Green educational infrastructure: A building block for just transition

It is no longer necessary to expound on the importance of taking action to address climate change.  Canada’s federal government and every major political party have committed to addressing the problem.  There is widespread support among Canadians and, indeed, our global counterparts.  Increasingly, we are seeing larger emitters – companies, sectors, provinces – committing to a greener future.  What remains are the specifics of a just transition.  

The challenge ahead entails a global transformation that promises reverberating effect throughout the economy and society.  Although a just transition must focus on the immediate needs of workers and businesses, it must also encompass a longer-term vision. 

A cornerstone of the green transition is infrastructure, from buildings to fueling stations.  On one hand, green infrastructure is the foundation on which we can build broader sustainability goals.  On the other, investments are economic catalysts that help backfill employment and economic gaps potentially created as high-emitting industries wind down. 

A good place to start green infrastructure investment is on public post-secondary campuses. 

On polytechnic campuses, buildings support state-of-the-art learning and house programs essential to the development of a green talent pipeline.  New buildings and environmental retrofits are living labs, where diverse youth from every walk of life are exposed to environmental practices.  Campuses are also community hubs, open to the wider community and enabling transition among partners. 

Canada’s polytechnics have already started down this path.  For example, Seneca supports numerous sustainable initiatives that range from urban farming and beekeeping to conservation, restoration and waste reduction. 

Repair Caféan initiative in Sheridan’s Office for Sustainability, promotes the benefits of a circular economy.  The project has been so successful that it has been adopted by the Brampton Library and other local municipalities and institutions. 

The benefits of on-campus net-zero activities could be even broader.  In addition to domestic students, the college sector has experienced tremendous growth in the number of international students coming to Canada over the last decade.  Many hope to immigrate, while others will return to countries without clear environmental goals.  Active efforts to ensure today’s post-secondary students become environmental ambassadors will ensure they have not only the will, but also the skill to support the transition to net-zero. 

Knowing this process will be dynamic, the green talent pipeline must also be ready for constant evolution.  The interplay between economic activity and the environment is inevitable, with advances in technology possibly advancing the effort more quickly or a shift in political will delaying it.  Polytechnics pride themselves on developing talented graduates that are resilient and ready for change.  

Polytechnics are also forums for experimentation, applied research and commercialization.  There are opportunities for government to apply the lessons learned on post-secondary campuses more broadly. 

George Brown College’s latest Labour Fair focused on unions, workers and climate change, with a dedicated discussion on just transition.  One of the goals of the institution’s three-pronged sustainability plan is to promote awareness and behavioural changes to support sustainability goals.  

At Kwantlen Polytechnic University, the just transition conversation explores the intersection between food systems, anti-racism, decolonization and the environmental justice movement.  This highlights the breadth of concerns tied to a just transition and draws on the institution’s applied research strengths.  

Conestoga College has committed to sustainability as part of its strategic plan and is reducing its ecological footprint with initiatives related to infrastructure, landscape and architecture, biodiversity, energy management, recycling, waste management and emissions reports. 

Meanwhile, the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology’s sustainability framework incorporates social, financial and environmental dimensions into green campus initiatives and institutional strategies.  Applied research at the institution’s Green Buildings Technologies (GBT) and Demonstration Centre focuses on integrating construction, green technologies and renewable energy. 

While polytechnic institutions have important roles to play, the first step toward a green transition is leading by example.  

By greening their own infrastructure, institutions contribute directly to emission reduction. These investments foster conversations and ensure students have the skills to lead and implement green transition. Test driving and disseminating solutions in partnership with industry also makes climate transition pragmatic.

It all starts with campus infrastructure, making it a good place for governments to invest as Canada embarks on a truly transformative green transition.

About the Author

Alexandra Apavaloae

At the time of publication, Alexandra Apavaloae was a Policy Analyst at Polytechnics Canada.