Living Lab course
Climate change, energy & environment, Munk School, Master of Global Affairs, Master of Public Policy

Students contribute to City of Toronto climate action projects through U of T ‘Living Lab’ course

How can Toronto better integrate climate considerations into building procurement and management? Can the city achieve net-zero emissions without harming low-income and equity-deserving homeowners and tenants? What have other cities learned from their attempts to implement climate policies?

These are some of the questions that 56 University of Toronto graduate students recently explored on behalf of City of Toronto staff and managers, as well as the Atmospheric Fund, a regional climate agency that supports low-carbon solutions across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Areas.

The students’ work is part of a seminar – “Sustainability in the World: A Living Lab Course” – offered by the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy as part of the master of public policy and master of global affairs programs. Living lab courses are part of the university’s four flagship sustainability programs.

Sofia Padernal, a master of public policy student, said she didn’t know much about sustainability policy going into the course, but was drawn by the opportunity to work with a City of Toronto client on a real topic.

“Sometimes our ideas were very idealistic, but our client would bring us back to reality and tell us, ‘I don’t know if that’s feasible,’” said Padernal.

“Being able to work with someone who first-hand works in government and policy gave us real insight and perspective into how things work.”

From left to right: Hilda-Matilda Idegwu, Jessica Armstrong and Sofia Padernal (photo by Geoffrey Vendeville)
From left to right: Hilda-Matilda Idegwu, Jessica Armstrong and Sofia Padernal (photo by Geoffrey Vendeville)

The U of T course is taught by John Robinson, professor in the School of the Environment and at the Munk School, and co-chair of the President's Advisory Committee on the Environment, Climate Change, and Sustainability (CECCS). He said it offered students the chance to undertake work that will make a real contribution to the city’s TransformTO Net-Zero Strategy.

“All the projects come from City of Toronto and The Atmospheric Fund staff, so they reflect the real challenges faced by the city in attempting to realize their very ambitious climate targets,” he said.

“The students have been keenly engaged, knowing full well that their projects address real-world problems and that their work has a real chance of influencing the City of Toronto’s climate strategy.”

Robinson noted that the course is a component of the U of T node of the Urban Climate Action Network (UCAN), which involves universities partnering with their host cities to help them achieve their climate targets. UCAN was conceived as part of U of T’s involvement in the University Climate Change Coalition (UC3). The course is also one of several “Living Lab” initiatives at U of T that enable students to contribute to and learn from sustainability-oriented projects.

Professor John Robinson, left, teaches “Sustainability in the World: A Living Lab Course” (photo by Geoffrey Vendeville)
Professor John Robinson, left, teaches “Sustainability in the World: A Living Lab Course” (photo by Geoffrey Vendeville)

Students recently presented their work to their clients by outlining their analysis and recommendations on 12 different topics – all relevant to the City of Toronto’s climate action strategy, TransformTO. (See the full list of topics below)

As part of their presentation on “Understanding the Social Equity Implications of Decarbonization in Existing Buildings,” Padernal and her fellow group members – Jessica Armstrong, Michelle Gandhi, Hilda-Matilda Idegwu and Jacob O'Connor  noted that Toronto’s strategy to achieve net-zero emissions in existing buildings poses challenges for equity-deserving groups. For example, building owners may try to pass on the cost of retrofits to low-income tenants and some homeowners may not be able to afford energy-efficiency upgrades.

After studying government documents, policy briefs, academic literature and materials from other Canadian and U.S. jurisdictions, Padernal’s group generated five recommendations: adopt a methodology to track sustainability and equity measures; develop a green program to provide green job training; create a retrofit accelerator program to give landlords and building owners the supports and resources needed to carry out retrofits without passing on the costs to tenants; and set up a sustainability tenant advocacy board.

“The existing building strategy is an ambitious and essential program that will evidently lead to Toronto’s Net Zero Economy while transforming the housing landscape,” the group stated in their presentation. “The consideration of how its nine key actions affect the livelihood of equity-deserving groups should be considered at each stage.

“The co-benefits are endless as long as risks are mitigated.” 

City staff ask students questions during presentations on a range of sustainability topics (photo by Geoffrey Vendeville)
City staff ask students questions during presentations on a range of sustainability topics (photo by Geoffrey Vendeville)

The students concluded that their recommendations “are key in ensuring that the social implications of decarbonization in existing buildings do not pose a threat to Toronto’s existing housing affordability crisis.”

Padernal said working on a project that contributes knowledge to an active policy goal has made for a fulfilling experience.

“Through the feedback our clients gave us throughout the process as well as after the presentation, it felt like they valued our recommendations,” Padernal said, noting that the idea of creating a tenant advocacy board seemed to resonate especially well.

“I’m hopeful that they’ll take some of our ideas into consideration. But even if they don’t, I hope they continue to put an equity lens into the policies that they do implement.”

Ana Maria Medina, project manager in the City of Toronto’s Environment & Energy Division (EED) and the client assigned to the group, said she appreciated the group’s efforts and their openness in integrating the city’s context and needs into their process. “The findings, considerations and recommendations included in the final report are a valuable resource that the City can integrate into the implementation of the Net Zero Existing Buildings Strategy,” Medina said. “Their recommendation on the creation of a tenant advocacy board, in particular, drew our attention since it is a concept we haven't explored yet.”

Another presentation saw students outline findings from their topic “Investigating Incentives and Disincentives in the Transition to Zero-Emission Vehicles in Toronto.” The group – Luca Dannetta, Sarah Klein, Anna Lazaris, Tingwei Lyu and Arnaud Nsamirizi – explored approaches taken by global municipalities to incentivize the switch to zero-emission vehicles and promote active transportation and public transit.

From left to right: Sarah Klein, Tingwei Lyu, Luca Dannetta, Anna Lazaris and Arnaud Nsamirizi (photo by Geoffrey Vendeville)
From left to right: Sarah Klein, Tingwei Lyu, Luca Dannetta, Anna Lazaris and Arnaud Nsamirizi (photo by Geoffrey Vendeville)

The students’ policy proposals included creating subsidies for the purchase of non-high-end electric and hybrid electric vehicles, imposing a city-wide tax on gas and petroleum products and creating preferential parking areas with charging stations for electric vehicles. The students noted financial incentives are the single most effective policy tool but observed that a dense network of charging infrastructure is also crucial to encourage uptake and use of electric vehicles.

However, the students also noted electric vehicles are only a small part of the puzzle and highlighted the importance of improving public transit and cycling infrastructure. By eliciting long-term changes in travel behaviour and making people see cars as a luxury rather than a necessity, the City of Toronto could foster environmental and public health benefits far beyond what electric vehicle uptake alone could achieve, they said.

The group also noted the importance of recognizing the limitations of municipal government and working with federal and provincial partners where viable.

Their client, Deborah Herbert, project manager at EED, praised the group’s work. “It was a pleasure to work with the students – they asked insightful questions and their work was high quality,” Herbert said. “The students' report is a very helpful resource as we consider ways that the City can help support the transition to low carbon transportation."

Next, the students will compile detailed reports that will be submitted to City of Toronto clients for their consideration, and will be published in the CECCS Campus as a Living Lab Project Database by the end of May.  

Stewart Dutfield, acting manager at EED who co-ordinated city staff's involvement in the students' projects, said he was impressed by the quality of work produced by the students under Robinson's guidance. "It was really special to see the depth and breadth of topics covered with a focus on TransformTO,” he said. “I know I find the process very rewarding, the outputs of process are impressive and I believe the students really benefit from the experience of addressing real world challenges.”

For Padernal, the course highlighted the scope of sustainability efforts.

“It opens your eyes. Before this, I thought sustainability was just about trying not to let the Earth die. But it’s not just that – it’s about improving the lives of people,” said Padernal. “The co-benefits of having a sustainability lens are endless.”

“I would definitely recommend taking [a Living Lab course], especially if you don’t know anything about the topic.” 

Here are the topics explored with the city and its partners as part of the Sustainability in the World: A Living Lab Course:

  • Understanding the social equity implications of decarbonization in existing buildings
  • Neighbourhood and community-led solutions to building retrofitting                                   
  • Innovative programs for driving emission reductions in existing buildings
  • Understanding the qualitative and quantitative benefits of the city’s PollinateTO community grants program
  • Investigating incentives and disincentives in the transition to zero-emission vehicles in Toronto
  • Scaling and delivering climate solutions                                                               
  • Climate change communication
  • Integrating climate considerations into procurement
  • Zero emissions construction product and knowledge gaps
  • Integration of climate in asset management processes
  • Jurisdictional scan of climate policies and plans
  • Indoor health co-benefit of building retrofit projects