Equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives at Canadian universities

Canada’s universities play an essential role in building back better post-pandemic, both in Canada and abroad. They are dedicated to improving and enriching lives through research and innovation, teaching and skills development, and serving as key pillars of their communities. They engage in critical work across the country and internationally to foster a resilient and equitable future and to advance the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

In this blog series, university presidents from across the country share their thoughts and highlight some of their institution’s initiatives to contribute to a sustainable, inclusive future.

November 4, 2021

Universities are key actors in the fight against climate change

First Author Portrait
Published by
Pierre Cossette
Rector of the Université de Sherbrooke

The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26), hosted by the United Kingdom in partnership with Italy, is currently underway in Glasgow. Discussions there will focus on more aggressive greenhouse gas reduction targets, climate resilience and fundamental questions of equity. Faced with these extraordinary challenges, universities have an essential and even crucial role to play.

The Université de Sherbrooke (UdeS) will contribute to the solution to this global challenge by seeking to set an example in decarbonizing its own operations while also emphasizing the development of research efforts, its educational offerings, and various partnerships with community stakeholders. Most importantly, however, UdeS hopes to draw on the synergies that emerge from these different areas of activity.

Since 2002, the energy efficiency program at UdeS – with its 45 distinct projects, including geothermal and energy conversion projects – has achieved a 63.5% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions associated with the buildings on our three campuses and a 44.4% improvement in energy performance. These significant environmental gains have been accompanied by a net reduction of 13.6% in our energy consumption, and recurring annual savings estimated at $3.5 million. Not only that, but they were also achieved at a time when we were experiencing major developments, with a 59.9% increase in student enrolment and a 55.4% in the growth of our campuses.

Carbon neutrality – or even carbon negativity – by 2030 is the next target we have set for ourselves and incorporated into our budget, in the first project of its kind in Canada. Reducing emissions is the top priority in this plan, though compensation can also be used when necessary. The plan establishes clear benchmarks and processes, like carbon neutrality of every new space we build, or taking carbon impact into account when planning our construction projects.

For the past three years, the energy produced by the UdeS solar park, Canada’s largest such facility dedicated to applied research, has been part of UdeS’s mix of energy sources. This partnership-based infrastructure is part of our ecosystem of research and innovation in the fields of renewable energy, green technologies and energy efficiency. Through its work focused on the development of biofuels and bioproducts, our Biomass Technology Laboratory offers promising prospects for different fields of activity. To inform decision-making processes at a time when both our ecosystems and our societies are already struggling with the impact of climate change, The Climatoscope is an interdisciplinary science journal for the general public, designed right here in Quebec, that opens the door to serious reflection and discussion about climate issues and potential solutions for dealing with them.

In parallel to its specialized educational offerings in environmental issues and sustainable development, the Université de Sherbrooke is also committed to supporting the development of skills in environmental responsibility (relating to both the physical and social environment) while also providing the student community with opportunities to get involved and take action. As educational programs continue to evolve, the range of opportunities for students to get involved is expanding – in terms of academic and extracurricular activities alike, and both on-campus and in the community. This culture change, which affects the UdeS community as a whole, is also reflected in the actions being implemented on campus in terms of sustainable transportation, waste management and landscaping, and even in terms of social equity, diversity and inclusion.

While we can certainly be proud of the important progress being made at our own university and many others, the challenges we face are still immense, and raise fundamental questions of equity and responsibility. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will be at the heart of UdeS’s next sustainable development plan, remind us all too keenly of these core questions.

As true laboratories of transformation and innovation, our universities are in an ideal position to contribute and even accelerate the necessary social and environmental transition even as they educate the next generation of environmentally responsible graduates. With this approach, everyone wins: not only research and university operations, but the local and global communities as well.