Editorial: Countdown to 2030

Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash

One of my first assignments as a freelance writer was an interview with product designer Itai Azerad. As we looked at photos of his Nemo lounge chair, he talked to me about the importance of finding a name for a product. “A name focuses you on the limits of where you’re going to take a design, and limits are what save you. Limits and deadlines.”

The long, nebulous spectre of climate change now has a more forceful name—the climate crisis—and a deadline.

The Canadian government, along with dozens of cities including Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa, and Halifax, have declared a climate emergency. Over 150 Canadian architecture firms and organizations (including this magazine) have signed a declaration of a climate emergency and commitment to action. Launched in the lead-up to September’s global climate strike, the declaration urges architects and designers to raise awareness of the impact of the built environment on climate change, and to take immediate action through their projects and roles as advisors, advocates, educators and enablers.

Now for the deadline: and it’s a tight one. We’ve already locked in 1ºC of warming, and to have a 50 percent chance of limiting future warming to 1.5ºC, we must peak our carbon emissions in 2020, cut emissions in half by 2030, and reach carbon-neutrality by 2050.

“To have a 67 percent chance of staying below a 1.5 degrees global temperature rise—the best odds given by the IPCC—the world had 420 gigatons of CO2 left to emit back on January 1st, 2018. Today that figure is already down to less than 350 gigatons,” said Greta Thunberg in a speech to the UN in September.

“How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just ‘business as usual’ and some technical solutions? With today’s emissions levels, that remaining CO2 budget will be entirely gone within less than 8 1/2 years. There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with these figures here today, because these numbers are too uncomfortable. And you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is.”

In Canada, “business as usual” plans are indeed failing to effect meaningful change.

Buildings contribute up to 40 percent of greenhouse gases globally, and at least 17 percent of Canada’s GHG emissions. Over the past few years, Canada’s buildings have become modestly more energy efficient—but houses have gotten larger and the economy has grown, so we’ve built more of them, and emissions from buildings overall have gone up. Based on the policies that were in place as of September 2017, GHGs from buildings will see a modest decrease of 3 percent between 2015 and 2050—nowhere close to the dramatic reduction needed for the sector to do its part in climate action.

According to the Climate Tracker, an independent scientific analysis, our government’s current and projected policies overall are “insufficient” to “highly insufficient”. If all countries held the same Paris Agreement targets as Canada, warming would reach over 2ºC and up to 3ºC. And we aren’t even meeting those goals: our current path puts us into a 3ºC to 4ºC warming scenario.

Scientists warn that 4ºC of warming is incompatible with an organized global community, and would destroy the majority of the Earth’s natural ecosystems. A report by Australian non-profit think tank Breakthrough, endorsed by a military admiral, sketches out a 3ºC warming scenario where, by 2050, more than half the world’s population faces lethal heatwaves, global crop yields decline by a fifth, and a billion people are displaced by climate change. In the worst case, “the scale of destruction is beyond our capacity to model, with a high likelihood of human civilization coming to an end.”

The declaration of climate emergencies invites the bold action that will be necessary to turn things around—a goal we must all work towards, if we aim to assure our common safety and survival. Architects must rise to the role of becoming leaders in climate action.

“Building to support the intergenerational health of our communities and living systems will require rapid paradigm shifts in thought and action for everyone working in the design, construction and procurement of our built environments,” states the Canadian Architects Declare pledge. “The knowledge, research and technologies exist for us to begin this transformation now.”

We’re in a climate crisis with a 2030 deadline. Let’s act like it.