This article is part four of UMSU’s U of M Budget 2020/2021 series, detailing the recommendations we have submitted to the University of Manitoba to include in its budget for the upcoming fiscal year. You can also read part one, on expanding sexual violence prevention and education initiatives; part two, on increasing mental health supports for students; and part three, on renewing funding for the International Student Health Insurance Relief Fund.
RECOMMENDATION 4: The University of Manitoba earmark $100,000 of funding to carry out a comprehensive planning and feasibility study on how to reach net-zero emissions as an institution by 2050, and commit to making that study publicly available when complete.
Climate change and its disastrous consequences are playing out in real time. UMSU, the UMGSA, UMFA and the University of Manitoba have recently taken steps to further progress toward sustainability, but given the severity of the problem – and relatively small time window in which to avert catastrophe – we are asking the U of M to show leadership on both an international stage and among its peers in the U15 on the defining crisis of our generation.
As if anyone needed additional evidence of the terrifying, destabilizing power and immediacy of climate change, the month of February delivered a glimpse of what a future of runaway climate change looks like.
Mainland Europe was lashed by hurricane strength winds – made more likely by warming ocean temperatures – that claimed the lives of at least 7 people, disrupted transport networks continent-wide and left hundreds of thousands without power for days. A week earlier, parts of Australia left charred by a hellacious summer of bushfires, which killed an estimated one billion animals, found themselves underwater due to flash flooding caused by torrential rains. On February 13, freakish temperatures in the Antarctic surged past plus-20 degrees Celsius for the first time ever on record. As a university that takes immense pride in its leadership on arctic research, the alarm bells should be ringing.
Closer to home, two different reports each delivered their own stark warnings. First, the Center for Climate and Security, a well-regarded Washington-based think tank comprised of national security, military and intelligence experts, released a report forecasting that even conservative levels of global warming of 1.5-2 degrees Celsius could lead to an unravelling of global security within three decades – beginning with Africa and the Middle East.
Then, researchers from the University of Guelph and the NGO Conservation International shared a paper based on computer modelling that showed how global warming could render 30-40% of Canada’s northern regions theoretically viable for the commercial cultivation of temperate crops such as wheat and potatoes, a previously unimaginable scenario.
All told, the issue of climate change can no longer be framed as something that will affect just future generations – it is affecting us, and it is happening right now. It is on the leading scientific and thought-generating institutions among us to guide the way forward.
While individual and community-based solutions are laudable and necessary in the fight against climate change, it will ultimately be institutional change and innovation leading to government action that will save humanity from the most frightening outcomes.
The chorus of voices calling for that type of leadership and change is growing louder by the month. This past September was witness to the largest climate strikes in history, as millions took to the streets worldwide to demand urgent climate action.
That same month, on our campus UMSU’s Board of Directors passed a motion declaring a climate emergency and demanding the University of Manitoba follow suit, while also calling on the administration to commit to a 50 per cent emissions reduction by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050. The university’s sustainability committee, in alliance with UMSU, UMGSA and UMFA, has called on the university to declare net zero by 2050 and put $100,000 towards a feasibility study on the subject.
We appreciate the university’s reticence towards making a declaration without an action plan, and that is why we feel significant financial resources are required to ensure any declaration can be acted upon thoroughly.
In November, University of Manitoba professors were among the 11,000 scientists from across the globe declaring a climate emergency, mere weeks before both the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) declared in December that they would begin factoring climate change risk into their lending practices.
Then, shortly after the turn of the year, on January 21, Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock Inc. – among the world’s largest fund managers overseeing $6.9 trillion in wealth – wrote a letter widely interpreted as a call to action for the financial industry to actively work to tackle climate change.
This culminated in February with British multinational, BP, the world’s fourth largest oil and gas company, pledging to become a net-zero emissions company by 2050 or sooner, and going so far as to cut longstanding ties to industry groups in the US that do not share that same goal.
Make no mistake, the University of Manitoba has signaled its commitment to environmental stewardship and sustainability through holding talks on climate change as part of its Visionary Conversations series, achieving a STARS Gold Rating in sustainability from the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, and playing the role of UN Impact Hub for Sustainable Development Goal 6 on clean water and sanitation, as well as the release of its Sustainability Strategy 2019-2023.
However, as the previous examples from across the globe show, there’s ample evidence that much, much more serious action is needed to reducing carbon emissions – of which the university produces 59,790 tonnes annually, based on reliance on an energy mix that is two-thirds natural gas.
If BP, the world’s fourth largest fossil fuel company, can commit to net-zero emissions by 2050 and begin planning how to get there, surely the University of Manitoba can do the same.
Making this clear declaration and commitment would also underline the University of Manitoba’s role as one of this province’s most influential institutions. It would signal that the U of M was using the public funds it receives, as well as its economic, political, and social capital, to accelerate the shift away from fossil fuels within Manitoba, while also linking up to the burgeoning shift away from fossil fuels worldwide.
As cited in the University of Manitoba’s Economic Impact Analysis for 2014-2019, the U of M is a key driver of economic growth in Manitoba (see graphic).
In announcing the release of the economic impact analysis report, University president David Barnard described the university as a “catalyst for growth” – what the University must become in the future is a catalyst for change, particularly when it comes to the defining crisis of our time, climate change.
Taking this step would put the University of Manitoba in a position of leadership not just within the province but within the U15, of which four other institutions have already declared a climate emergency and made a comparable commitment to emissions reduction.
According to the UN, there is no time to waste, as given the trajectory of current emissions the window to begin the action necessary to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius will close by 2030.
While the University’s Sustainability Strategy 2019-2023 is good start, there remains a need for clear emissions reductions targets and a plan to reach them. We are asking for the university to earmark $100,000 toward the creation of a specific plan for how the university will do its part in reaching the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 either as a standalone entity or within its upcoming climate action plan. Once that plan is created, it should be made public, so that the rest of the Manitoba can see what real leadership on addressing climate change looks like.