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Sustainable ideas and real-world solutions

With hundreds of experts working on sustainability research, McGill is getting ready to take on one of its biggest challenges yet

Woman wearing red coat with back turned, looking out at hilly landscape

If, as many are saying, COVID-19 is the dress rehearsal for the climate catastrophe that is racing towards us, how will our future performance measure up?

Collaboration and collective action have been hallmarks of the global response to the pandemic. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the public health and research communities, where universities like McGill are playing a leading role.

But while the pandemic may be the defining story of today, climate and environmental sustainability challenges – and our response to them – will define the century to come. “Quite simply, how the world recovers from COVID-19 is a ‘make-or-break moment’ for the health of our planet,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently told the World Conference of Speakers of Parliament. We must learn from this, he urged, and “do things right for the future.”

Sustainability forms one of the grand challenges at the centre of Made by McGill: the Campaign for Our Third Century, the University’s ambitious $2-billion fundraising campaign launched a year ago. We are taking this singular moment in McGill’s history to refocus our priorities and band together on environmental sustainability solutions – to help the world do things right for the future.

McGill has leading experts in important sustainability domains such as biodiversity, food and water security, green chemistry, and advanced materials, and it is home to the multidisciplinary School of Environment. In research and teaching, more than 160 professors from seven faculties and 22 departments, together with 950 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, work on aspects of sustainability across disciplines that range from natural sciences to law, sociology, urban planning and more.

New projects, led by the New Vic

Now, with the New Vic project that will reimagine the former Royal Victoria Hospital site on the slope of Mount Royal, McGill aims to take its sustainability vision much further.

Where the old Vic was dedicated to healing people, the New Vic will be focused on healing the planet, a state-of-the-art home for two main pillars of activity: Sustainability Systems, focusing on basic sciences and engineering, and Public Policy. With outstanding sustainability scientists working hand in hand with policy specialists, the result will be a capacity to develop solutions that will succeed in the lab, in the marketplace, and through laws and regulations that drive real change.

Across the rest of its campuses, McGill has invested more than $26 million in energy management, reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent. Macdonald Farm and its Horticultural Research Centre is the University’s largest source of in-season produce, supplying fresh food to campus through the celebrated McGill Feeding McGill program. And the University’s flagship Sustainability Projects Fund is one of the largest of its kind. It has helped students, faculty and staff kickstart more than 200 grassroots projects on campus over the past decade, and today distributes $1 million a year to fund sustainability initiatives.

Our campus accomplishments have been recognized with honours that count: The University’s Vision 2020 Sustainability Strategy earned an International Sustainable Campus Network Award, and last year McGill was named Sustainability Institution of the Year in the UN Environment’s International Green Gown Awards.

Telling sustainability stories

Making the changes necessary for real progress also requires a different mindset. Elena Bennett, a professor at the McGill School of Environment and the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, believes that to counteract the paralyzing effect of doomsday climate scenarios that engender apathy, it’s critical that we tell positive climate and sustainability stories. “Otherwise we risk creating the future we’re projecting.”

In addition to her work as an ecosystems ecologist, she and research colleagues from around the world are sharing success stories through the Seeds of Good Anthropocenes project.

And at McGill, there are many such stories to tell. From research on climate mitigation or ridding our oceans of plastic waste, to smaller-scale projects that can quickly turn innovative ideas into real-world community change.

On campus today, for instance, Engineering students are creating a smart sensor-equipped waste bin for the Lorne M. Trottier Building that will promote better waste habits and reduce recycling contamination – and they’re working in partnership with McGill’s Buildings and Grounds team as part of the University’s sustainable campus goals.

Meanwhile, for the first time ever, McGill’s Board of Governors is about to launch a sustainability committee that will be led by former chair of the board Stuart Cobbett, BA’69, BCL’72, LLD’19, and also includes Hockey Hall of Famer Ken Dryden, LLB’73, LLD’18. Part of its mandate will be to track McGill’s progress in reducing its carbon footprint, with a goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2040. Cobbett says pointedly that Principal Suzanne Fortier expects them to “hold the administration’s feet to the fire.”

Much further from campus, PhD student and human nutrition researcher Christine Ha, BSc(NutrSc)’18, is working with the Cree community of Whapmagoostui on James Bay in northern Quebec to ensure food security in the face of climate change. With the youth from the community leading the way, Ha is helping ensure that knowledge about local food systems is shared between elders and young people to empower them for the future.

McGill graduates are leaders on many sustainability fronts as well, whether they are developing new agricultural solutions, or providing us with views of our natural world like we’ve never seen before. Alumni like Lauren Rathmell, BSc’10, co-founder of Montreal’s Lufa Farms, which built the world’s first commercial rooftop greenhouses. Or Jennifer Baichwal, BA’90, MA’96, whose mesmerizing documentaries like Watermark and Anthropocene: the Human Epoch, explore our impact on our planet – and its impact on us.

We look forward to sharing more McGill sustainability stories in the coming months, so that, in Elena Bennett’s hopeful words, we can highlight positive change and help build a future that is “more just, prosperous, and sustainable than our current world.”