Western’s future may be written in STARS

The University of Western Ontario has its environmental lens pointed towards the STARS. But if results are to be believed, the university may need to sharpen its focus to be among Canada’s most sustainable campuses.

Western achieved a silver ranking using the Sustainability Tracking Assessment & Rating System (STARS). That places it sixth out of 10 Canadian universities self-reporting their performance to STARS. One university received a gold rating, eight a silver rating and one a bronze.

Wilfrid Laurier University and The University of Ottawa are the only other Ontario universities to report. A dozen more universities have committed to submitting their reports in the next several months.

STARS helps postsecondary institutions measure their sustainability performances. The system provides a ranking, from platinum on the high end to bronze on the low, and provides an assessment of environmental achievements. The system also identifies areas of improvement that can be addressed with ambitious-but-realistic goals. STARS is an initiative of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

Two Western students from the Masters of Environment and Sustainability program oversaw the STARS project earlier this summer. Facilities Management brought on Isabel Balarezo and Wendy Trinh to compile relevant data and submit the report on Western’s behalf.

“One of the unique factors of our submission is that it was spearheaded by our own students,” says Brandon Watson, Facilities Management communications officer.

“I found that being a student at Western and being employed by the university made it easier for us to collect the information we needed,” Balarezo says.

The STARS ranking system works by dividing university performance into three categories: Planning, Administration and Education; Operations; and Education and Research.

Western’s top score came from the Operations category.

STARS highlighted Western’s successful efforts in using environmentally friendly cleaning materials, water use and conservation as well as indoor environmental quality.

Also, Facilities Management is getting around to reducing their carbon emissions by changing the way they get around. Currently, the department has a fleet of 44 vehicles, including pickup trucks, cargo vans, passenger vans and cars. Among that fleet, the department is using four electric vans to transport personnel and equipment from site-to-site across campus. The vehicles need to be charged once every eight hours, and are intended strictly for campus. They have a 40 km limit.

“We haven’t found the battery life to be a hindrance. But we are interested to see what the winter will bring because there will be a much bigger drain on the battery because of the battery heater and the heater within the vehicle,” says Mark Van Den Bossche, parking manager within Facilities Management.

A notable sub-category in Operations is Western’s greenhouse gas emissions. Despite the strong overall score in the category, Western has not achieved climate neutrality, and lost points in this portion of the report. In fact, the university has not decreased its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the past several years. According to the report, Western’s GHG emissions have increased 13 per cent since 2005.

STARS suggests Western create long- and short-term goals for GHG reductions, centering the both plans around a reduction in energy use.

In the remaining two categories, Western performed below average.

As part of the Planning, Administration and Education category, Western did not perform well in the heavily-weighted subcategory concerning sustainability-focused courses.

According to the report, the university does not provide enough courses on sustainability.

STARS would like to duplicate the success of the environment and sustainability graduate programs which draft inter-departmentally to create a unique interdisciplinary program. A long-term objective, STARS states, is for the university to introduce similar sustainability courses for undergrads, and encourage current Western staff to teach the courses.

Western’s investment strategy also took a hit for not taking sustainability-related concerns into consideration when making investments. The university’s lack of sustainability advocacy as a shareholder in companies and lack of positive sustainability investments scored the lowest number of points.

STARS says although Western has an investment committee, “the committee is not responsible for any sustainability-related investments.”

STARS suggests shareholder advocacy by submitting letters to companies in which Western invests, and addressing the sustainability efforts of the companies. Western should also make positive investments by putting money in sustainable industries or off-set programs.

In Education and Research, STARS recommends the incorporation of environmental sustainability into student leader training.

The Green Building Tour is the only peer-to-peer sustainability education program at Western. Only a limited number of students have the opportunity to take part in the program and to educate their fellow students on sustainability.

STARS recommends potential resident advisors pass an extensive sustainability module in order to be selected for their positions. Through training student leaders, sustainability initiatives and programs can be promoted, and a community that values sustainability may be established.

STARS also recommends including sustainability in new student orientation through collaboration with the University Students’ Council, EnviroWestern and Facilities Management. Although EnviroWestern plays a large role in creating awareness amongst new students during orientation week, there is still a lack of prominent sustainability activities. Sustainability should be prioritized leading up to Orientation Week. The Student Handbook should include environmental information, and new students should be offered tours of Western’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) buildings.

Both are high-priority, short-term goals for Western.

“We have two goals in our effort to become leaders in sustainability,” says Roy Langille, Facilities Management associate vice-president. “One is to reduce our carbon footprint; the other is to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels wherever possible.”

Along with submitting Western’s report, the students developed a recommendations package based on the findings in their research. The recommendations are currently in the hands of the President’s Advisory Committee on Environment & Sustainability.