McGill’s Sustainability Soirée: A Reminder of the Potential for Communities to Generate Change

At a time when we have only 11 years to slow down the effects of climate change in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius, as outlined in the most recent IPCC report, the need for research in the field of sustainability and community-based initiatives has never been more vital.

As discussed extensively in international development literature, among others, and as carbonmap.org visually demonstrates, while it is the Global North/‘developed world’ that bears the brunt of the responsibility for climate change, the regions most vulnerable to its effects, not only in the foreseeable future but already today, are located in the Global South/‘developing world’. Although some regions of the world may be less susceptible to extreme weather patterns than others, this dichotomy seems to be becoming increasingly blurred. One only has to switch on the news to realize that no country has been completely exempt from the repercussions of the planet warming.

Accepting that climate change is not only real and currently happening, but that it is only going to accelerate if governments, companies, institutions such as universities, and communities do not modify their commitment to the environment, is to recognize that when faced with the realities of forest fires, floods, droughts, and the like, one’s bank account will do little to save one’s life. In other words, the monetary gains from our current destructive, extractive, and unsustainable interaction with the environment are worth neither the loss of our planet’s ecosystems and biodiversity, nor the human loss associated with the threats of climate change.

The Sustainability Soirée

Fortunately, however, many individuals and institutions, conscious of the implications of climate change, have taken it upon themselves to seek solutions, whether big or small, in an effort to encourage and facilitate more sustainable mindsets and attitudes. Such individuals from the McGill community were showcased at the Sustainability Soirée, which was held on January 23rd at the Thomson House on campus. Hosted by the Office of Sustainability, the event aimed to showcase on-campus sustainability-related projects, funded by the Sustainability Projects Fund (SPF), as well as research in the field, supported by the McGill Sustainability Systems Initiative (MSSI).

With its diverse presentations, the Sustainability Soirée truly acknowledged all three pillars of sustainability, which do not solely revolve around the environment. Sustainability refers to a way of interacting with each other by being environmentally friendly, equitable, and financially smart. Addressing these three pillars ensures that an individual, institution, firm, or government is acting with a long-term and mindful vision.

On-campus sustainability initiatives and projects

Upon arriving at the event, guests immediately discovered one of the many on-campus sustainability initiatives which were being showcased: the McGill Carbon Calculator (MCC). The website makes it easy for organizations to calculate the greenhouse gas emissions associated with their event, by calculating the emissions released by each guest’s use of transportation to the event. Once the total is calculated, the Mc3Gill team offers support for choosing quality offset projects.

The MCC is also used by another initiative on campus: Sustainable Events. Part of the Office for Sustainability, the program assists clubs and departments across McGill to plan their events with sustainability in mind, providing official certificates depending on the level achieved. Thus, the MCC is a useful tool which can be used to better estimate an event’s total environmental impact.

Founded in 2008, The Plate Club also helps other clubs on campus plan environmentally-conscious events by allowing groups to borrow reusable dishware and cutlery. This is an example of a simple yet effective solution to eliminate the dependence on single-use plastic utensils and plates at on- and off-campus events, as the environmental benefits of doing so only grow with the size of an event.

Launching this summer, the Interactive Accessible Network Map seeks to provide the entire McGill community with the easiest trajectory to campus buildings, depending on one’s accessibility needs. By mapping out routes for five different user profiles, the project aims to facilitate mobility around campus so as to make it a more inclusive space in spite of the challenging location of the university.

Last but not least among SPF-funded campus initiatives which we can look forward to, is the Refill McGill campaign. Thanks to this initiative, by May 1, 2019, McGill will no longer be selling non-carbonated bottled water anywhere on campus. Instead, twenty-five additional water fountains will be installed on both of its campuses with original and eye-catching indications leading to those fountains.

Research in the field of sustainability

As aforementioned, the MSSI funds research and projects pertaining to the three pillars of sustainability, which allows for a wide array of research questions to be pursued in depth by receivers of their grant. While many more were being showcased, I had the opportunity to learn about four, all of which relate to sustainable development in their unique approach.

Kahnawà:ke Market: Food Sovereignty Leadership Program

For this project, a non-profit organisation called Symbiosyn collaborated with the First Nations Adult Education Center in the Kahnawà:ke indigenous community located on the south shore of the St. Lawrence river. Their research question explored the emergence of leaders in relation to food sovereignty within indigenous communities. In this education center, the indigenous community was conducting research on indoor agriculture, a very relevant research topic for the region, where the long winter makes the growing season relatively short. By building up trust with the community, members of the non-profit were able to establish a reciprocal relationship of learning: the researchers were able to learn from the community about indoor agriculture, while, in turn, they shared their academic knowledge and methods, to help make the community’s research replicable, as they sought to do.

This project demonstrates how both communities can gain from working together, an example which is very relevant to the field of international development, in which we often observe indigenous communities being marginalized through large-scale, top-down development projects, which overlook the socio-political and cultural implications of their actions. Closer to home, this project is an important reminder that Montreal and McGill University are located on the unceded land of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabeg nations.

Trajectories of Inequality in Montreal: What neighborhoods stand to benefit most from the proposed ‘Pink’ metro line?

With a focus on the social pillar of sustainability, this research project centers around the ‘Pink Line’, a new metro line proposal for the Island of Montreal, for which the new mayor Valérie Plante was elected on. The goal of this line, estimated to cost $5.9 billion, is to connect downtown Montreal to areas on the island that are low income in order to provide them with better economic opportunities. Hence, the research project in question is evaluating whether the proposed trajectory is indeed addressing equity, as it aims to do. Through a research scope of a thirty-year period (1981-2016), the researchers have already observed that North Montreal has decreased in income over time, therefore, the ‘Pink Line’ would cater well to this region. However, the individuals involved are researching whether the proposal maximizes the potential for the line by mapping out income levels and areas across the island, which will allow them to conclude whether the proposed trajectory is an effective one.

The ‘Pink Line’, and the research around it, showcases another way to address and provide sustainable development, by addressing equity. If this line has been conceived accurately, with the lowest income areas in mind, then it will succeed in addressing issues pertaining to the provision of equal opportunities.

Solvent-free Enzymatic Breakdown of Cellulose: Optimization and Insight

Pertaining to the environment pillar of sustainability, this research project sought to develop a more efficient and productive way of producing biofuels. While biofuels, which rely on plants, are already a better alternative to fossil fuels, which rely on very extractive methods, this research raises awareness about the unsustainable side of biofuels. Biofuels are plant-based, commonly made using starches like corn and rice. Hence, biofuels divert resources which could be used as food but which, instead, end up as waste once the needed molecules are extracted. This project sought to find a solution to this problem, in an effort to reduce levels of deforestation and waste. After a lot of experimentation, the researchers involved found that they could use natural enzymes from the fungi which grows on trees to make biofuels through a calculated cycle of motion and heat.

The findings of this research project are particularly pertinent to the climate change crisis as they offer a more sustainable way of producing a source of energy, which is thought to already be a ‘greener’ option. The implications of these findings also suggest a way to reduce deforestation and the waste of food sources, which could be used for direct consumption instead of an input in the production of energy.

Global New Master-Planned Cities and Climate Change Planning

Last, but not least, the scope of this research project provided a key insight into the way governments are responding to the threat of climate change, or as their findings showed, the lack thereof of response. Their aim was to investigate whether the new cities which are being built across the Global South, more than 150 in the past two decades in over forty countries, have been built with a long-term, environment-conscious vision in mind. The researchers found that nearly 35% of the new cities they surveyed are located along a coast or close to sea level, putting their future population, estimated to reach 30 million, at grave danger in the not-so-far future given the current rising sea levels. Unfortunately, they also discovered that only seven out of the 120 were built with climate change in mind.

This research project exposes the failure of governments to acknowledge the crisis we are currently facing. While, again, the Global North bears the brunt of the responsibility for instigating climate change and global warming, urbanization projects such as the ones mentioned in this research, which include Eko Atlantic in Nigeria, or Clark Green City in the Philippines, with their seemingly ‘green’ names, are only putting their populations at a larger environmental risk in the future. This is not entirely surprising given the financial agendas governments and firms have behind the construction of these cities, which can provide many economic opportunities both for their workforce but also through the resulting tourism. However, short-term profit will be little solace when faced with inevitable sinking land and submersion resulting from soil erosion and rising sea levels.

This shortsightedness of politicians with regards to climate change can be paralleled to the economic and marketing agenda of institutions instead of acting mindfully and sustainably.

Final thoughts

Overall, the hosts of the Sustainability Soirée were very successful in “providing opportunities for shared learning and future collaboration to create a more open, connected, and sustainable university.” By facilitating an event which brought together students, faculty, and researchers across various disciplines, as well as members of the Montreal community, to showcase diverse projects ranging from reusable dishware to producing biofuels more efficiently, the event clearly demonstrated the need for inter-disciplinary collaboration in developing sustainable solutions based on the three pillars of sustainability. Through this approach, the event demonstrated the need and potential for community-based initiatives and solutions, which combined together have the power to encourage and foster a culture of sustainability at McGill University and beyond.

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