A greener tomorrow relies on academic research and innovation
Amir Asif
Vice-President Research & Innovation
York University

Climate change poses an existential threat, arguably best mitigated by evidence-based policy. Critical decisions made by local and global leaders on this issue are most effective when shaped by the research and innovation of our public institutions. At York University, faculty, staff, students, and researchers collaborate across multiple disciplines and offices to conduct this important work, advancing the knowledge and discovery needed to confront such a pressing challenge.

Ranked among the top 40 universities worldwide for advancing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals - including climate action - York is well-positioned to steer us towards a more sustainable future for both Canada and the world. Long recognized for our strengths in sustainability-relevant research, teaching, partnerships and campus practices, York University has become an international leader in combating climate change.

Adopting a whole-institution approach, York has accelerated its timeline and pledged to achieve net zero emissions by 2040 - a decade sooner than its previous commitment. We also recently released our own comprehensive emissions data and ecological footprint assessment, the first Canadian institution to do so.

The establishment of a $1 million Sustainability Innovation Fund for sustainability projects on our campuses supports our ambitious net zero goal. From previous SIF supported projects on large battery electricity storage to the development of an on-site composting centre to an annual Green Career Fair, York's community of changemakers are dedicated to making tangible impacts and creating more sustainable ways of living.

Through community efforts, York has diverted more than 70 per cent of its waste from landfills, abating more than 26,000 metric tons of carbon, equivalent to planting more than 1.2 million trees or eliminating 61,800 barrels of oil. York boasts the highest recycling rate of any post-secondary institution in Ontario and is among the top 100 greenest employers in Canada.

York's commitment to sustainability extends even further with a $2 million investment from the federal government's decarbonization incentive program, enhancing our capacity to deliver energy efficient utilities on our campuses. With more than 1.2 million square feet of green buildings, York operates as a living lab for our researchers, spanning the Keele and Glendon Campuses, along with Las Nubes, our EcoCampus in Costa Rica, which focuses on environmental conservation.

But perhaps most notable is York's research enterprise, supported by a new Strategic Research Plan 2023-2028, which has long prioritized studying climate change. Research in this area is a York tradition, dating back to 1968 when we took the pioneering step to become the first university in Canada to establish a faculty of environmental studies.

York broke new ground once more in 2020 when we launched the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change, which combined the environmental studies faculty with the department of geography, bringing together a critical mass of physical geographers, ecologists, social scientists, humanities researchers, and artists to address a broad range of global environmental concerns.

York's leading expertise on climate-related research spans all 11 faculties, with distinct strengths in bee ecology, refugee studies, and water. For example, when it comes to water, the University delivers more than 30 programs relevant to SDG 6 - clean water and sanitation. York is also the academic lead for the UNITAR Global Water Academy, a multi-stakeholder collaboration that delivers innovative training and builds human capacities on large scale water-related issues.

Recent investments of more than $4 million from York's Catalyzing Interdisciplinary Research Clusters program have funded projects that include engineer Satinder Brar's studies of water remediation and geographer Tarmo Remmel's investigation into the effects of climate change on ecosystems and human populations.

As an institution founded on the principles of social justice, York has a unique lens that also views climate change as an equity issue. The work of political scientist Yvonne Su exemplifies this perspective. Her research on migration uncovers the unequal consequences of climate change, disproportionately affecting low-income and vulnerable people in the Global South and in Indigenous communities, who more often face displacement after a climate-related disaster.

Universities play a pivotal role in the knowledge economy and in the formulation of robust policies to address climate change. Investment in research and innovation is crucial to fostering forward-thinking ideas and creative solutions that serve the public good and aid public policy.

In the world's ongoing fight against climate change, global higher education is one of society's most valuable resources. York University stands ready to continue to lead on this issue and act as a trusted partner for the public and private sector.

Governments and companies hold the power to turn big ideas into action, and policymakers hold the pen to implement real-world solutions. Leveraging academic research and innovation offers the best bet for our planet, and our future.