To mark the occasion, we selected climate action as our subject and the role the design community should play in tackling it. The well-attended in-person meeting heard from speakers with different points of view on the state of our planet and the action needed to turn things around.
Some favoured a “macro” approach, believing solutions lay in large-scale, societal-level places such as the built environment, public transit, city infrastructure, and taking major strides in improving health and wellbeing. Others looked more locally in the grassroots of communities where incremental changes altering people’s behaviour were the key to securing these changes.
But whatever the prescription, the design community also plays a critical role in helping to manage the climate crisis (as we knew it then), and a responsibility to put our problem-solving skills to work, to change perceptions and create more sustainable products and experiences.
Then, one month later, COVID-19 happened. The world and our lives as we knew them, were permanently changed. Since then, the coronavirus has meant quarantines, lockdowns, masks and social distancing, and working from home. Our largely shuttered existence also meant the near-total shutdown of economic activity and use of fossil fuels. Things started changing. With way fewer cars on the road and air travel dropping off in a major way, global carbon emissions and greenhouse gas levels began dropping.
The world’s coordinated pandemic response was putting the brakes on carbon emissions with tangible results. At first blush, this all sounds like good news but is it? What does it really mean? And what does the future hold?
Fast forward to March 2021, just over one year later. Pre-pandemic, we had little idea what lay ahead for us and our planet: a global pandemic, continued denial of climate science and the urgent need for change, social injustice and chronic heightened anxiety manifest in our communities.
So, we’re asking the same questions: What now? What have we learned from the pandemic about our world? And can we pivot? To answer these questions, we decided to host Design for Climate Action 2.0 (virtually this time), with some of our same panellists from a year ago to hear how they think things have changed and how they have aligned their thinking to suit the new reality of climate action in 2021.
Our first speaker, founder and principal architect at Sustainable, Paul Dowsett advocates using building materials more responsibly, to contain greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as much as possible. A case in point is the construction industry where over-reliance on cement has caused massive carbon emissions to leak into the atmosphere. So, in his world, not much has changed during the pandemic. Buildings of concrete and steel are still going up and more carbon is going out. This must stop. His alternative is building with wood, the only sustainable material with a zero-carbon footprint.
Victoria Haldane, a PhD student at the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation at the University of Toronto, is focused on more person-centred health systems that are environmentally sustainable.
The pandemic resulted in public health’s carbon footprint becoming more visible. Going forward, healthcare policies need to target prevention and figuring out how to keep people out of hospitals for treatment, as they are the greatest source of carbon. The growing telehealth sector is a start, but more needs to be done to bring online treatment into the mainstream with the health system.
Locally, the pandemic has also had a profoundly negative impact on the community level when it comes to climate. Roncy Reduces founder Tina Soldovieri, a neighbourhood initiative to reduce single use plastics, discovered that COVID-19 has reversed their progress from 2019, with a huge increase in plastic waste from both PPE and fear of using reusable containers because of the virus. The answer, she believes, lies in transitioning to a circular economy, eliminating waste and promoting the continual use of resources. Canadians are behind the idea and want the reusable way of doing things to catch on.
COVID-19 has drawn people’s attention to food, waste and the implementation of a circular system. Final speaker Hélène St. Jacques, a leading researcher in sustainability and resilience in the food system, thinks the pandemic has created a new interest in food that has put added stress on the food system. Canadians have come to value their food more. They have discovered a passion for cooking, eating and eliminating waste as best they can. More than that, they want to be a part of the end-to-end growth cycle. As a result, community gardens and the growing of food has never been more popular.
It’s been said that humans are pretty adaptable as far as races go, but it’s pretty clear that some concerted action is needed and needed now if we’re going to turn things around. The COVID-19 experience reminds us all that now is the time for change, to unite behind science and agree on some transformative action that can create new momentum for changing course that can put us on the path to restoring the health of our planet. As designers, we have a singular opportunity here to play a leading role in this conversation. And contribute actively to the growth of new consumer perceptions and behaviours that can result in actionable progress in the years ahead.
Where should we go from here and what action should we take individually and as a group? What would you do? Tell us in our ‘small acts’ survey. Once we’ve collected enough of your responses, we will share them to see how we can all work together on some tangible climate actions. Stay tuned.