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It's all about our planet

It's all about our planet

Going green is not easy when your ”home” consists of 115 buildings and your “family” is 28,000 students, faculty, and staff. Fortunately, Queen’s brims with bright people who are aiming to make the campus – and the world – a safer, healthier, and more sustainable place.

People who say they care about the environment like to back up their words by recycling, composting, and turning off lights and computers when they’re not using them. Such small, easily do-able green actions at home help the earth and save the family money. 

Now imagine that your family is not four or five people living in a house, but 21,000 students and 7,000 faculty and staff, all of whom are working, studying, living and playing in some 115 buildings spread across a 57-hectare (141-acre) campus that costs almost $350 million annually to operate. That would be Queen’s, and when you’re working with a community that size, painting yourself green isn’t so easy.

Fortunately, Queen’s brims with people aiming to make the world, and the campus, safer, healthier, and more accessible – in a word, more sustainable – for everyone.

Faculty members are engaging in theoretical and applied research in everything from thin-film solar panels and biogas generators to energy-efficient lighting and more pedestrian-friendly cities.

Students in more than two dozen extracurricular clubs raise awareness about climate change, plant trees around Kingston and, as part of their course work, partner with local hospitals to help them become more energy-efficient.

Managers and employees at every level recycle, compost and find new homes for surplus office furniture.

There’s a bewildering amount of activity, almost too much to keep track of. Yet that is one role of the Queen’s Sustainability Office (QSO), established in 2008 through the efforts of Ann Browne, Associate Vice-Principal (Facilities), to help Queen’s realize its commitment to being an environmentally responsible corporate citizen.

The office’s 2.5-person staff does this by monitoring and coordinating hundreds of large and small actions – from new building construction and renovations, to waste collection and composting in cafeterias and residences, to initiatives carried out by student environmental and social-justice groups – that ­together help reduce the University’s footprint on the planet.

But, as every environmentalist knows, large-scale change takes time, and making it happen at Queen’s is no exception. That’s because, as Browne points out, sustainability is about more than just “being green.” It also has economic and social dimensions.

When a decision is made in one area, its impact on the others must be taken into account to ensure that the overall outcome of the decision is positive.

For instance, Prof. Joshua Pearce (Mechanical Engineering), an expert in thin-film solar panels, has proposed an ambitious plan to make Queen’s the world’s first solar-powered university by installing solar arrays on the campus’s multitude of flat rooftops. Doing so would supply energy for the University, save money, generate income and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, all worthy and desirable goals.

However, while Browne applauds the idea and endorses it in principle, she says that, unlike a homeowner who can decide to put a solar panel on their roof and simply pick up the phone to hire an installer, Queen’s can’t “just do it.”

The reason is that the roofs of many of Queen’s older buildings weren’t designed to bear additional loads. What’s more, building-code requirements for snow loading in the Kingston area have increased. This and other regulatory changes have significant financial implications for any building for which solar arrays or other rooftop alterations are being considered.

“The solar panel idea is wonderful, but we have to ask ourselves which is more economically sustainable for us to renovate and reinforce old roofs for solar in the short term or to plan so that, from now on, all of our new buildings will be capable of supporting a solar system on the roof,” says Browne. “There are a lot of ­variables to consider and study when you’re trying to be sustainable. Every project is different.”

To help guide the University through these types of planning choices, the QSO has been consulting with stakeholders across the campus to gather input for a Strategic Sustainability Framework, a document that will outline Queen’s sustainability goals and provide a conceptual road map showing how they can be achieved. This is a consensus process that sometimes gives rise to philosophical disagreements and turf skirmishes in meeting rooms – but it’s necessary.

“If we want to get to where we’re going, we all have to be pulling in the same direction,” says Browne. “The Framework will provide that common thread.”

Ultimately, however, it’s behavioral change that will determine whether the drive toward global sustainability succeeds. As pundits such as environmental activist David Suzuki, LLD’87, have been saying for years, this will entail far more than repairing draughty windows and turning off unnecessary lights. It will also mean a major re-thinking of how society works – from the way we build our cities, to the way we grow our food, mine metals, use water, design products, and measure economic growth.

It’s with this in mind that, over the past year, the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science has been fine-tuning its new Master’s degree in Applied Sustainability. Slated to launch this September, its curriculum will teach engineering students not only the technical skills they need to create high-quality structures, manufacturing processes and products, but also, through a unique partnership with the School of Policy Studies, crucial social, political, and policy questions they will need to consider so that they can incorporate holistic, “big-picture”, sustainable thinking into their designs.

For example, a well-intentioned engineer might build a more energy-efficient solar panel, but that invention might use toxic materials that would be both expensive and difficult to dispose of after the panel exceeds its useful life. An engineer trained in Applied Sustainability, on the other hand, would recognize there’s more to a sustainable solar panel than simple efficiency.

“We hope they’ll understand there are all kinds of different metrics that they’ve got to keep their eyes on, and that knowledge should lead to the installation of much more efficient systems overall,” says Prof. Warren Mabee (School of Policy Studies) who is one of the lead faculty in the Applied Sustainability program. Ultimately, adds Mabee, “You’ll get a body of people graduating over the years who will take their places in the technical and policy worlds and who will be able to help guide investment and development towards these more sustainable options.” 

That’s a scenario Browne and the Sustainability Office staff would like to see, too. Their long-term vision is to ingrain sustainable thinking and sustainable practices in the Queen’s culture so that, in time, sustainability will permeate new building, campus design, and teaching – basically everything that the University does.

The real Holy Grail, however, is to extend that attitude to the world at large.

"Teaching our students to be sustainable is the most sustainable thing we can do,” says Browne. “Graduating 4,000 young people each year who live and think differently would be the best outcome.”

For more information on green research at Queen's, please visit www.queensu.ca/researchers

[Queen's Alumni Review 2010-2 cover]