Queen's at climate crossroads

It's time for the administration to respond to student demands for a more energy-efficient campus

The Queen's Solar Coalition is one ongoing initiative that aims to make the campus more energy efficient.
The Queen's Solar Coalition is one ongoing initiative that aims to make the campus more energy efficient.
Credit: 
Journal File Photo

Canada has reached a fork in the road when it comes to climate change policy.

We have two options. The first is to continue blindly down the path of fossil fuel addiction, the outcome of which may spell increased frequency of extreme weather events and declining biodiversity.

The other option is to take initiative and invest in renewable energy sources and energy-conserving policies that will help Canada become a global leader in the fight against climate change.

International disapproval for Canadian energy policy was seen when Canada was given the “Fossil of the Day” award on the first day of the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark — a message indicative of Canada’s inaction on greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction, despite having ratified the Kyoto Protocol in 2002. The award is given to the country most likely to delay negotiations towards an agreement on reducing global carbon emissions.

Canada has taken a wait-and-see approach to climate change policy, but Queen’s hasn’t done much better.

In February 2010, Queen’s Principal Daniel Woolf signed the University and College Presidents’ Climate Change Statement of Action for Canada. It was a pledge that committed Queen’s to setting GHG reduction targets as well as to work closely with governments and other institutions to help reduce global climate change.

“As an institution, we must — and we will — work together to be leaders in creating a greener world for ourselves and for future generations,” Woolf said at the pledge signing on Feb. 9, 2010.

As with Canada and the Kyoto Protocol, however, Queen’s has yet to take substantive action to actually reduce GHG emissions.

According to the climate change pledge, Woolf must decide no later than February 2012 what the GHG reduction targets for Queen’s will be in the coming years.

Will Woolf seize the opportunity to set worthwhile targets, or stand idly by and watch the University miss the opportunity for leadership on progressive environmental policy?

Other universities have already begun to work towards sustainable solutions. For example, the University of British Colombia and Syracuse University have carbon neutrality targets for 2050 and 2040, respectively.

Syracuse is planning to meet this target by establishing a Climate Operations Centre to monitor campus GHG emission levels. They’re also implementing initiatives such as green computing, renewable energy demonstrations and increased use of alternative-fuel vehicles.

UBC is working to establish carbon neutrality by setting up a partnership with BC Hydro to monitor GHG emission levels in academic buildings. Other initiatives include investments in biomass gasification and the development of geothermal heating systems to heat campus buildings.

These institutions are taking important steps to reduce GHG emissions on their campuses and should be looked upon as a model for Queen’s.

Green energy initiatives are often criticized on economic grounds. It’s an important consideration: Green initiatives can cost a lot of money. How would Queen’s pay for the labour and equipment that’s required?

Despite their upfront costs, green energy sources can have significant financial incentives attached to them. Queen’s can invest in energy-efficient building upgrades that will greatly reduce the cost of energy bills. The upfront fee, in this case, would be overshadowed by future cost savings on monthly energy bills.

Queen’s students are overwhelmingly in support of a more energy-efficient campus. This was confirmed during the 2010 Fall Referendum when 89 per cent of Queen’s students voted in favour of “cost reducing, energy conserving building upgrades,” and in the 2009 Fall Referendum where 81 per cent of students agreed that we should “take immediate action to reduce our global impact on climate change” and “commit Queen’s to science-based greenhouse gas reductions.”

Now, it’s time for the university administration to respond to students’ demands.

In recent months there have been signs we’re heading in the right direction. The Queen’s Solar Coalition is an initiative currently underway involving the leasing of roof space to private buyers who will place solar panels on multiple campus buildings. This is beneficial to Queen’s as the buyer must pay for using the roof space. It’s also beneficial to the buyer as the energy will be sold back to the grid.

Within a few years, the initial cost of the solar equipment will be paid off, making the investment not only beneficial to the environment but financially viable as well.

Despite initiatives like Queen’s Solar, the University — and Canada, too — are challenged by those who don’t support energy conservation and renewable energy policy.

The rising cost of energy became a hot issue in the recent Ontario provincial election, with parties pledging to cut energy costs. Energy costs are increasing as traditionally-accessible and cheap sources of fuel like gasoline or oil become scarcer, and expensive exploration techniques are used in the oil sands and in dangerous offshore drilling.

Canada’s aging infrastructure and centralized energy grid is also a major source of lost revenue, as energy is travelling increasingly-longer distances and being lost along transmission lines.

Rather than looking to cut energy prices, the federal and provincial governments need to invest in locally-produced renewable energy like Queen’s Solar as well as programs that promote energy efficiency and conservation.

Both Queen’s and Canada are in a position where the citizenry and administration are divided over green energy issues and solutions. At the national level, people are confused about the myths surrounding renewable energies, energy conservation and even climate change itself.

At Queen’s, Woolf’s decision is made harder by those who doubt the economic feasibility of renewable energy and energy conservation on campus.

Despite these obstacles, Woolf and the Canadian government must embrace renewable energy, obstacle-laden as the path may be, if they hope to fight climate change and become respected leaders who value their global citizenship.

Eric Shoesmith is co-director of Queen’s Backing Action on Climate Change.

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