Climate change and the built environment: Our global imperative

Nearly all corners of society have been made aware of the global concerns around climate change over the past few decades. But it is the varying degrees of awareness, and how we choose to respond, that has kept our ability to solve this global crisis unfocused.

We are at a point where hard choices need to be made and acted on together. Market leaders and society as a whole are acknowledging that the climate change challenge is of our own making. It is a result of the built environment that makes up modern society and all the goods and services that drive our global economic engine. It is a result of the industrial revolutions of the past that have allowed us to produce more, go farther, and move faster; where the only defining measure of success is constant growth.

If left unchecked, the environmental effects of industrialization and urbanization will be a real challenge to manage. According to the United Nations, we are on track for global populations to reach almost 10 billion by 2050. At the same time, more of us are moving to urban centres, with 47 “megacities” (populations of 10 million or greater) around the world already in existence as of 2017. To build these centres as we have in the past, we will need more energy, more resources, more infrastructure, and more technology. Our traditional economic model focuses on “producing more,” and now we need to hold ourselves accountable to the repercussions — including the UN’s global targets to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.

 

Where can we improve?

There are many measures to take a holistic approach to more sustainable practices. Here are two notable examples:

Buildings

The World Green Building Council states that 40 per cent of global energy consumption is a result of buildings that make up our cities; yet international green building rating systems like LEED, BREEAM, BOMA Best, and more recently, WELL, have only been able to achieve a 20 per cent uptake of green building practices. City builders need to find ways to encourage greater adoption of ambitious efficiency targets.

img-Climate change and the built environment Green buildings-Viikki Low Energy House
img-Climate change and the built environment Green roof

Agriculture

The World Bank states that the agriculture industry is responsible for 51 per cent of annual GHG emissions into our atmosphere. Society has not even begun to effectively reduce GHG emission levels from agriculture and instead has focused efforts on the sub-sectors that operate within the agriculture sector (like energy and transportation). We need to challenge ourselves to get to the root cause of the climate change problem and leverage the co-benefits of our solutions rather than only tackling sub-sectors. Our Sustainability & Energy team at WSP is directly working on providing solutions for our agriculture challenges by supporting the rapidly emerging market of urban indoor food production. By designing the facilities that will grow our food near city centres, we can play a role in climate change mitigation by ensuring they are as energy, water, and waste-efficient as possible.

What are the next steps?

So, what are we to do to counteract the rapid and resource-intensive development efforts expected over the next 30+ years? How are we to tip markets towards a low-carbon economy? I have come to recognize four primary actions that need to be taken if we are to succeed. We must:

  • Shift away from linear design and development processes. We need solutions that are rooted in systems thinking where the concept of “circular economy” can eliminate waste and replenish resources.
  • Collaborate across sectors to combine efforts and maximize impact in the over-arching industries and social practices affecting climate change.
  • Promote project successes and emissions reductions to educate society and industry, reward and support early adopters, and demonstrate leadership to upcoming generations.
  • Quantify and communicate the non-monetary benefits of an investment through time. Project proponents expect a return on investment, and it does not necessarily need to be monetary. The benefits of an investment can include market awareness, industry recognition, or first access to new opportunities, to name a few.

If we can address the market barriers and identify the opportunities in the built environment, we might be able to adjust our traditional economic model that is constantly seeking “more” and counteract substantial aspects of the impending climate change crisis before us. At the very least, we need to adapt our cities through resiliency planning and design so that the next generation can continue the effort.

Climate change is a problem that has been building over many generations of industrial development; it will require many more generations of focused commitment to mitigate. It is time for all industry leaders to address this climate imperative and we must do it together.


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