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Opinion: U of T’s reopening plans need to prioritize a green recovery

Missing climate focus is worrying
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FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

U of T, along with many other universities across Canada, is facing the enormous challenge of safely reopening its campuses. As the U of T administration attempts this, it has seemingly looked past calls for a green recovery, and focused solely on the immediate effects of reopening for the economy instead of the potential long-term issues.

Green recovery has become a name that can be applied to environmental, regulatory, or fiscal reforms. Each of these reforms will work to help recover the economy, with the climate crisis in mind, post-COVID-19. A green recovery would entail investing in education, green infrastructure, prioritizing workers over high-carbon industries, and innovation in meeting Canada’s goal of net-zero emissions.

Now, it would be remiss not to note the extreme devastation and trauma this pandemic has brought into the lives of many and the need for prioritizing healing in that avenue, but we cannot ignore the environmental reality the pandemic has revealed for us.

With economies shutting down in early April and countries going into lockdown, there came reports of lower emissions and short-term reductions in pollution across many parts of the world. For example, according to a study published in ScienceDirect, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Another research article, published by Nature Climate Change, noted that in early April, global CO2 emissions decreased by 17 per cent compared to 2019 levels.

However, this doesn’t mean that the climate crisis has disappeared. Even though there have been global reductions in emissions, this will mean nothing in the long-term unless those reductions become the consistent norm. Evidently, this points to the need for corporations and the administrations invested in them, like U of T, to take action.

There needs to be a commitment to a new green economic recovery, and this commitment needs to come from corporations and big businesses. By committing and investing in green recovery, we further invest and commit in the protection of Canadians’ well-being and health rather than pure economic and fiscal goals. A green recovery would allow for us to globally build a more sustainable and economically inclusive future. 

While U of T’s reopening plans have been criticized for a wide variety of reasons, there seems to be little concern put toward the potential effects that this plan may also have on a green recovery. If we even look back to 2019 and U of T’s announcement of its Low Carbon Action Plan, the impact that COVID-19 will have on the timeline and movement of the plan remains unclear.

The administration is still investing in fossil fuels which will not only lead to financial risk but, with an institution as large as U of T, will also deepen its role in the climate crisis. A sound green recovery plan should allow for fiscal reforms and investing fossil fuel money elsewhere — notably toward the students and faculty at the university. It should also allow for U of T to dedicate itself to green infrastructure in energy efficiency so as to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis.

In response to calls for a green recovery, U of T, along with other Canadian institutions, signed an “Investing to Address Climate Change” charter in June, which noted the responsibility that universities have in acting constructively and proficiently to address the climate crisis and its implications for investment management. While this is just a charter, it seems to be a small step in the right direction, even as I question the language of “address climate change” instead of “act on climate change” in the construction of the charter.

Now, if we look at Universities Canada’s plan for a sustainable return, it seems evident that a green economic recovery is ultimately what is in everyone’s best interests. In fact, Universities Canada’s Budget 2021 submission recommended an investment “in green, digital and accessible university infrastructure as part of the federal government’s COVID-19 recovery plan.”

Canadian universities are a stepping stone toward national change, and as such, U of T needs to step up and do more to achieve a green recovery and help accelerate Canada’s overall ability to build a greener economic future.

We are at a point in time when we have the opportunity to reshape the global COVID-19 recovery in such a way that not only supports but also perpetuates a response and call to action toward fighting the climate crisis.

If we choose to move forward with a green economic recovery plan, there is the potential that we can adopt clean, sustainable, and green jobs for the future. As such, Canadian universities like U of T need to collaborate and mobilize so as to accelerate this green economic recovery plan to ensure that as we heal from the pandemic and step into a clean, green future.

Chiara Greco is a fourth-year philosophy and English student at St. Michael’s College.