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Dalhousie on track to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets

Some students say divestment needs to be part of the plan

Rochelle Owen, the director of the Office of Sustainability at Dalhousie University, says she’s confident the university can meet its greenhouse gas reduction target of 50 per cent by 2020, and net zero by 2050.

According to its last greenhouse gas inventory, Dalhousie University emitted 98,659 tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2014-2015. These are gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane that are released in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels and contribute to climate change.

In 2010, Dalhousie University committed to reducing its emissions by 20 per cent in 2016, 50 per cent in 2020, and 100 per cent in 2050.

Owen says the data for 2016 is still being analyzed, but she’s certain that if Dalhousie hasn’t achieved it, it’s very close. “The big one is 50 per cent reduction by 2020,” she says, as well as the goal of zero emissions by 2050. They’re big goals, she says, but they are achievable.

Owen says a big part of reducing emissions is simply improving the campus’ energy efficiency. “In the world of energy management, the first thing you do is, don’t use it at all if you can help it, reduce it, and then fuel switching,” explains Owen.

Fuel switching means switching from high-emission energy sources to sources that produce less, or no greenhouse gas emissions, like renewable energy.

It’s not going to be easy, says Owen. Some buildings on campus have really high energy needs. “They have whacky wonderful things that use a lot of energy plugged in, and fume hoods, and that kind of thing,” she says. Buildings with research labs, for example, typically use up to five times the amount of energy academic buildings need.

Owen says the key to achieving the zero emissions target for Dalhousie is energy co-generation. Co-generation, or “cogen” refers to a method of generating electricity while capturing and using the heat that is produced in the process.

Owen’s vision is that Dalhousie could reduce its emissions down to five or 10 thousand tonnes, and buy carbon offsets for the remaining emissions. Carbon offsets are a way of compensating for emissions by funding projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions or remove CO2 from the atmosphere (for example, through reforestation).

“I think that making the campus net zero is fantastic and it’s going to happen, and I’m very grateful for people who are putting their energy into that,” says Becca Lash, a member of Divest Dal and masters student in Social Anthropology.

But Divest Dal still wants divestment to be part of the university’s action on climate change.

“Otherwise I feel like it’s very hypocritical for Dal to call itself a sustainable institution and to have all these policies in place when it’s still financially supporting fossil fuel companies that are actively degrading the environment,” says Kathleen Olds, also a member of Divest Dal and a second year student in Economics and Sustainability.

Olds says that the good things Dalhousie is doing to deal with climate change shouldn’t detract from the fact that it is still actively supporting companies that are damaging the environment.

“In this case it’s not just about reducing our carbon emissions, it’s not just about building LEED-certified buildings, it’s about removing the social license from companies that are actively degrading the environment. We can’t have like, ‘everyone change your light bulbs’ as a long-term plan for climate justice,” she says.

At the same time, Lash wants to make sure people understand that both approaches are important. “I don’t think they’re antithetical in any way. If anything there could be better coordination between the wonderful and necessary work to physically improve this school in terms of carbon neutrality and groups like ours who are kind of working on the political side.”

So far, however, the Board of Governors has not been enthusiastic about the idea of divestment. In a statement available online, chair Lawrence Stordy writes, “…the Board believes it will have more influence with regard to climate change as an engaged investor than it would through a one-time decision to divest holdings in carbon companies.”

Stordy’s statement hasn’t discouraged members of Divest Dal. They see the recent commitment to divest by Université Laval as setting a precedent. “One, divestment is possible, and two, it makes you look really good,” says Olds.

And, she adds, they’ve got a couple of things up their sleeve before the end of the year. “We’d like to bring divestment back to the table for the Board of Governors as soon as possible.”

Mira Chiasson writes in partnership with the Dalhousie Gazette and the Dalhousie Student Union Sustainability Office (DSUSO). 

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