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What will sustainability look like tomorrow?

6 Concordia research leaders explore the value of green education
April 14, 2015
By Tom Peacock

Salar de Atacama, Chile | Photo by By Francesco Mocellin, via Wikimedia Commons Salar de Atacama, Chile | Photo by By Francesco Mocellin, via Wikimedia Commons

Climate change is warming the atmosphere. Fresh water and non-renewable energy sources are being depleted, and pollution and rampant consumption are threatening the world’s few remaining wild places. The news in terms of sustainability is generally not very good.

However, all around the world, and right here at Concordia, researchers are figuring out ways to reverse the damage we’ve already done and minimize our future impact on the planet. Thanks to their input, models for economic, social and environmental sustainability are evolving.

We sat down with the directors of five Concordia-based sustainability research centres — as well the executive director of Future Earth, an international research program with a Montreal hub at Concordia — and asked them about the major challenges we face, and how universities can help tackle them.  

From left to right: Paul Shrivastava, Catherine Mulligan, Andreas Athienitis, Peter Stoett, Thomas Walker, Ahmet Satir. Research directors Peter Stoett, Catherine Mulligan, Andreas Athienitis, Thomas Walker and Ahmet Satir

What is your centre's mission, and what specific aspects of sustainability does it tap into?

Peter Stoett, director of the Loyola Sustainability Research Centre, housed within the Loyola College for Diversity and Sustainability:

Our mission is to generate creative interdisciplinary research that combines elements of science, policy, and value-systems to further our understanding of the related problems of biodiversity decline and climate change. We work with other organizations, such as the Quebec Centre for Biodiversity Science and the United Nations, to further these goals.

Our most recent large conference was on North American transnational environmental governance, in collaboration with the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation. In the fall we worked with Botanic Gardens International and others to host a conference on the leadership role botanic gardens are playing in conservation today.

Andreas Athienitis, director of the Centre for Zero Energy Building Studies (CZEBS):

The centre’s mission is to reduce the environmental impact of buildings while enhancing their safety and comfort. This is achieved through the development of technologies, controls and strategies enabling energy efficient operation, including the ability of a building to generate as much energy as it consumes.

An example of such a building is the John Molson School of Business Building (JMSB) at Concordia University. A section of the building façade is made up of a solar wall that generates electricity and preheats the fresh air intake. This Building Integrated Photovoltaic/Thermal installation is not an add-on, but part of the building itself.

Thomas Walker, director of the David O’Brien Centre for Sustainable Enterprise (DOCSE):

Our centre aims to promote sustainability, social and environmental responsibility, and ethical behaviour in corporate, educational, and government entities.

One of the biggest challenges we face today is the conflict between shareholder preferences for higher returns and our society's need and desire for social and environmental responsibility.

The David O'Brien Centre addresses these challenges by engaging in a variety of research endeavours that aim to instill sustainable thinking at all levels of society, with a specific focus on corporations and financial institutions. Based on its research findings, the Centre aims to develop informed policy recommendations for local, national, and supranational policy makers that oversee and regulate these entities.

In addition, it promotes sustainable thinking and actions through a variety of community outreach programs. 

Ahmet Satir, director of the CN Centre for Studies in Sustainable Supply Chain Management:

The mission of the CN Centre is to establish an effective and mutually beneficial applied teaching and research platform where JMSB and CN can collaborate on designing, executing and bringing to fruition sustainable supply chain management-based projects.

One of the projects the Centre is funding is exploring ways to create supply chains, which are not only cost competitive but also environmentally responsible. Another work-in-progress is a research project on ‘green supplier development.’

Catherine Mulligan, director of the Concordia Institute for Water, Energy and Sustainable Systems (CIWESS): 

The institute trains students to be at the forefront of sustainable development practices. It promotes research into new systems, technologies and solutions for water, energy and resource conservation. An example is the development of a new renewable energy — based on a membrane system that takes advantage of osmotic pressure differences between sea and fresh water for generating electricity, — which would be of benefit for remote communities.

Paul Shrivastava, executive director of Future Earth.  | Photo by Concordia University

Paul Shrivastava (right), executive director of international research program Future Earth: 

Future Earth is an international program which aims to intensify the impact that research makes on the world, and to find innovative new ways to accelerate sustainable development. We coordinate projects seeking to understand how the Earth system works and is changing, the links between environmental changes and human well-being and development, and how we can transform into sustainable and equitable societies.

What role does university research and higher education play in a more sustainable future?

Walker: Today's generation of young adults faces a series of unique challenges with respect to resource depletion, overpopulation, and climate change. Addressing and overcoming these problems requires both awareness and informed action-taking. 

I believe that our students can greatly benefit if they are exposed to or even involved in the scholarly research we undertake as faculty members. In many disciplines, one can observe a disconnect between research and teaching. Sustainability, however, affects everyone and thus offers unique opportunities for student engagement and hands-on training. 

Shrivastava: Research is vital for understanding major global sustainability challenges such as delivering energy, food and water to all, building societies that are resilient to climate change, and understanding what a sustainable future looks like. Many of the thousands of researchers involved in Future Earth are based in universities. But we also need to work with people outside the research community to make sure that knowledge really makes a difference to society.

MulliganUniversities can expand scientific knowledge and develop innovative strategies and technologies that will strengthen the nation's leadership in creating solutions to help sustain the Earth's natural resources.

Their role is to provide a vital stage for the exchange of interdisciplinary research and perspectives, uniting nationally and internationally acclaimed researchers. They should provide a unique location — for interdisciplinary undergraduate and graduate programs in water and energy focused, sustainable engineering — for training future graduates that will be engaged with the challenge of working towards a more sustainable society. 

AthienitisCZEBS is a university-recognized research unit, which accomplishes its mission by enriching the learning and research experience of students, and by assisting industry in implementing research results and innovations that will help the building industry incorporate more sustainable practices and technologies.

StoettUniversities have an obligation to contribute critical thinking and constructive solutions to the different aspects of sustainability: economic, social, environmental. They should play a leading role in educating the next generation of thinkers and researchers toward that end, and Concordia is emerging as a leading institution.

We also need to collaborate with other institutions, such as Future Earth; and Concordia has recently joined the United Nations Environmental Programme's Global University Partnership for Environmental Sustainability which includes over 500 universities, many of them in the southern hemisphere. This combination of networking and generating original research is key to the mandate of the contemporary university.

Satir: Globalization, information technology and competition fuelled the growth of new business models based on quick cost cutting and high growth. Recently, however, many enterprises have seen environmentally aware consumers who express preferences for sustainable products and services. Business schools play an important role in helping  meet such challenges.

In your opinion, what should be humanity's most immediate priority for the planet?

Athienitis: To discover and/or develop sources of energy that have limited environmental impacts. To implement known sustainability and efficiency principles in industrial practices

Mulligan: The most immediate priority is the lack of sufficient water, quantity and quality, which is a looming crisis. California is a prime example of this, where the rivers are drying up due to lack of rain, and high levels of consumption. Water has to be trucked into communities and there are mandatory cuts in consumption. There needs to be a more important focus on the nexus between sustainable water and sustainable energy.

Stoett: We need to critically assess where we are: the rates of natural decline, changes in climate, biodiversity loss, the continued spread of pollution, all of which have short and long-term impacts on human health. There is no one priority, but the need to meet many simultaneous and interlinked challenges.

WalkerGiven the conflict between personal wealth considerations on one hand and the need to make our planet and our way of life more sustainable, I believe that it is of utmost importance to identify sustainability as a goal that all countries should pursue.

One way of accomplishing this may be through the development of supranational policies that reward countries for acting in a sustainable fashion and penalize them if they do not. Similar regulations do exist for specific industries (e.g. the aviation sector) and with respect to high-risk technologies (e.g. nuclear fusion). Understanding that unsustainable actions affect us all and therefore need to be regulated globally would allow us to take an important first step in the right direction. In addition, a global regulatory approach would reduce the influence of local lobbying groups that often stand in the way of real reform.

Shrivastava: This year, nations will agree to a set of universal Sustainable Development Goals to be achieved by 2030: signing up to goals on challenges facing humanity such as ending hunger, addressing climate change and improving health. These challenges are complex and interconnected, and the SDGs are a once-in-a-generation chance to make a difference worldwide. Future Earth will help provide the research to meet these goals.

Satir: Peace in the world. The dividends will be in terms of human lives, human dignity and trillions of dollars freed up — becoming available for environmental and humanitarian development.

Find out how Concordia became a leader in green building. Learn about sustainability at Concordia.

Credit: vignette photo of Upsala Glacier by David (Flickr Creative Commons)

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