In order to significantly reduce the environmental harm we are causing with greenhouse gas emissions, and in order to repair and regenerate the damage we have already caused, we are going to need a clear plan of action to make it happen.
Craig Applegath, a principal at the Toronto-based design firm, DIALOG, has some very specific ideas about what that plan should entail. Architect, urban planner, and pioneer in the design of zero carbon buildings and cities, Craig is passionate about developing planning and design solutions that make a real difference in meeting the huge challenges the world now faces in dealing with the climate change crisis.
Craig is the founding principal of DIALOG’s Toronto studio in Canada in 2003, and also now hosts the Twenty-First Century Imperative podcast series. His podcast explores the insights, approaches, experiences of scientists, planners, engineers, designers, business entrepreneurs, politicians and other successful change-makers, who are finding smart, effective ways to answer one or more of the three critical challenges of the Twenty First Century Imperative. Craig believes these are:
How will we continue to live on our planet without destroying our biosphere?
How will we repair and regenerate the environmental damage we have already caused?
And, how will we successfully adapt to the escalating impacts of climate change?
As part of his podcast, Craig is also running a tree planting and forest restoration drive as part of his not-for-profit podcast fundraising. You can go to Patreon to contribute to his cause. In the interview with Craig below, I talked with him about how being trained as both a biologist and an architect, he now sees the environmental problems we now face, and how he thinks we can solve them. I also ask him if he thinks we will be successful.
There are still people who do not believe Climate is real. How do we convince these people that it is real?
Yes, hard as it is to believe, there are still a few people who do not think climate change is real, or, alternatively, don’t think it is an important and immediate existential threat. However, I’m not sure we should be investing our limited time and resources in trying to convince them otherwise. As Margaret Heffernan, wonderfully illustrates in her book Willful Blindness, people with fixed ideas about the world will not have them changed simply by presenting them with scientific evidence to the contrary — even where that evidence is absolutely irrefutable.
So, I think that instead of wasting time trying to convince people who refuse to want to understand, we need to spend our time and energy on finding smart, implementable solutions to climate change — solutions that will not only address the very real and significant challenges we face, but will also increase the quality of life for everyone — including the people who are not willing to believe it. Because, if the solutions are tangibly beneficial to even the doubters, they will be less likely to get in the way of the rest of us solving the problem.
Where do we stand right now? How bad is our situation?
Back in 2008, James Hansen of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, along with a respected group of 9 other climate scientists from the United States, the United Kingdom and France published an article in the Open Atmospheric Science Journal that argued that the maximum sustainable concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere could be no more than 350 parts per million (ppm). At the time of publication, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was already 385ppm. Today, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 stands at 409.5ppm! Clearly we are heading in the wrong direction, and fast. There are of course pages of science I could quote to explain how bad our situation now is, and your readers have no doubt heard many of these facts and figures quoted before, but in a nutshell, climate change is driving up the average global atmospheric and ocean temperatures, and in doing so is causing many climate effects that are becoming ever more dangerous to the homeostatic functioning of our planet’s biosphere, and therefore to our future survival as a species.
Key examples of these effects include: rising sea levels as the polar ice caps melt in he warming oceans; the increased frequency and intensity of severe storm events as the amount of energy and water in the atmosphere increases with increasing temperatures; increasing flooding and drought — depending on the region; increasing forest fires; increasing temperatures of oceans, and increasing acidification of the oceans, that in combination are leading to the destruction of coral reefs around the world — at last estimate, over thirty percent of the coral reefs, one of the richest and most diverse habitats for life on earth, had been exterminated. And I could go on.
In 2019, a Unitied Nations panel of world climate scientists estimated that we had eleven more years to pull back from the brink before it was too late. So clearly we are at a critical point in our species evolution and history. We have a decade to solve our problems. That’s it.
So what can we do to get ourselves out of this mess?
Well, even though our current situation is extremely dire, I don’t think it is entirely hopeless — at least not yet. Here’s why: We now have all the knowledge and all the technology necessary to radically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and even reduce the existing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere, and to do so without reducing our standard of living. How will we do this? I think there are five critically important things we will need to do if we want to pull back from the edge of the climate change cliff we have now arrived at:
First, we will need to rapidly develop our renewable energy capacity, including wind power and photovoltaic power, to replace our current fossil fuel powered energy infrastucture. The very good news here is that renewable energy is now less expensive to produce than fossil fuel energy and continuing to fall. So there is no insermountable economic barrier to doing this.
Second, at the same time we are scaling our capacity to generate renewable energy, we will also need to scale our capacity to store renewable energy using some combination of electric batteries and hydrogen storage. Again, the good news here is that the cost of electric battery technology is rapidly falling, and our ability to store and use hydrogen is being rapidly developed around the world.
Third, as we develop our electrical energy generation and storage capacity, we will need to completely electrify our cities, including all of our building stock, our transportation systems — including cars, buses, trains and even planes — as well as our manufacturing infrastructure. As an integral part of this transformation, we will need to develop smart electrical grids in our cities and communities that can efficiently and effectively move energy around the grid as required. Much of this transformation is already underway, but needs to be ramped up as quickly as possible.
Fourth, we will need to deal with the current fossil fuel legacy systems that are now in place while we are developing our renewable energy systems. This includes both coal and natural gas electrical generation, cement production, and steel production. The really good news is we now have the technology to do this! Believe it or not, we are now at a point where we can rapidly and economically scale the use of algae bioreactors to remove the CO2 and NOx and SOx from any fossil-fuel-combustion emissions.
This is news to many people, and if you haven’t heard about this technology you sould check out what the PondTech company is doing in Canada. This technology is very easy to scale and is actually profitable given the value of the algae that is produced in the process. Using this technology now means we can effectively and safely remove all of the greenhouse gass emissions from all the fossil-fuel-burning generators, heating plants, cement kilns, and even steel mills. That’s huge! If there is a silver bullet, this would be a good candidate!
And fifth, we need to deploy effective strategies for reducing the concentration of CO2 now in our atmosphere. The most effective and powerful strategy for doing this will be by reforesting huge areas of our planet as quickly as possible, while at the same time halting the on-going clear-cutting of large areas of forest now happening around the world. We also need to look for innovative ways to increase the forest cover in our cities and suburban communities as well. Indeed, if you are looking for ways to make a difference, for ways to make a contribution to our collective responsibility to meet the challenges of the Twent First Century Imperative, planting trees is a great place to start!
Can you talk more about the importance of trees and forests in dealing with climate change and the regeneration of our environment?
How long do you have? I could go on for hours about the wonders and the importance of trees and forests! By the way, I think one of the best books to introduce your readers to the wonderful richness and complexity of trees and forests is Peter Wohlleben’s book The Hidden Life of Trees. Among other things, his book introduces readers to the very cool discovery of the “Wood-Wide Web”, a reference to the underground network of micorrhizal mycelium through which nutrition and signals are exchanged among trees.
But I think in the context of climate change, trees, and forests they are part of, have the potential to play an enormously important role in helping us reduce the existing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere.
You are very well-known as an award-winning green architect and urban designer. How can green buildings and effectively planned urban fabric help us deal with climate change?
Those are both big questions! Or should I say, they lead to potentially very long answers. But in essence I think our guiding principle for designing green buildings, and the urban fabric they comprise, should focus on reducing both operating carbon and embodied carbon. Operating carbon refers to the carbon dioxide emitted from a building, or from the building fabric, as a result of its operation — for example, the CO2 emitted in the process of burning natural gas to heat buildings. Embodied carbon refers to the carbon dioxide released during the process of extracting the raw materials and fabricating components that will become buildings and the cumulative building fabric.
For buildings I think that one of the most important things that we can do to reduce operating carbon is to design highly energy efficient buildings. Also, as we move towards a renewable power infrastructure regime, we should be designing our buildings to be all-electric in both heating and cooling in order to be able to use the zero-carbon electricity from renewable energy sources.
For the urban fabric, in addition to making sure buildings are energy efficient and electric, we should be aiming for increasing the density of our cities and communities. Increasing density in one of the most effective ways to reduce both operating and embodied carbon. This is simply because you need less building material and less energy per capita to create denser urban fabric.
Is the environmental damage our speicies has caused repairable? Can we heal and regenerate the biosphere after all the damage we have done to it?
Yes, and No! Over the past century we have been responsible for the extinction of hundreds of species of plants and animals that we will never see again, and many scientists now assert that we are now in the midst of, and the cause of, the sixth great extinction. Having said this, nature, or biology, is a very powerful force, and if we can pull back from climate change disaster, then I think we have a chance of saving ourselves and our biosphere from it changing into something that we will no longer be able to inhabit. As mentioned in my answer to your previous question, I think one of our most powerful tools for helping nature to restore itself, will be widescale and intense reforestation. Forests not only suck CO2 out of the air but they are the homes for most of the species that live on land. A few months ago, the Thomas Crowther Lab in ETH Zurich published an article in Science Magazine saying that there was space on the planet that was not otherwise inhabited by us that could be planted with 1.2 Trillion trees, and that this scale of reforestation had the potential to remove a decade’s worth of CO2 emissions from the atmosphere. That’s very significant and very promising.
What can people do as individuals to help the planet and its biosphere?
Well, I know that the typical answer to this question would include suggesting that we try using public transport and bicycles instead of cars, recycle materials like glass and plastics, and eat less red meat, all of which I believe are indeed good things to do. But none of them are going to move the needle on climate change. Personally, I think the three most important things people can do are: First, plant trees. You can do this by donating to NGO’s that plant trees, like Community Forests International, as well as pushing your local government to reduce deforestation in your communities if it is happening. (By the way, you can also check out my podcast Patreon page where you can plant trees by donating to cover the costs of our not-for-profit podcast!) Second, understand the importance of, and be part of shifting to the electrical energy economy that we will need in order to use zero carbon electricity in the future. So if you are going to buy a car, make sure it is an electric car. If you are going to do home renovations or buy a house, then make sure it can be electrically heated. And third, support the increase of density in your community because increasing density reduces per capita emissions — as I mentioned before.
And finally, what is your prediction of what will happen in the future with respect to climate change and our ability to deal with it?
Well, that’s a very hard question to answer because the challenges we are facing with climate change have so many many moving parts, and are affected by so many different actors. Indeed, when you look up the definition of “super wicked problem” one of the examples they give is climate change. And key to climate change being a “super wicked problem” is that, in addition to the complexity of a “wicked problem,” “super wicked problems” have the added challenges that; time is running out; there is no central authority; those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it; and policies discount the future irrationally of those causing the problem and trying to fix it.
So, although I am not sure whether we will be able to solve this super wicked problem, I am nevertheless hopeful we will. As I mentioned earlier in our conversation, we now have all the knowledge, all the science, and all the technology we need to not only meet the terrible climate change challenges we now face, but do so in such a way that is both economically feasible, but will also will improve the wellbeing of our species around the globe . Our biggest challenge solving climate change will not be economic or scientific, but instead political and social — that is, the challenge of making collective global decisions.
So, will we be able to pull together as a species to do this? Can we pull this off? This question reminds me of a wonderful quote by the former President of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel. When he was first elected as president after the comunist regime fell in 1989, he was asked in an interview if he was optimistic about the future? If I remember correctly, he said: “No, I am not an optimist in the sense that I believe that everything will go well. But neither am I a pessimist in the sense that I believe everything will go wrong. I am hopeful. For without hope there will be no progress. Hope is as important as life itself.” I can’t imagine anyone expressing it better!