainability for many years. They are working to advance clean technology research and equip students with the skills for the green economy," says Ms. Amyot.
Due to their close connections to industry and communities, colleges and institutes can respond quickly to changing societal needs, she explains. Growing concerns over resource constraints, for example, have prompted research initiatives geared towards greater efficiency and environmental awareness in resource management, and the findings are informing industry practices.
"We have 95 research centres and laboratories specializing in environmental science and technology across the country. They cover over 200 areas of research specialization and extend beyond science and technology to social innovation, where partnerships focus on generating environmental awareness and planning," says Ms. Amyot. "Colleges are also leading the way by greening their facilities." Okanagan College, for example, is home to the greenest post-secondary building in North America: the Jim Pattison Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Building Technologies and Renewable Energy Conservation.
A firm commitment to sustainability is also something students pay attention to, explains Ms. Amyot. "Today's youths are very environmentally conscious – this is one of the criteria they consider when deciding where to pursue their education."
Students not only prioritize environmental responsibility when they write their applications, they continue to encourage their chosen post-secondary institution to improve its sustainability performance, says Marcia McKenzie, who leads the Sustainability and Education Policy Network (SEPN), an international network of researchers and organizations dedicated to advancing sustainability in education policy and practice.
"We've talked to students across the country, and it's clear that they see sustainability as a priority," says Dr. McKenzie. Yet meeting sustainability objectives is a responsibility that goes beyond making students happy, she believes. "Historically, contributing to the public good has been a central mandate for Canada's post-secondary education sector, and we believe working towards a healthy environment for current and future generations is part of that."
"We've talked to students across the country, and it's clear that they see sustainability as a priority."
- Marcia McKenzie
leads the Sustainability and Education Policy Network
To find out how Canada's post-secondary institutions are performing, Dr. McKenzie and her team examined strategic plans and mission statements of various schools. "A strong focus on the public good was evident across the board, and many institutions specifically mention sustainability goals," she says. However, approaches to sustainability range from "accommodative to transformative," says Dr. McKenzie. In general, accommodative measures are limited to one domain, and often focus on "the operations side of things, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, waste and food procurement at the institution. While these are great steps, operations is only one aspect of advancing sustainability in higher education," she adds.
SEPN uses parallel assessment categories as the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) in its Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS), says Dr. McKenzie. "Like AASHE, we consider an institution's performance in relation to sustainability across the domains of governance, operations, curriculum and research. And we also look at sustainability outreach and engagement with the community, municipality, province, industry and NGOs."
Okanagan College's Jim Pattison Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Building Technologies and Renewable Energy Conservation is envisioned as a living classroom; the building itself will be used extensively as part of the teaching curriculum. (Credit: SUPPLIED)
Dr. McKenzie adds that institutions that have a clear definition of sustainability and opt to engage in an assessment process show more activity across different domains. "By conducting self-assessments, institutions may identify additional areas in which they can move toward concrete action. This brings them closer to transformative engagement at a whole-institution level," she says.
While SEPN's analysis is based on how strategic documents reflect a focus on sustainability, Dr. McKenzie realizes that "the language of sustainability" is not the only – and perhaps not even the most reliable – indicator of sustainability activity. "An example is Nunavut Arctic College, where the term sustainability is not used in the same way. However, the focus is on indigenous perspectives, and the programming reflects a strong connection to land-based practices and cultural traditions."
Ms. Amyot also sees a strong alignment between sustainability and indigenous perspectives and work towards reconciliation. "Canadians can learn much from how indigenous people treat the environment. The question of how a decision will affect the next seven generations is always considered," she says. "This approach of thinking of tomorrow is critical at a time when evidence points to accelerating climate change challenges."
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