Leadership in sustainable research and planning bring in big points for McGill’s latest sustainability rating

 Updated STARS® score pushes McGill towards target of Platinum rating by 2030
A Farm Management and Technology student and a Macdonald Campus staff member plant a tree in October 2020. Applied activities, like the one pictured here, offered through academic courses contributed to advancing McGill’s STARS scoreCaitlin MacDougall

McGill’s strength in research, coordination, planning, and procurement have bumped up the University’s sustainability score, bringing it closer to achieving its long-term target of a Platinum rating by 2030.

The score is calculated through the Association of the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s (AASHE) Sustainability Tracking Assessment & Rating System (STARS®). It is an internationally recognized, transparent, self-reporting framework that is widely used by colleges and universities. Over 1,000 universities and colleges have used it thus far.

“Updating our score helps us hold ourselves accountable,” said Francois Miller, Executive Director of Sustainability. “By tracking our strengths and weaknesses, we are able to ensure that we’re doing all we can to make McGill a more sustainable place to work and study.”

STARS® is built around four categories: Academics, Engagement, Operations, and Planning & Administration. A score is provided to each organization based on more than 1,000 datum across 70 credits. Data collection for McGill’s report involved was a collaborative effort that involved the participation of over 30 McGill units.

McGill has been reporting to AASHE using STARS® since 2012, when it received its initial score of 50.63, giving the University a Silver rating. In the years since, McGill has made the jump to Gold, where it now sits with an updated score of 76.63. This new score places McGill in the top three among its peer institutions in the U15. McGill also scored 23 points higher than the peer institutions’ average score in the Planning and Administration category.

An overall score of 85 is needed to achieve a Platinum rating.

Student engagement is sustainability research pushes McGill forward

McGill’s successes in sustainability research contributed substantially to McGill’s high score, with the University receiving 95 per cent of available points in the Research sub-category. Over one-fifth of McGill faculty and staff are engaged in sustainability-related research, while 72 per cent of research-producing departments at McGill are engaged in the area.

“Building a sustainable future, both at McGill and beyond, is a multisectoral, multidimensional endeavour that requires systems-level thinking and novel solutions,” said Dr. Heather McShane, Program Director and Catalyst-in-Chief of the McGill Sustainability Systems Initiative (MSSI).

“The McGill community has shown great enthusiasm in taking interdisciplinary and holistic approaches to sustainability and climate issues as these propel us towards new innovations and discoveries,” Dr. McShane continued. “The MSSI would like to congratulate the entire McGill community for its accomplishments under STARS® and looks forward to supporting our students and faculty as they continue to conduct trailblazing sustainability research.”

McGill’s offering of applied student research (ASR) courses, which allow faculty and students to use the campus as a living lab, also bolstered the University’s standing. One such course, ENVR 401:

Environmental Research offered by the Bieler School of Environment, has previously examined creating a carbon offset program for University travellers. The research resulted in the creation of the McGill Offsetting Program, under the advisement of an Offset Selection Committee.

Sustainable plans and policies put McGill on track

Strong efforts from Procurement Services, evidenced through McGill’s formalized sustainable purchasing policies and supplier codes of conduct, also brought in high marks.

“I think our ranking reflects, among other things, how McGill has made Sustainable Procurement one of its priorities,” Sustainable Procurement Program Manager Stéphanie Leclerc said. “We have been actively leveraging our supply chain to support positive social and environmental outcomes. It’s an ongoing effort and more and more community members have been working towards this with us.”

McGill’s Procurement Policy, adopted in 2018, ensures that all those who purchase goods and services for the University “source exclusively from contractors who demonstrate a steady record of compliance with all environmental regulations and an organizational commitment to responsible environmental management, by minimizing waste and promoting environmentally friendly products and services.”

The progress made on behalf of Procurement Services ensures that the entire lifecycle of a product and its associated environmental and social impact are considered.

Building towards a Platinum rating

The McGill University Climate & Sustainability Strategy 2020-2025 was designed with a Platinum rating by 2030 in mind, putting more emphasis on the areas that need improvement.

While existing McGill policies and programs promote a high standard for indoor air quality, green cleaning practices, and energy management, the University has, for example, set an objective that all new construction and major renovation projects must be, at minimum, LEED Gold certified. This new level of certification will create accountability in the way the University constructs and renovates its buildings by adhering to high standards related to material selection, energy efficiency, waste reduction, and water management.

Under the latest STARS® rating system, the inclusion and support of social sustainability has also been given more weight. The University’s new Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Strategic Plan 2020-2025 will allow McGill to implement a structured EDI assessment process that addresses campus climate, and student and employee outcomes. This means McGill will better understand how it is doing in the social sustainability sphere, as McGill recognizes the interconnections between the environmental, social, and economic dimensions, also referred as the three pillars of sustainability.

The goals of the EDI Strategic Plan include, among others, increasing the representativeness of the student body, enhancing capacity of teaching staff and Student Services to create and maintain respectful, accessible, and inclusive student life and learning settings, and ensuring University policies establish prompt, effective, and confidential channels to address EDI concerns and complaints. These improvements are all crucial to creating a socially sustainable place to work and study.

McGill’s STARS® score will be reevaluated in 2024. For more information about the Platinum sustainability rating long-term target, please read the McGill University Climate & Sustainability Strategy 2020-2025.