The University of Toronto (U of T) will be the first Canadian university to enact a mandatory institutional carbon offsetting program for U of T-funded air travel, charging a fee for every kilometre flown and reinvesting that money into projects that lower campus emissions and provide other sustainability benefits.

As a first step, staff, faculty, and librarians are strongly encouraged to reconsider the need to travel, as well as explore more sustainable alternatives to air travel if travel is deemed necessary.

Beginning on March 15, 2023, all unavoidable university-funded air travel (except for travel funded by external research grants) is subject to a carbon offset fee based on the distance travelled. The fee is calculated during the reimbursement period and retroactively charged to the corresponding department.

The fees are pooled to fund tri-campus projects to reduce university-related carbon emissions. The projects are expected to focus on carbon reduction opportunities related to energy, food, waste, and transportation. Due to a variety of challenges with offset markets, such as the transparency of projects and overstated reductions, the university does not purchase third-party offsets to offset air travel emissions.

This initiative was developed in coordination with U of T’s Financial Advisory Services and Training team. Training about this change will be given to finance and business officers in early March.

While the U of T community is being encouraged to consider whether lower- impact alternatives to air travel – such as virtual meetings – can meet their needs, some flying will still be needed to maintain U of T’s international presence as a leader in post-secondary education.

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Ron Saporta, U of T’s chief operating officer, property services and sustainability, says the Air Travel Emissions Mitigation Initiative is designed to minimize the impact of this ongoing, necessary air travel while taking steps to mitigate climate change close to home. “We’re drawing on our institutional knowledge and resources to find carbon reduction opportunities in our own backyard,” Saporta says in a recent edition of U of T’s Bulletin Brief.

The mitigation initiative, which is expected to roll out this term, will see the university collect a fee for every kilometre flown on operational dollars to be directed into a fund that will support sustainability projects across its three campuses. The fee will initially be based on a $30-per-tonne carbon levy and is expected to increase in the future, in alignment with federal and global carbon policies.

According to Saporta, the strategy will allow the university to vet and invest in high-quality U of T initiatives, rather than outsourcing responsibility to a third party where the university would have no control over the initiative or its implementation.

“We’re holding ourselves to our own high standards to ensure these initiatives have a meaningful and lasting impact.”

Estimates suggest that, prior to the pandemic, U of T’s air travel emissions were more than 50,000 tonnes per year, equivalent to roughly half of emissions from on-campus energy consumption.

The mitigation initiative is projected to generate more than $300,000 in its first year. A tri-campus advisory committee, comprising a range of subject matter experts, has created a set of principles to allocate funds to projects based on their potential to reduce or capture greenhouse gases and provide positive co-benefits to the university community. Projects are expected to focus on carbon reduction opportunities related to energy, food, waste, and transportation.

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Projects include the following:

  • The first project, slated to launch this spring, involves reforesting a 1.5-hectare section of land at the Koffler Scientific Reserve at Jokers Hill, a U of T research site near Newmarket, Ont.
  • Divesting from all direct fossil fuel investments in the endowment portfolio and working toward the divestment of all indirect ones by 2030.
  • Making the St. George campus climate positive before 2050, an effort that involves Canada’s largest urban geoexchange field under King’s College Circle set to be in operation by the end of 2023.
  • U of T Mississauga’s Sustainability Strategic Plan features more than 100 targets and more than two dozen goals. Its New Science Building, for example, will feature a geothermal system that will cover 90 per cent of the building’s energy load.
  • And, in fall of 2023, U of T Scarborough will open the country’s largest passive house student residence while continuing to reimagine the campus’s accessible and sustainable open spaces through the award-winning Valley Land Trail, research and teaching farm, and other green spaces.

The carbon offset fee is $0.0055/km for air travel in economy class. This is based on the federal government’s 2020 price on carbon of $30/tonne. For air travel in any class higher than economy, such as business or first class, the fee is doubled.

Featured image credit: Unsplash/Ross Parmly.

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