UAlberta sets gold standard for sustainability

Improved sustainability rating welcome news as Sustainability Awareness Week kicks off across campus.


(Edmonton) Every year, the University of Alberta tests the effectiveness of the fire hydrants located on campus in a safety exercise that leaves nothing to chance. Once upon a time, that gush of water that ensures all is well, while necessary, would inevitably end up in the sewer.

Now, with campus sustainability top of mind, the test water is no longer water under the bridge, but is captured into cisterns and used in the irrigation and water features on campus.

This environmental wrinkle, together with dozens of similar campus-wide actions, have resulted in a Gold rating from the world’s most trusted post-secondary sustainability rating tool.

The Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System, or STARS, is a self-reporting framework for colleges and universities to measure their sustainability performance.

The U of A moved up from the Silver rating it received in 2012 to Gold by increasing scores across the three categories—education and research; operations; and planning, administration and engagement.

Its score places it second among the 24 Canadian institutions with a valid rating.

“I think the fact that we have moved from silver to gold demonstrates that we have a commitment to sustainability, and it is embedded across campus as we have raised our performance in all three categories that STARS measures,” said Trina Innes, director of the Office of Sustainability.

Some of the initiatives that helped push the U of A to the next level include:

  • the greenhouse gas inventory and management plan, which sees the institutional goal of reducing campus emissions by 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020
  • the launch of an embedded certificate in sustainability for students
  • the steady increase in the number of green certified buildings on campus, under a variety of programs
  • the completion of the Camrose Performing Arts Centre, which is clad in solar panels and uses LED lights throughout
  • the Heritage Chicken Program

Innes says the rating application also includes innovation credits for unique programs surrounding mental health supports and services that focus on social sustainability. She adds that some of the things that score particularly well are sustainable activities related to student engagement.

“We have a lot in the way of student educator programs and outreach campaigns, ways to get people involved—and that’s not just out of our office, that is institutionally that all these things are going on.”

She says the challenge now is trying to go where no STARS member school has gone before—a Platinum rating.

“STARS continues to raise the bar. Already there is a new version of STARS and they’ve upped the ante, so they are trying to uplift all of higher education to continuously improve their performance by elevating their criteria,” Innes noted, adding each rating is valid for three years. “That being said, our goal is continuous improvement. We don’t do things just to chase points; we need to do what is meaningful for our institution.”

Raising awareness: Three faces of campus sustainability

Innes says she wants the whole campus to be brought into the conversation about what’s next for sustainability on campus. A big part of that conversation begins this week as the U of A celebrates its Sustainability Awareness Week (SAW).

This year, the Office of Sustainability is doing even more to reflect all three sides of campus sustainability: social, economic and environmental.

On the economic side, they have partnered with StartUp U Week to provide a range of events looking at how sustainability fits in with entrepreneurship and corporate social responsibility.

On the social side, the week will feature events with The Landing, a new student space in SUB for gender and sexual diversity. As well, five student groups are collaborating for a Clothing Swap that will recycle clothes and donate the remainders to a community centre in Millbourne.

The week will also include walking tours for people to discover environment initiatives such as the urban forest, the district energy system and green buildings. Off-campus tours include visits to a Net Zero Energy home, the Strathcona Energy Centre and the Leduc #1 Energy & Discovery Centre.

The Office of Sustainability has also forged a new partnership with The Local Good, which runs monthly Green Drinks events, and is hosting one just for SAW at Dewey's on Wednesday.

The SAW kickoff event today in Quad featured an announcement and display about the STARS Gold rating, along with a free, local BBQ courtesy of Aramark and bicycle-powered live music from Music Is a Weapon.

“People tend to think of SAW as related to environmental programs, but the week of events includes social, economic and environmentally oriented events,” said Innes. “It is nice to see the diversity and that spectrum emerging.”