Who do you trust when you can’t rely on anybody?

It’s time to rely on ourselves to deal with the climate crisis—not by purchasing more offsets to become carbon neutral, but to imagine and design more restorative, carbon positive spaces, says Aurecon’s Amanda Bryan.

Woman reaching for seedling on tree planting day in Australia
A woman reaches for a young tree as part of reforestation work. To avert a total climate disaster, the world needs to go beyond carbon neutral. Image: Greenfleet Australia, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

For 30 years, politicians have been treating the subject of climate change like they would an impossible teenager. No one knows quite how to deal with them, and the strategy to ‘keep your cool and talk them down’ keeps changing. They’re demanding; and they’re in your face.

Ever since the Montreal Protocol of 1987 governments have been scheming ways to minimise our carbon footprint. At the time, it was throwing away those aerosol cans and declaring war on CFCs. Fast forward 10 years, carbon offsetting was heralded at the Kyoto Protocol (1997) as the new possible elixir to climate change’s impending ills.

But now we sit 20 years down the line, and the reality of implementing offsets sometimes look more like a Diet Coke alongside a double Big Mac meal. They’re an all-too-easy way of assuaging the guilt of green gluttony. Offset schemes can often be unregulated and unchecked; their value in terms of genuine greenhouse gas reduction is questionable; and bad habits don’t ultimately change by greenwashing consumption.

Moreover, countries can’t decide on how to apply them. Take Australia for example, whose policies have played pinball over the last decade, bouncing from an emissions trading scheme, to a carbon intensity system, to a renewable energy target programme, and now to an emissions energy target system. Three words alone (Paris Climate Accord) showcase our global indecisiveness, as we look back over 2017 and turn to face the most significant issue of our future.

All of it seems to suggest that we can’t rely on politics and policymakers to find the magic formula. But what if we, the imaginators and innovators of the future, could spearhead something truly sustainable and transformative? What if the future of good environmental policy was in the hands of designers and engineers, backed to the hilt by policymakers and city leaders? Climate change resilience demands a more sophisticated response  than simply slapping down carbon credit gauze over unsustainable sore points. We can do better; and we believe the engineers and designers of this world know how.

We may be the problem solvers

History will show that the poorest and most vulnerable people always end up bearing the brunt of transformative change. If you are wealthy, you just turn up the aircon when it gets too hot. If the climate is too dry, your city simply puts in a desalination plant. If food becomes scarce, you grow your organic veggies in a greenhouse.

But the irony is, you’re only worsening the climate conditions for the poor, who don’t have the privilege of altering their environment. It becomes a vicious downward spiral, if you’re willing to see how your life eventually touches another.

The interesting thing is, as engineers we can see this, but we see what is going to happen as well. We don’t have the luxury of ignorance, of claiming “I didn’t realise” or “I didn’t see this coming”. Our training and knowledge tells us otherwise; we’re skilled to outsmart the problems and politics . That’s exactly why we need to bear big shoulders to bolster the change and provide the solutions that prove right over time.

The off-putting of offsetting

Currently the mainstream thinking is, do your bit of damage but pay your penance by offsetting your impact. So, when that flight from London to Miami puts 2415 kg of CO2 per passenger into the atmosphere, ideally all that carbon dioxide can be cancelled by funding an initiative that sucks it out of the air. Carbon sequestration schemes, such as forestation projects, rely upon that wonderfully regenerative process known as photosynthesis, which draws in carbon and pumps out fresh oxygen into the atmosphere. Anyone from British Airways to Leonardo DiCaprio can be found touting tree planting as the way to cover our tracks these days.

We’ll forever play a game of carbon offset catch-up if we don’t radically change the way we design and get a bigger goal than carbon neutral alone. 

The difficulty lies in knowing the backend story of these schemes. How do we guarantee that these trees were actually planted? And how can we be sure that they’ll be maintained for 20, 30, 40 years ‒ the same lifespan of the project they displace or worse in perpetuity? Ambiguity aside, it’s debatable whether many of these forestry projects are really good for the environment in the long run. Research suggests that planted areas weaken the biodiversity, fertility and nutrient content of the soil over time, particularly when tree species are monoculture and non-indigenous.

Consequently, from where we stand, carbon offsetting still falls remarkably short of the bar . “It’s something of a wild west at the moment,” says Bill Sneyd, operations director of The Carbon Neutral Company.

Staying neutral isn’t good enough

Rather than slapping down Band-Aids on bad corporate-consumer behaviour, how about changing our designs altogether? We can rewire our current defaults of “doing less harm” and focus our energies on designing something regenerative. This goes a step beyond carbon neutral; it actually imagines our spaces to be environmentally restorative, symbiotic, life-giving to the world around it.

We’ll forever play a game of carbon offset catch-up if we don’t radically change the way we design and get a bigger goal than carbon neutral alone. Regenerative ecosystems are the only solution, because they continually stay one step ahead of the climate crisis. Sustaining what we have isn’t enough; we need to improve and renew it .

It’s easily arguable that we’re in a new geologic age. Scientists call it the Anthropocene‒a human epoch that acknowledges climate change as an avalanche of our own doing.

The question now is, if global warming is inevitable, what are we‒the designers and dreamers of a future-ready world‒going to do about it? Imagine what we could do if we learned to replicate spaces that give more than they take. It’s doable. 

Regenerative design is a more honest and estimable response to a global climate crisis  that takes the pointed finger and turns it back on itself. In a time when the buck is getting passed at a dizzying rate, good sustainable design is arguably an effective way to stop solving the consequences and start solving the problem.

Amanda Bryan is Sustainability Leader New Zealand at Aurecon. This post was republished from Aurecon’s Just Imagine blog with permission.

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