PhD student Amir Nosrat wins coveted Emerald Key Award for Sustainability

Student recognized with sustainability award for facilitating University's commitment to carbon neutrality

Each year, the McGill Office of Sustainability is proud to recognize some of the hardworking individuals who have contributed to making the University more sustainability at the Annual Catalyst Awards Gala. This year, the Catalyst Awards occurred on Tuesday, April 3rd at the McCord Museum; as is tradition at the Gala, we recognized one outstanding student with the Emerald Key Award.

At this year’s Gala, the Emerald Key was presented to Amir Nosrat. Amir is a PhD student at the Faculty of Management researching the impact of climate risks on business practices and their ability to access finance. During his time at McGill, Amir served as the Environment Commissioner for the Post-Graduate Students Society in 2015 and 2016. As part of his mandate, Amir represented graduate students at the Sustainability Projects Funds and supported various initiatives to promote environmental sustainability on campus. Notably, Amir facilitated conversations between different stakeholders on campus for McGill to hire a climate officer and to commit to carbon neutrality. Amir has also supported the creation of innovative educational workshops surrounding climate change, gardening, and ecologically friendly lifestyles. 

The Office of Sustainability sat down with Amir to discuss some of his achievements and the lessons he learned about sustainability leadership throughout his time at McGill.

During the past two years, there was a lot of pressure on the McGill administration to take action on climate change. Do you think this pressure and energy was a factor in making the carbon neutrality proposal successful?

One hundred and ten percent. I think that committing to carbon neutrality would have been much more difficult, if not outright impossible, without Divest McGill's multi-year campaign to divest McGill's endowments from fossil fuel companies. The campaign had a very powerful effect on elevating the discussion surrounding the university's moral obligations with respect to climate change. The Board of Governors and the university administration, for various technical and political reasons, chose not to meet Divest McGill's specific demands, but they also could not avoid the moral core of Divest McGill's argument. I believe that many members of the university administration agreed with this core argument at some level. Carbon neutrality, and the climate officer, was in many ways a solution to address this moral quandary (at least partially). While carbon neutrality is important and necessary to address McGill's direct responsibilities with respect to climate change, it is not (in my opinion) a real solution to the moral dilemma of providing capital for business activities that clearly lead to climate change. Only time will tell whether or not the issue of divestment will re-surface.

During this process, what strategies did you employ to effectively facilitate conversations between different stakeholders on campus?

I'm sure I could come up with 'strategies' after the fact to pretend that I knew what I was doing all along, but I don't think I actually had a conscious strategy in place. There is one belief that I adhere to that I think came handy during the process. I know this belief isn't perfect and should not be applied to all contexts, but I generally think of individuals as different from the systems they are embedded in. In order for an individual to change a systems, they have to invest energy, thought, and time - all of which are finite and quite limited and difficult for individuals to allocate when dealing with multiple competing priorities. Moreover, I assume that the vast majority of individuals have good intentions, despite being part of systems that may suggest otherwise. This belief makes it much easier for me to engage in dialogue and exchange ideas with individuals spanning a wider spectrum of beliefs and opinions that would not be possible otherwise. So I guess my strategy was to have dialogue with as many stakeholders as possible to understand why or why not carbon neutrality made sense for McGill University.

What have you learned about the process of creating sustainable change at a large institution, such as McGill?

One of the most significant lessons I've learnt is that the process of promoting sustainability in McGill should not be evaluated solely based on its direct material impacts, but the impact it has on shifting attitudes and perceptions in society. Canada, like most countries, looks to its universities for moral and thought leadership, especially ones as old and well-known as McGill. Universities also have a very strong effect on shaping the values and attitudes of tomorrow's workforce. Therefore, any process pursued within universities to promote sustainability is bound to affect both current practices across Canadian society as well as affecting what the next generation of Canadian workers think and do. 

How has your understanding of sustainability evolved since you first came to McGill?

It has evolved in two ways. First, the notion of justice has taken a much more central role in my motivation to pursue sustainability. My time at McGill has made me realize that the reason I pursue sustainability (specifically environmentalism in the context of climate change) is because I am fundamentally driven to tackle problems that I believe disempower people from the lives they deserve to live. Sustainability, for me, has become synonymous with the pursuit of a world that is more just and more fair than the one we have today. Second, I have become more confident that I am not the only one who is driven by this desire. I think the vast majority of people are motivated by the notion of justice at some level, whether or not they explicitly subscribe to a social movement. I suspect that the desire to create a just world often gets drowned in the day-to-day trappings of life and interpersonal misunderstandings. Sustainability is a platform that helps many of us here in McGill to tap into this collective drive to make the world more just and more fair-slowly but surely.

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