6 Steps for Decarbonizing University Campuses 

By: Ron Saporta, VP of Operations at the University of Toronto

There’s much to be learned, not just at the University of Toronto, but from the University of Toronto!

With 120 buildings ranging in age from “really, really old” (1852 – 170+ years!) to “Under Construction” there is no larger, more diverse set of structures in the country – presenting an amazing array of unique challenges to the team tasked with getting the campus not just to “net zero” – but to surpass net-zero-carbon goals and actually absorb more GHGs than the campus creates.

This article by Ron Saporta, VP of Operations at the University of Toronto, explores the University’s 6-step framework for doing so, offering a roadmap for institutions to successfully decarbonize their campuses or real estate portfolios. The framework provides a structured approach, encompassing key stages from measurement and benchmarking to target setting, planning, implementation, and monitoring. ED Note: It’s worth noting that the U of T St. George Campus in downtown Toronto includes labs, classrooms, individual homes, day care centres, event halls and auditoriums, cafeterias, offices, dormitories, a wide array of sports facilities, massive libraries, and a steam plant.

Decarbonizing university campuses has emerged as a crucial priority for institutions worldwide, as they strive to play an active role in mitigating climate change. As leaders in sustainability, universities are taking proactive steps to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The University of Toronto has developed and implemented a comprehensive Climate Positive Plan with the ambitious goal of achieving a climate-positive campus by 2050. In line with this initiative, the university has formulated a 6-step framework to guide institutions in their decarbonization efforts. By following this systematic process, institutions can align their sustainability goals, optimize energy efficiency, and make significant progress towards reducing their carbon footprint.

As the decarbonization of campuses becomes increasingly important, the insights and lessons shared in this paper aim to inspire and guide institutions in their pursuit of a more sustainable future. By adopting and adapting the 6-step framework, universities can contribute significantly to global climate goals while inspiring positive change within their communities.

“Together, we can create greener, more resilient campuses that serve as models of sustainable practices for generations to come”

Ron Saporta
Comparison of scope 1 greenhouse gas emissions at different institutions and organizations

Step 1: Measure

Institutions need to measure their scope 1 and 2 GHG emissions using standard tools. The industry leading standard currently is ISO 14064 Part 1, which establishes a process for quantifying GHG emissions of an inventory. There are typical two key challenges in this space:

  1. What do we measure: The identification of specific emission sources within the operational boundaries of a campus, and
  2. How do we measure: The selection of an emission quantification methodology applicable for the sources identified are crucial.

The ISO standard offers significant direction and guidance on how to tackle both challenges.  Ultimately, it is important to select a reputable standard and implement it consistently to enable the framework.  Additionally, data required by the methodology and established emission factors for the data collected should be clearly identified.

Step 2: Benchmark

Institutions should benchmark their energy consumption and GHG emissions to determine where opportunities exist. Both internal and external benchmarking is recommended. Internally, buildings should be benchmarked against themselves year over year, and against similar-use-case buildings (e.g. labs, classrooms, administrative, etc.) on campus.  Externally, institutions should benchmark against other buildings of similar nature within the city, post-secondary sector, nationally, and where data exists globally.

Step 3: Target

Institutions should set GHG intensity and energy intensity targets (per sq meter).  These can be established using local guidelines (e.g. Toronto Green Building Standard), or industry accepted methodologies such as ASHRAE standard 100, which focuses on existing buildings, and ISO 50001, which helps establish objectives and energy targets that are consistent with the energy policy.

The targets should be measurable, monitored, communicated, and updated. This would ensure that the decarbonization program is effective in delivery measurable results. 

Step 4: Plan

Institutions should commit to publishing a plan that outlines how they will meet their energy and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions targets. This portion of the plan is often the most visible and likely the only public facing component.  However, its success is highly reliant on ensuring that there is a solid data foundation established by the first three steps in the framework. 

The “Plan” must consider the data provided by the first three steps of the decarbonization process and develop an in-depth strategy to achieve the established targets.  To develop a successful decarbonization plan, it is necessary to create both building-specific goals and portfolio-level goals. For example:

Building Specific Goals: These goals are building specific, and relate to the building performance objectives (e.g.  GHG and EUI targets per GSM)

Portfolio Level Goals: These goals tend to be more policy and/or source related items (e.g. move away from fossil fuel heating, utilize renewable energy power purchase agreements, etc.).

Identifying key energy-saving and GHG-reducing opportunities is critical in achieving campus decarbonization goals. The opportunities can include building retrofits, renewable energy installations, and behaviour change programs. Prioritizing actions based on their potential impact, feasibility, and cost-effectiveness is also essential in developing an effective plan.

Step 5: Implement

Once the plan is established, the next crucial step is to develop a detailed implementation strategy. This strategy should consider project development and procurement strategy, capital budgeting, and stakeholder engagement. Each of these elements plays a significant role in ensuring the successful execution of the decarbonization plan.

Project Development and Procurement Strategies:

There are various models available for developing and procuring carbon reducing projects on campus. These models include the traditional design and bid approach, design-build model, and more complex models prevalent in the energy services industry. One such model is the energy performance contracting model, which involves clearly stating the outcomes and goals of the project, such as a specific percentage reduction in carbon emissions or meeting energy use intensity (EUI) targets. The energy performance contracting industry then takes on the responsibility of developing, designing, implementing, and guaranteeing the performance of the solutions. This approach allows for expertise and accountability in achieving the desired results.

To assist institutions in selecting the appropriate project development and procurement strategy, the U.S. Department of Energy has published toolkits that provide guidance and resources. One such toolkit is the Energy Savings Performance Contracting (ESPC) Toolkit, which offers comprehensive information on implementing energy performance contracts.

Capital Budgeting:

Developing a robust, multi-year capital budget plan is essential to ensure the availability of funds for implementing the decarbonization projects. One approach is to have a third-party cost consultant assess the capital costs of the projects. These costs can then be used to create a 20-year cashflow projection that considers not only the capital costs but also the utility savings and carbon tax avoidance resulting from the projects. By considering these financial aspects, a funding plan can be developed and presented to senior management, demonstrating how energy and carbon savings projects can be self-funded.

In the case of the University of Toronto, we are partnering with the Toronto Board of Trade and the Canadian Infrastructure Bank to develop and publish a financial playbook. This playbook aims to provide guidance on funding large-scale net-zero strategies and can serve as a valuable resource for other institutions.

Stakeholder Engagement:

Decarbonizing a campus is an intensive process that can significantly impact the campus community and building occupants. However, unlike other capital projects, there is typically high support for the outcomes of such initiatives. This support can be leveraged through robust communication and engagement strategies.

Institutions should develop a comprehensive stakeholder engagement plan to ensure that key stakeholders are aware of the decarbonization efforts and are supportive of the necessary actions. Effective communication strategies should be employed to share information, address concerns, and foster a sense of collective responsibility towards achieving the decarbonization goals. By engaging stakeholders early and continuously throughout the implementation process, institutions can build trust, gain valuable insights, and foster a positive culture of sustainability on campus.

“Institutions should develop a comprehensive stakeholder engagement plan to ensure that key stakeholders are aware of the decarbonization efforts and are supportive of the necessary actions”

Ron Saporta

Step 6: Monitor and Report

Monitoring and reporting are critical components of the decarbonization strategy, as they ensure the success of the implemented initiatives and provide a means to demonstrate achievements. A robust monitoring and reporting program should be developed early in the plan to capture the right Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and track progress effectively.

By monitoring and reporting progress, institutions can assess whether they are on track to meet their established targets. The data collected in Step 1, which includes measuring scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions serves as a foundation for monitoring. The targets set in Step 3, such as GHG intensity and energy intensity targets per square meter, provide the benchmarks against which progress can also be measured.

Institutions should develop a clear reporting plan that outlines the frequency, format, and audience of the reports. This ensures accountability and provides transparency to stakeholders and the public. By sharing progress updates, institutions can demonstrate their commitment to decarbonization and showcase the tangible results achieved. This can further support the institution in seeking approvals and garnering support for future initiatives.

The monitoring and reporting program should be comprehensive and cover various aspects of the decarbonization efforts. It should include tracking energy consumption, GHG emissions, and the implementation of specific projects and measures outlined in the decarbonization plan. Regularly monitoring these factors allows for timely adjustments, identification of areas that require improvement, and the celebration of successful milestones.

The 6-step framework is a comprehensive approach for institutions to decarbonize their campuses and reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The framework serves as a guide to support institutions in their efforts to mitigate climate change and demonstrate leadership in sustainability.

The full University of Toronto’s Climate Positive Plan serves as a valuable resource for institutions seeking guidance in their journey towards a sustainable and climate-positive campus. Feedback and suggestions to enhance the effectiveness of this framework are welcomed and encouraged. As sustainability practices evolve and new strategies emerge, ongoing refinement of the framework will help institutions stay at the forefront of decarbonization efforts.