Action around carbon neutrality underway at McGill

Climate Officer explains that the process of attaining carbon neutrality has already begun on McGill's campuses

In December, the McGill Office of Sustainability launched The Climate & Sustainability Action Plan (2017-2020). The Climate & Sustainability Action Plan is part of McGill’s broader Vision 2020 Sustainability Strategy, which covers the years 2014-2020. Significantly, the Action Plan is the first sustainability plan that specifically targets the reduction of the University’s greenhouse gas emissions.  The Action Plan sets two long-term targets: attain a Platinum sustainability rating by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2040.

Carbon neutrality is attained when the amount of greenhouse gases released is equivalent to the amount sequestered or offset. Carbon neutrality is achieved by two means: eliminating greenhouse gas emissions wherever feasible and implementing a combination of carbon sequestration and offsetting initiatives. Carbon neutrality emerged as a central theme throughout the Office of Sustainability’s year-long sustainability consultation process with students, faculty and staff at McGill throughout the 2016-2017 academic year. In March 2017, the Office of Sustainability hosted a series of Community Conversations on Carbon Neutrality. The events were designed to gather feedback on carbon neutrality as a potential target for the University.

After gauging the support of carbon neutrality within the McGill community, the Office of Sustainability established a task force of academic experts on carbon neutrality. The Task Force consisted of six McGill professors with diverse academic backgrounds. Members of the Task Force met regularly throughout 2017 to discuss the scientific and ethical case for carbon neutrality, as well as the different scenarios under which McGill could transition to net-zero emissions.

Where are we now?

McGill, as a world-class research and teaching institution, is characterized by high energy intensity, a travelling population and a sizeable carbon footprint. In 2015, McGill emitted 54,060 tonnes of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) per year. Carbon dioxide emissions are divided into three categories: Scope 1 (direct emissions), 2 (indirect emissions) and 3 (other emissions). Between 1990 and 2015, the University reduced our total emissions by 12%. However, both Scope 2 and 3 emissions have increased due to growth in McGill’s population. Scope 1 has been the only area of reduction, and is currently 25% lower than it was in 1990. McGill’s annual Greenhouse Gas Inventories provide historical and current information, and indicate how McGill’s emissions have evolved.

Where are we headed?

In the Climate & Sustainability Action Plan, the University focuses first and foremost on reducing rather than offsetting carbon. The Plan includes strategies for improving campus energy systems, reducing air travel and altering commuting policies. McGill aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2040, with an intermediate target of reducing our GHG emissions by 58% by 2025.

Ali Rivers, McGill’s Climate Officer, explained that numerous energy transitions will occur at the University in the next five years. She explained, “Generally speaking, the energy management plan goes through some distinct phases. The first one is energy reduction and efficiency and includes things like installing sensors and meters. The next stage is to create recycled energy systems; it involves adapting our current energy systems and making it easier to recycle.”

There are presently a couple of initiatives underway at McGill. One of these projects is Peak Energy Demand Management, which is a new program with the goal of lowering the overall strain on Quebec’s power infrastructure and reduce the need for supplemental power to be purchased and procured from other provinces during peak events since these grids are all more carbon-intensive than Quebec’s own grid. “Through this program, McGill has committed to reduce electricity demand at buildings during peak demand times and extremely cold winter events,” said Jerome Conraud, Energy Manager. “This project is an excellent chance for McGill to learn to manage peak demand, which will become more of  a challenge over time, and to receive funds that can be funneled into power infrastructure upgrades.”

In addition to Peak Demand Management, McGill has begun to address emissions from its fleet of vehicles. A team composed of individuals from Procurement, Campus Public Safety (Security Services and Parking & Transportation Services) and the Office of Sustainability is working on a comprehensive Sustainable Vehicles Management Program that will help to efficiently and sustainably manage vehicle life cycles at McGill, including acquisition, use and maintenance, and disposal of vehicles. The team is currently developing minimum standard requirements for McGill’s fleet that aim to decarbonize the fleet over time, through fuel type and fuel efficiency considerations.

Finally, research is being undertaken to understand the possibility of increased carbon sequestration (on the lands owned by the University – such as the Arboretum and the Gault Nature Reserve).Rivers explains, “In order to investigate the potential for enhanced sequestration, we need to first calculate the current sequestration rate and the key factors that contribute to these rates.” A Master’s student in the Department of Natural Resources is currently investigating McGill’s carbon sequestration rate.

"My research project is looking at what the current total and what the potential is for carbon sequestration on each of McGill’s properties: Gault Nature Reserve, Morgan Arboretum, and the Macdonald Campus Farm. I will also be looking at what sort of land use or management strategies can be used to maximize this annual sequestration,” said Isabella Boushey, who is a member of The Bennett Lab at Macdonald Campus.

Since releasing the 2020 Climate & Sustainability Action Plan two months ago, McGill has hit the ground running in order to advance its vision of a carbon neutral University. To learn more about this process, visit

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