Getting over the green talk

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Organizers of the Queen’s Sustainability Conference hope discussion between students, faculty and staff will ‘accelerate the path’ towards a sustainable University campus

Edward Burtynsky was the keynote speaker at the conference on March 23 and 24. Burtynsky, who has been working towards a more sustainable Queen’s campus since speaking here last November, said he hoped to expand beyond conferences and motivate the entire University community.
Edward Burtynsky was the keynote speaker at the conference on March 23 and 24. Burtynsky, who has been working towards a more sustainable Queen’s campus since speaking here last November, said he hoped to expand beyond conferences and motivate the entire University community.
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Event organizers hope to have the policies discussed at the conference distributed across campus within two months.
Event organizers hope to have the policies discussed at the conference distributed across campus within two months.
Photo: 

At last weekend’s Sustainability Conference organized by Queen’s Sustainability Network (QSN), photographer and keynote speaker Edward Burtynsky presented a slideshow of his photographs showing pictures of our intrusion into nature all over the world: railroads cutting through forests in British Columbia, spirals of highways in Los Angeles and construction on the Three Gorges Dam in China.

“Unfortunately,” he told the audience, “the world is replete with subjects, and growing every day.” Burtynsky was invited to speak at Queen’s last November and has since become active in the sustainability cause on campus.

He told the Journal he chose to stay involved to get others thinking about their campus as a learning environment in terms of sustainability.

“I think Queen’s is a neat kind of campus and it’s nice and contained, unlike the sprawling U of T,” he said.

“It seemed there was an interesting spirit here to try and find a common ground in which different departments could begin to speak to one another.” Burtynsky said the conference’s emphasis on working within the university framework was important.

“It’s interesting to see the approach it’s taking … understanding how the decisions are made at the university level and how to influence those decision-makers and how policy is formed,” he said.

“It’s not that the powers that be aren’t thinking—they’re already on that path, but can you accelerate that path by being another force, another voice?” he said.

Burtynsky said a challenge will be to expand beyond events like the conference.

“These are all converts,” he said. “The idea is, how do you reach out to expand that?”

The conference—organized by QSN—was designed to bring together students, faculty and staff to discuss sustainability and develop principles guiding sustainable development on campus.

QSN was born out of a conference last November that brought together student environmental groups and faculty.

“We wanted to create this group where anyone could be a member. It’s open to all stakeholders in the University,” said Blake Anderson, AMS sustainability co-ordinator.

“It’s basically an alliance between students and staff and faculty.” The conference was the network’s first event and attracted almost 60 students, staff, faculty and community delegates.

“It’s good to see that people around campus are willing to give their Saturdays for this kind of thing and care about it enough to put all this thought into it,” Anderson said.

The conference focused on 10 principles of sustainability drafted by members of QSN’s steering committee. After Bruce Pardy, law professor and one of the drafters, introduced the principles, delegates broke into small groups to discuss specific aspects of the principles.

Anderson said he was impressed with the quality of group discussion.

“I was blown away by how many good ideas and how much people were interested in it. They had obviously been thinking a lot about this stuff.” Pardy and Zabe MacEachren, assistant professor and co-ordinator of outdoor and experiential education for the Faculty of Education, developed the original 10 principles to guide Queen’s towards improving environmental conditions on campus.

The principles are divided under themes including land use and building, outside and inside spaces, air quality, ecosystem impacts, and teaching and research.

“One idea that the principles reflect is that environmental considerations should always be on the table whenever a decision is made,” Pardy said.

Pardy added that one of the driving convictions behind the initiative was that Queen’s should be a leader in campus sustainability endeavours, rather than a follower.

“One respect in which Queen’s is distinctive is the degree of influence that students have over the way the University is run and this whole initiative originates with the students and aims to tap into that influence that students have,” he said, adding that students have more influence on campus than they’re aware.

“I think what we’re trying to do is give a form and a structure … to the inclinations that students already have towards environmental questions.” The next step, he said, is for those involved in the initiative to work towards giving environmental sustainability a prominent role on campus.

“You need all kinds of expertise on this kind of question,” he said. “It’s a sign of great strength to have people from all these various disciplines come in and help you out.” Pardy said concern for sustainability has existed in the public for a long time, but it has recently reached a crescendo.

“I would like to think it’s because the importance of these issues is becoming understood,” he said. “But … I’m concerned about the dominance of the climate change question and the respect in which it is pushing out other kinds of environmental issues.

“This is a very dangerous time for environmentalism, I think.” ***

The conference had a last-minute change of schedule to include a presentation by Eric Neuman, a Physical Plant Services mechanical engineer.

Neuman spoke about the sustainability initiatives Queen’s is undertaking, such as reusing stone from old buildings for the Queen’s Centre, green roofs on various buildings across campus, computer control of heating, cooling and ventilation, employing natural lighting where possible and using a co-generational plant.

Neuman said Queen’s has a long history of sustainable development on campus.

“We’ve had a co-generational plant on campus since 1904,” he told the Journal. “We’ve had green roofs for over 30 years.” He said changes usually come about as the administration tries to renovate buildings.

“Someone else determines the priority, and PPS just does the work.” Neuman also spoke about the Canadian Green Building Coalition’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, which assesses the performance of green buildings.

Neuman and Dave Burns, a chemical engineer who also attended the conference, are two of seven LEED-certified professionals on staff at Ontario universities.

He said Queen’s administration requested they become LEED-certified. From there, Physical Plant decided the University should also join the Canadian Green Building Council.

Although Queen’s doesn’t have any LEED-certified buildings yet, the Queen’s Centre will be, and the Integrated Learning Centre has been recognized by the Canadian Green Building Council as a good example of a green building.

Compared to most Ontario universities, Neuman said Queen’s is doing well in terms of sustainability.

To move forward, he said everyone needs to keep doing what they’re doing and stay aware of sustainability issues.

“I think we need more education,” he said. “The more aware we are, the more it’ll come naturally.” Neuman said he thought the conference at Queen’s was a good idea in that respect.

“Physical Plant has to get out there and explain what the university is doing,” he said, specifying that PPS merely carries out the wishes of the administration.

“One comment I heard a lot of since Saturday was ‘I didn’t know you people were doing that.’ ”

***

Vicki Remenda, a geological engineering professor and one organizer of the conference, spoke to delegates about how to get sustainability onto the agenda of decision-makers at Queens.

“We’re not going to get anywhere by throwing rotten eggs and tomatoes at the people who make these decisions,” she told them. “It’s more important to bring them on board.” Remenda said experience has shown her that people are more likely to respond to being invited to participate in a way that works with them, instead of being told what to do.

She said a consultative approach that incorporates staff, student and faculty points of view results in a much stronger—albeit slower—process.

Within the next month or two, Remenda said, the policies discussed and re-written at the conference will be distributed across campus.

“Within the next year, we want to be making sure these principles have been discussed and ratified,” she said.

Remenda said University administration and PPS have started to implement sustainable initiatives on campus, but more work needs to be done.

“It’s on people’s minds, but I don’t think we’re all working on the same page. We’re all working towards the same goal, but we don’t always know who’s doing what.”

***

Brian Cumming, director of the school of environmental studies, spoke last night about sustainability, along with Pardy and Green party leader Elizabeth May at the AMS Great Debate.

On Tuesday, Cumming told the Journal the idea of sustainability comes from the term sustainable development as defined by the United Nations Bruntland Commission Report in 1987.

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

It involves the environment and the socioeconomic system, Cumming said, adding that sustainability has come to mean different things to different people.

Although the principles are a good start, they need to spur action by setting goals.

“A mission statement is important to have, but we need policies to act on it.” Cumming said in order to make progress, Queen’s needs to track energy use.

To help, a group of more than 60 students has worked for more than three years to develop a sustainability assessment.

George Liu, one of the chief co-ordinators, said the final report describes the University’s stance on sustainability.

“The framework is supposed to find out where we are now and make recommendations, but because it is a volunteer-based organization, the amount of work that needed to be put in to make solid recommendations was beyond our skills,” he said.

Queen’s is the fourth university in Canada to do the assessment, and the first to use only volunteers.

Liu said he would like to see a similar assessment published twice a year, to serve as an institutional memory of where the University is going.

In order to see progress, he said, students need to be more organized and put pressure on the administration to implement policies.

“The conference was to write policies and also … let the administration implement the policy, and I think that’s really important.”

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