As part of Green Economy Canada (GEC)‘s gala event Connect 2018: It’s Possible, GEC released their Annual Report. This year Sustainable Hamilton Burlington was thrilled to see our member Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) profiled in the report. GEC have also invited us to reprint the profile on our website, along with some of the photos provided by RBG that were not used in the printed report due to space limitations.
In the spring of 2017, Ontario and Quebec experienced historic levels of rainfall. These extreme weather conditions resulted in record high water levels in the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers, and Lake Ontario, which led to flooding that caused $223 million in insured damages. Roads, homes, and businesses were all affected, and among them, the Royal Botanical Gardens.
Making sustainability a priority
Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) is the largest botanical garden in Canada and one of the largest in the world, with over 2,700 acres of cultivated gardens and nature sanctuaries. As an organization with a mandate to connect people, plants, and place to serve our planet, RBG has long held environmental stewardship at the core of its strategic priorities. More recently in 2014, RBG made a decision to take that a step further, embedding environmental leadership and sustainability into its five-year strategic plan.
The need for RBG to take a leadership role on climate action became all the more clear following extreme weather events in 2017 which resulted in drowned young marsh plantings, shorelines littered with refuse, and the forced closure of some RBG facilities due to flooded roads and trails. Staff even had to boat to work at the Cootes Paradise Fishway, a carp barrier that was almost under water itself.
Even for an organization, like RBG, that clearly values and works to preserve the natural environment, taking leadership in environmental sustainability was not an area of expertise. That’s where Sustainable Hamilton Burlington’s Sustainable Business Initiative (SBI) fits in. With sustainability leadership now clearly identified as an organizational focus, Chris McAnally, the Environmental Sustainability Coordinator at RBG, saw membership in the SBI as the natural next step. The SBI would be able to support RBG with measuring its GHG emissions, setting a reduction target, and providing accountability and recognition as RBG worked towards their goal.
Setting a meaningful target
Since joining the SBI in April 2017, at about the same time the intense rainfall led to historically high Lake Ontario water levels, RBG has moved quickly to entrench sustainability into all aspects of its operations. First up was to complete a greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions inventory to measure RBG’s emissions over the last several years. In reviewing the emissions data, staff noted a steady decline in GHG emissions between 2014-2017, which was great to see – on paper. However, this trend was in large part attributable to a reduction in natural gas consumption due to progressively warmer winters, and not a result of sustainability initiatives.
And so when it came time for RBG to set a GHG reduction target, the Green Team, led by Chris, made a very intentional decision to use 2017 emissions as the baseline level for RBG even though selecting an earlier year would show immediate progress. RBG ended up setting a 20% GHG reduction target from 2017 emission levels, to be achieved by 2027 – a goal they felt would be both challenging and meaningful.
Demonstrating it’s possible
Being part of the SBI, and the wider network of over 250 Green Economy Leaders, has helped RBG with generating progress and momentum towards its goal. “Working alongside a network of businesses committed to positive sustainability action has helped provide our efforts legitimacy and enabled us to expand our voice and reach a wider audience. The SBI has helped us understand our emissions data and provided us with ideas for projects to undertake,” said Chris.
To make progress toward the 20% target, a wide variety of sustainability projects have already been implemented – from infrastructure improvements to establishing a waste diversion program. In the coming years there are plans to expand RBG’s EV charging network, build supports for visitors traveling by bicycle, explore the feasibility of adding EVs into its own fleet and evaluate opportunities for various LED lighting retrofits. Building off all of this momentum RBG is also working on a climate change action strategy to guide them towards achieving, and hopefully surpassing, their GHG reduction goal over the next 10 years.
Inspiring the wider community
In addition to being part of the SBI, RBG is also participating in the American Public Garden Association’s Public Gardens Sustainability Index based on a triple bottom line approach to sustainability. It capitalizes on the unique role of botanical gardens including their expertise in education, science, horticulture, and conservation.
RBG wants to have an impact beyond its own operations, according to Barbara McKean, their Head of Education. “For over 70 years we have been encouraging people of all ages to care about nature by providing them with opportunities to learn and experience it in meaningful ways. Our messaging is increasingly focused on environmental stewardship, to motivate people to take action in ways that support the planet, and it’s important that our operations are in line with this. By being an environmental steward and also a leader in how we operate, we hope to inspire action on both individual and community levels.”
Chris believes that even if an organization doesn’t have a specific environmental mandate, sustainability should be a priority. “Plants are at the heart of the environment and are essential to life on earth. At RBG we are seeing impacts on plants indicative of climate change in a variety of ways in our gardens and natural areas. These impacts are already posing challenges and costs to our organization and while other organizations may not appear to be as directly affected by climate patterns, eventually the costs of climate change impact everyone’s bottom line. When you make sustainability a priority, not only are you helping create a world more in harmony with nature, but you are also creating a resilient business which will be successful long into the future.”
Extreme flooding in 2017: this popular hiking trail normally has the visible creek/marsh separation seen in 2018, but during the period of flooding the entire area resembled a pond.
The road accessing one of RBG’s properties known as “Laking Garden”. Due to high Lake Ontario levels this road flooded and had to be closed to the public. While there is an alternative way to enter the gardens form Plains Road, emergency vehicles would not be able to access this location. This meant the gardens had to remain closed to the public for several weeks.
Aerial photograph of Cootes Paradise with hikers on one of our North Shore trail look outs.
RBG also participates in the American Public Garden Association’s Public Garden Sustainability Index which contains 12 attributes designed to help guide the development of triple bottom-line sustainability into the unique settings of a botanical garden. To learn more see www.publicgardens.org/sustainability-index.