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Carbon: A common language for change—now is the time to act

October 19, 2020

By Rachel Bannon-Godfrey

Carbon emissions influence everything from the economy to our health, which is why we need an integrated approach to carbon reduction

This article first appeared as “Carbon: A common language for change” in the Stantec Design Quarterly, Issue 10.

Carbon emissions impact the climate, which impacts our health, our economy, and our livelihoods. Today our communities are in the middle of a global pandemic and the fallout from an economy that ground to a halt. There are some who say it is not the right time to talk about the climate. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Now is the time to utilize every tool in our toolbox to significantly reduce carbon emissions because they are related to, and a multiplier of, every issue our communities currently face.

Carbon is a root cause of socioeconomic and public health crises the world over, but it can also be a unifying metric. We need that metric so that we may reach consensus on an approach to create the carbon-neutral future we so urgently need. In our practice, we see a convergence of disciplines around quantifying the impact of operational and embodied carbon and the strength of both technology-based and nature-based solutions. That includes the atmospheric scale of climate science modeling down to the specific plants we choose for a site design along with the sensors, systems, and materials we install in a building. 

The Denver Water Administration Building in Denver, Colorado. The building is designed to both LEED Platinum and net zero energy standards.

During the pandemic response phase, everyone is learning on the spot about the new business-as-usual. Simultaneously, we are imagining and planning adjustments to society for the impending recovery phases. This discussion is largely driven by economics and short-term return on investment.

How often have we had the opportunity to change how a society functions in such a radical way? Let us not waste it. We should not need a global pandemic to make change on the magnitude we need but here we are. Let us use this moment of reset to create a world that is less vulnerable, more resilient to future climate change related shocks.

How? We are paying close attention to the connections emerging between carbon emissions and health in vulnerable communities. We are uniting around carbon as a metric for assessing what it means to design with community in mind and working across disciplines and business lines on how to tip the ratio of carbon emissions to carbon sequestered in the direction of a net-positive impact.

Carbon, climate, and health

There is a clear link between carbon emissions, climate change, and our health. But that link is more evident in some places than others. In fact, the communities that have done the least to generate the emissions often suffer more acutely from the health impacts from climate change.

This inequity has been clear during the COVID-19 pandemic. Communities exposed to the worst air quality conditions due to greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, power plants, and industrial processes are more likely to suffer from the respiratory health issues that cause greater vulnerability to illnesses such as COVID-19. This is what it means when we talk about the vicious cycle of carbon-climate health. This is the big “why” behind our work.

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An integrated approach to assessing carbon adds value to clients and projects. University of the Fraser Valley Canada Education Park Campus Phase II in Chilliwack, British Columbia.

Carbon as a unifying metric

For too long each design discipline has spoken a different language of sustainability metrics. From building energy use intensity to stormwater percentiles to recycled content, each of these metrics is important in driving sustainable design and we must factor all of them into our design decisions. But the lack of a common language in our industry has sometimes been a barrier to the all-hands-on-deck approach necessary to really drive change.

At the same time, thanks to recent innovations in software tools and reporting mechanisms that span the scale of individual materials to utility grids and power plants, we now see greater recognition of carbon as the universal translator. This brings all disciplines to the same conversation and widens the range of impacts that we must consider when talking about the success of a project. Every discipline’s work—its craft—can be quantified in terms of how it contributes to the balance of carbon emissions and sequestration.

How often have we had the opportunity to change how a society functions in such a radical way? Let us not waste it.

An integrated multidisciplinary approach

By uniting around carbon, we can take a multidisciplinary approach that crosses geographic and market boundaries. We’ve created a task force with structural engineers, landscape designers, specification writers, building-performance engineers, and sustainability consultants dedicated to raising awareness of the tools and technologies for calculating and minimizing the embodied carbon of our projects. We believe this integrated approach to assessing carbon adds value to our clients.

Project Drawdown’s Drawdown Review 2020 draws an analogy between the atmosphere full of greenhouse gases and an overflowing bathtub. To address it, not only do we need to immediately address the source of the overflow—turn off the tap and stop sending greenhouse gases into the atmosphere—but we also need open the drain and let some of those greenhouse gases out. That means sequestering, or storing, carbon. Our industry must look beyond the footprint of a building and approach the carbon equation from two angles—carbon-emissions reduction and carbon sequestration.

In the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming almost all the pathways analyzed by the panel relied to some extent on carbon removal approaches. Approaches to removing CO2 from the atmosphere fall into three broad categories: nature-based solutions, such as reforestation and restoration of ecosystems; technology-based solutions for carbon capture; and hybrid approaches such as technologies used to improve farming and land management. Designers, ecologists, and policy makers can tackle carbon everywhere from a building to a watershed. We face a global pandemic that remains a devastating and imminent threat to us all. But as we experience the reset for many aspects of our lives, we can also choose a new direction for a low-carbon future.

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The Don Myers Technology & Innovation Building at American University in Washington, D.C.

Carbon capture and natural capital

In addition to continuing our work in delivering buildings that operate at net zero emissions, we are looking into using carbon capture technologies such as CarbonCure on our projects, and editing our standard project specifications to include thresholds for the embodied carbon of cement.

Stantec’s Urban Places team is looking at the carbon footprint of its landscape design and calculating how many years it would take to reach climate positive, which means the total embodied carbon of the materials used in the landscape design is less than the carbon sequestered by the trees, plants, and other natural species.

At a larger scale, our Environmental Services teams are working on Natural Capital assessments of entire sites and landscapes as a means of helping clients, from portfolio managers to municipalities, understand the full environmental impact of their assets.

Natural Capital quantifies the biodiversity value of a site and how it impacts nature and human health, rather than just the real estate value of the land or how many parking spaces can fit. Instead of just talking about the carbon emissions associated with a building, we also look at the carbon sequestration potential of the landscape surrounding the building. Once we assess the biodiversity value of the site, we can look at nature-based solutions to improve the resiliency of the site to weather events such as flooding or extreme heat. We consider nature-based solutions “no-regrets” approaches because using nature to add value to a site typically has a benefit to our health and well-being no matter if the outcome was not fully achieved. And as a bonus, nature-based solutions are typically the most cost-effective.

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  • Rachel Bannon-Godfrey

    As part of the Corporate Sustainability team, Rachel leads our global social and environmental sustainability integration. Applying the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal framework, she helps our global experts become leaders in climate solutions.

    Contact Rachel
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