Prioritizing image over true climate action

Lily Cason, News Editor

Walking onto campus for the first time in months this September, my eyes were immediately drawn to the blue banners now adorning the Arts building and along the Y-intersection. These banners advertise the university’s Sustainability Projects Fund, featuring illustrations like bees, plants, bikes, and electric cars, along one of the most traversed and photographed paths on campus. They immediately rubbed me the wrong way.

It isn’t that I have something against the Fund—in fact, I think it’s an amazing resource for those looking to do research and projects in the field of sustainability at McGill—but rather, I’m wary that these banners deceptively portray McGill as a haven of environmental sustainability and innovation. Admittedly, I am not an unbiased source: As a member of Divest McGill, I am hyper-critical of McGill’s attempts to paint itself in a positive environmental light. Despite this, healthy skepticism is necessary whenever one is accosted by such advertising.

‘Greenwashing,’ a term coined by ecologist and environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986, is the now widely-recognized practice of a company, organization, or, in this case, a university marketing itself or its products as environmentally sustainable while failing to live up to these claims. Analysis conducted by the International Consumer Protection Enforcement Network shows that a staggering 40 per cent of the nearly 500 websites randomly reviewed from across the globe hosted false, vague, or misleading environmental claims, thus potentially breaching consumer law.

The problem with greenwashing is that it leads to dangerous complacency. When the university obscures and misrepresents its environmental record, it is only pretending to care about accountability to the public. Effective solutions are bound to be lacking, and we do not have time for this: Greenhouse gas emissions are at a record high. Without a drastic and swift reduction of our emissions, limiting global warming to one-point-five, or at most two, degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels—the ‘safe’ threshold established by the Paris Agreement of 2015—will prove impossible. Globally, almost 80 per cent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions come from burning fossil fuels and industrial plants. Among the countries listed by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, the United States, Russia, Japan, China, and the European Union, in that order, have the greatest emissions. Canada, however, has higher per-capita emissions than all of them—emitting a whopping 20.6 tons per person annually. Just like it isn’t equally engendered, the effects of climate change aren’t equally felt: Racialized people in the Global South face rising tides, air pollution, natural disasters, and other impacts of global warming first and most severely.

Dror Etzion, an associate professor of strategy and organization at the Desautels Faculty of Management and an associate member of the Bieler School of Environment, studies how businesses can become more sustainable while staying financially viable. Etzion explained that McGill’s actions on sustainability mimic those of corporations.

“I think McGill [...] is kind of following the lead of the corporate world. I think a lot of the corporate world is busy with burnishing its image on sustainability,” Etzion said. “It is really trying to portray a lot of positive activities and rarely being honest and transparent and authentic about the challenges that it faces, the failures that sometimes it experiences, the learning that's happening, you know, the positive and negative examples on this journey.”

While McGill does some important work—most notably through its Office of Sustainability which oversees the Sustainability Projects Fund and the university’s sustainability and climate goals––greater transparency about its shortcomings are desperately needed. The press releases, tweets, and videos that McGill releases paint a picture of innovation by zeroing in on the positive changes occurring on campus: The continued “outstanding” results of decarbonization initiatives, successful educational festivals, professor and student spotlights, and high rankings on climate and sustainability action.

Organizations’ greenhouse gas emissions are broken down into three scopes for analysis in Etzion’s line of work. Scope 1 emissions are direct and often the most obvious, like the fuel burnt to operate campus vehicles and McGill labs. Scope 2 emissions are indirect and encompass the energy bought for things like lighting, heating, and cooling university facilities, and operating computer labs. Scope 3, which Etzion describes as “where a lot of the action happens,” includes all other indirect emissions, such as professors’ air travel, the food supply chain, and the university’s investments.

Greg Mikkelson was a tenured professor at McGill, but stepped down in 2020 after the Board of Governors (BoG) refused to divest from fossil fuels. He thinks the university’s so-called ‘decarbonization’ efforts to reduce the carbon-intensity of the McGill Investment Pool (MIP) are a smokescreen and a clear example of greenwashing. Mikkelson points out that McGill selectively measures the carbon emissions of its portfolio. During an April 2020 open session meeting of the BoG, it was mentioned that McGill uses the MSCI index carbon footprint metrics when assessing its investments. MSCI only considers the scope 1 and 2 emissions of companies; in the case of fossil fuel companies, this means the actual burning of the fuel, which can account for 75 per cent or more of these companies’ emissions, is ignored.

“As long as the bosses keep investing McGill's money in the companies ripping out forests, poisoning rivers, overheating the climate, and trampling Indigenous land rights to wring oil from tar sands, forcing the Coastal Gas Link pipeline through Wet'suwet'en territory with the help of the RCMP, and as long as so-called ‘decarbonization’ does not count the scope 3 emissions that occur when fossil fuel companies' customers burn their product; they will continue McGill's sad tradition of climate laggard-ship,” Mikkelson wrote.

The university’s continued investment of the roughly $1.9 billion endowment fund in the fossil fuel industry is likely the environmental faux-pas that generates the most controversial public traction. Despite universities like Harvard, University of Toronto, and Concordia pledging to divest, McGill remains invested in companies like Canadian Natural Resources Ltd, Suncor Energy Inc., TC Energy Corp., Pembina Pipeline Corp., and Cenovus Energy Inc. The Climate Accountability Institute’s groundbreaking Carbon Majors research shows that 20 fossil fuel companies are responsible for an alarming 35 per cent of the CO2 and methane released since 1965. It had $18,266,470 worth of holdings in the five companies listed above as of Dec. 31, 2021, and the amount has only increased to $24,027,260 as of June 30, 2022.

The McGill Senate, comprised of over 100 representatives from across the university, voted to divest in 2018, but the BoG ultimately struck down the motion, which was submitted by Mikkelson. The BoG has 25 members, 12 of whom are appointed by the Board itself. The membership is rife with conflicts of interest—its Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility, which makes recommendations regarding divestment to the Board, is currently chaired by former longtime Petro-Canada executive Cynthia Price Verreault.

In lieu of divesting, the university launched the Green Century Fund in 2020. The fund, reportedly valued at $10.8 million as of May 2022, allows donors giving over $100,000 the option to keep their money out of fossil fuels. While the university ensures that large donors can feel morally secure about their investment portfolio, students are given less agency––both over the ramifications of their tuition money on the climate and the messaging they receive about McGill’s environmental impacts. Further, the fund divests a mere half a percentage point of the endowment—this should not be the bragging point it has become.

The university advertises that its decarbonization initiative is more fruitful than divestment from the Carbon Underground 200, the top 200 publicly listed coal, oil, and gas companies, and is yielding fast results. The administration declined to answer questions about how it actually measures the carbon emissions of its endowment, or to provide examples of the companies it has stopped investing in as part of its decarbonization initiative.

According to Frédérique Mazerolle, a media relations officer for the university, “[t]he latest figures show that the University continues to accelerate the effective decarbonization of the approximately $2-billion MIP [McGill Investment Pool], including the reduction by 42 [per cent] of carbon emissions of the endowment portfolio vs benchmark (up from 30 [per cent] in December 2021), further reducing its exposure to large users of oil, gas, and coal, as well as fossil fuel producers.”

Etzion believes the bar should be higher. “We have tons of brilliant people [at McGill] who are excited to work on sustainability. We have wide latitude to experiment and innovate. So we have basically the best possible toolkit to try to be more aggressive and ambitious in these types of efforts,” he pointed out. “I think the McGill administration has kind of fallen short on [...] setting an agenda that would be much more meaningful and inspiring that we could all rally around.”

“It’s not nearly as ambitious as it could be. And that they've let us down in that regard, but not really urging us to do as much as we can on this very important matter.”

At a sustainability review in 2020, known as the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS), McGill received a score of 76.69, earning the university a well-publicized gold designation, one step below platinum. The university then gave itself a leisurely 10 years to gain the nine additional points it needed to achieve a platinum STARS rating of 85 or above by 2030. While it is a good sign that the university scores relatively well on the self-reported assessment, it could have set a much more ambitious goal and timeline. Ultimately, failing to reach a publicly stated aim and, therefore, shattering the image of quick and linear progress it has established, is likely a risk McGill is too afraid to take.

By 2035, McGill plans to divert 90 per cent of its waste away from landfills to become ‘zero-waste.’ It is currently at a diversion rate of 45 per cent. Landfills exude toxic substances, threaten the health of lower-income and marginalized communities who are more likely to reside nearby, and release methane. In fact, 23 percent of Canada’s methane emissions come from the country’s landfills. Just like the STARS rating, this is a conservative goal that follows others’ lead. In fact, the city of Montreal plans to be zero-waste by 2030, five years before the university. (The city, however, is aiming for a 70 per cent diversion rate.)

The university plans to be carbon neutral by 2040. This goal, in particular, is too little, too late. In 2017, a report put out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announced that we could reach one-point-five degrees Celsius of warming by 2040 if we continue our current levels of greenhouse gas emissions. McGill, both as a font of scientific scholarship and as a well-endowed institution, should be ahead of the curve on carbon neutrality before it becomes the absolute last resort in 2050.

These three main objectives—a platinum STARS rating by 2030, becoming zero-waste by 2035, and achieving carbon neutrality by 2040—like the decarbonization of the endowment, have been heavily publicized. Such initiatives, while important, are not “ambitious” like the university claimed in a statement to the Tribune.

“Sustainability is an institutional priority at McGill as evidenced by the ambitious goals we have set out for ourselves,” Mazerolle wrote by email. “We have shown leadership in sustainability and climate activities relating to operations, governance and administration, and research and education. Adopting a more carbon-conscious investment approach complements McGill’s far-reaching climate change and sustainability goals.”

While it is important to acknowledge the challenges of propelling institutional change, Etzion believes the only way to fix the greenwashing culture within universities is to call it out. When an employee from the Office of Sustainability working on a sustainability report for McGill came to Etzion for advice, he confronted this discomfort firsthand.

“I think she was aware of the greenwashing issue," Etzion said. "But she had her boss and her boss wanted a nice report [...] I said, well, let's just be honest [...] because that's the point of reporting. It's like, you know, we don’t want all report cards to be full of A's. No, we want report cards to say, ‘Are you doing okay? You're not doing okay, you're failing, [or] you're succeeding.’”

The information that McGill releases on its sustainability efforts conceals the truth of the university’s commitment to the issue, leading the casual observer to believe that the institution is doing all it can to address the ever-worsening environmental crisis. Greater transparency about McGill’s need for improvement and its strategic neglect of scope 3 emissions are desperately needed.

This, of all times, is a moment for honesty: Hurricane Ian’s rampage last week through a huge swath of Florida has destroyed countless homes and infrastructure that will take years to rebuild, and the record-breaking floods that swept across Pakistan earlier this month have displaced more than 33 million people, its death toll now nearing 1,700. The university’s focus on selling itself as a leader of environmental innovation to students and donors while veiling its negligent behaviour will only contribute to the culture of avoidance within the institution's decision-making rooms—decisions which have a direct impact on the increasing severity of climate disasters. We cannot wait to enact bold, new, and sometimes scary, changes that give this crisis its due.

Illustrations by Shireen Aamir, Design Editor