Western Alumni

Science of solutions

Paving a path to net-zero

By Debora Van Brenk, BA’86, MA’87

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Photo courtesy of Joshua Pearce

Let’s face it: the world is going to heat in a handbasket. We bear witness every day to “unseasonable” seasons that generate hotter, stormier, weirder weather than humans have recorded before. Climate change is costing lives, endangering plant and animal species and creating an unhealthy stew of undrinkable water, unbreathable air and inhospitable land.

U.S. President Joe Biden has termed the climate crisis “a clear and present danger” – a phrase more often associated with the threat of war than with the rise of the oceans.

The World Health Organization calls climate change the planet’s biggest threat to human health in the 21st century. But there are solutions.

More than 100 Western researchers are working to help people and the planet mitigate or adapt to climate change realities. Their efforts are turning algae-green water into a healthier hue, mitigating risk in flood zones, assessing ecosystem resilience, designing hurricane-hardy homes, converting biomass to clean energy, engineering super-efficient rechargeable batteries, and teaching sustainable business practices.

They are sharing blueprints for solar-powered futures, developing courses with climate action embedded in the curriculum, and redesigning heat-sink cities.

And while experts acknowledge there is no easy path to de-escalating the climate crisis – their insights honed by years spent studying science and human nature – they say it can be done.

“There’s a saying that’s attributed to Nelson Mandela: ‘Everything is impossible, until it is done,’” said Bipasha Baruah, Canada Research Chair in Global Women’s Issues and an expert in the intersection of economy, environment and equity. “Our portal to the future can be different.”

How we got here  

The use of fossil fuels, cutting down trees and intensively farming livestock all add to the naturally occurring carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. That carbon dioxide traps the sun’s heat like a greenhouse. More heat leads to climate change and threatens the already-precarious balance of all interconnected living things.   
The push is on to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than pre-industrial times. But time is ticking. Greenhouse gases need to be slashed in half by 2030 to contain warming within that target.

“Unfortunately, there are very few nations, organizations or corporations taking action on anywhere close to the scale that is required, and too often they are speaking in terms of 2050 targets for making more ambitious reductions,” said Western geography and environment professor Tony Weis, who is leading a new major in climate change and society that draws in the sciences, arts and humanities to address the multidimensional challenges of the crisis.

As dire as that forecast sounds, not all is lost, said Weis. Students graduating with this new major will become next-generation leaders in environmental policy-making and law, land use planning, community development, conservation, sustainable social enterprises, business consulting, as well as in related fields in research and teaching capacities.

“On one hand, we need to convey the reasons why big and urgent changes are needed; on the other hand, there is a significant amount of research showing that too much focus on the fear and the scope of environmental problems tends to be debilitating for people,” Weis said. “It is crucial to pair the sense of urgency with realizable actions, and the hopeful dimensions of efforts to build more sustainable societies.”

He added a central part of the challenge is stressing that big and fast emission reductions are more than possible – and that pursuing them aggressively can be interwoven with many positive outcomes, such as good jobs, healthier and more equitable communities, serious commitments to decolonization, and enhanced biodiversity conservation.

Indigenous perspective

The Anishnaabe world-view mino-bimaaduzwi-win – to live a good life – includes the whole person and the whole planet, said Sara Mai Chitty, curriculum and pedagogy advisor in the Office of Indigenous Initiatives.

“Sometimes we lose sight of what the whole point of existing is: to live a good life. We need plant and animal species and without that we don’t have anything. The survival of the species is about all of us and everything.”  

Sara Mai Chitty


She said Indigenous Peoples are in a unique position, as part of their special constitutional relationship with the Crown, to hold governments accountable.

That includes, for example, continuing to be strong voices in opposition to oil and gas pipelines that could bring harm to the land. “Those pipelines don’t make environmental sense. From an economic standpoint in a capitalist sense, those pipelines also don’t make sense.”

Chitty is part of a team, with geography and environment curriculum specialist Beth Hundey and geography professor Katrina Moser, developing curriculum that will braid Indigenous and Euro-Western science to help students understand the issues and find solutions.

The course is designed so that anyone – whether from within the Western community or beyond it – will be able to enrol.  

“It’s not a matter of pitting the two world views against each other but it’s recognizing whose leadership brought us here and how future generations of land, plants and animals can thrive,” said Chitty.  

“Many Indigenous communities are still very much in relationship with the land that they’re on and they’ve been noticing change for years – who is missing and how things are not growing the same and how the water looks and tastes different. Indigenous Peoples have been noticing this long before people in the cities have.”

Students in the course will be expected to make at least one personal change and one community change to benefit the planet. And when they do that, they’ll become ambassadors whose actions will ripple through to their friends, communities and political activities.

Social equity lens  

The big solutions require rethinking what’s important, said Baruah, who was an invited speaker at a recent United Nations forum on UN Sustainable Development Goals. She outlined some big-ticket items that can have a huge impact on not just the environment but also on social equity:

Stop subsidizing the fossil-fuel industry. Such subsidies amounted to US$5.9 trillion in 2020, an amount equivalent to seven per cent of global GDP, Baruah said. “Getting rid of fossil fuel subsidies can enable us to use the money to focus on things that really matter, such as education, health care, equality, universal basic income and renewable energy sources.”

Shut down coal-fired power plants and invest in more green energy sources. “People are no longer saying, ‘Where will we find the resources to get that done?’ We know where we can find the money for that.”

Get comfortable with change. “What’s happened during COVID has been that people have reflected on what it takes to have a good life, and it’s definitely not the status quo. We can rethink and rebuild economic systems that privilege environmental good and social justice, instead of growth for growth’s sake.”  

Business and engineering professor Joshua Pearce is an advocate of open-source tech and teaching people how to build solar panel systems for local homes and communities. Photo courtesy of Joshua Pearce.


Catching the sun

Moving from fossil fuels to renewable solar is now more accessible than many think, said Joshua Pearce, John M. Thompson Chair in Information Technology and Innovation at the Thompson Centre for Engineering Leadership & Innovation, Ivey Business School.

He has co-authored a free downloadable how-to book, To Catch the Sun, that shows how to design and build a photovoltaic system for small homes, communities and for emergency use.

The book has been downloaded more than 10,000 times, is widely shared on Reddit, and has been translated to Spanish and French for a wider reach.

“Solar is the heavy artillery if not the magic bullet. Today, converting solar energy directly to electricity with photovoltaics is already economic. Solar works everywhere people live and at every scale.”

“When solar electricity is used to drive a heat pump – we have just shown it is finally economic in both Canada and the U.S. – we can start slashing natural gas use for heating the same way we did with cutting coal use for electrical generation,” Pearce said.

He said policy-makers should encourage the construction of more solar-ready homes for all new projects and provide training to the army of solar panel installers we would need to end the fossil fuel era.

“Then, when we actually start using all the surface area we waste (rooftops, building facades, sound barriers, and canopies over parking lots) to hold up solar, we can power our buildings and our electric vehicles, so even oil can be eliminated. Solar technology potential is here and ready and, frankly, we just need to invest in it for the long term, and we can have our green planet and even make some money.”

Cooling heat islands

Climate change has caused heat waves to grow in intensity, duration and geography, and they often last weeks and months, not just days.

They are particularly hard on people living in cities, where the air can be far more stagnant and a degree or two warmer than surrounding areas, said geography professor James Voogt.

Urban areas are an engine for higher temperatures because of more traffic, industry, energy used in heating and cooling buildings, and paved-over areas.

And their design can also trap warmer, dirtier air in a sort of heat dome, a unique street-level climate that makes a city less liveable.

“You’re super-imposing this heat on areas that already generate a lot of heat,” Voogt said.

His research proposes that urban planners create a climate map of a city, a document that shows where the hotspots are and where the opportunities are for cleaner, cooler air.

And then, he said, they need to make climate impact a key measure of good design – flipping historic principles that assume a city is an aggregate of commercial, industrial and residential needs.

That means more trees and more water features. Converting impervious surfaces such as parking lots and hard roofs to greenery. “We need to use the power of vegetation for effective cooling shade.”

Fighting climate change requires big, bold action, but it also starts at the personal level. Individual acts can collectively lead to significant climate change solutions. Photo by Deb Van Brenk.


It also means designing for air flow, with a mix of taller and shorter buildings. Some urban areas of China are designed as “breathable cities,” where ventilation corridors between buildings in high-density areas ensure fresh, cooler air can circulate and warm air can escape.

Parts of Germany and Japan, for example, map their cities based on the natural resources that can be incorporated into them.

Finally, it entails less fossil-fuel consumption: a mind-set and policies that prioritize walking, cycling and public transit.

Even apart from the general discomfort they create, heat islands are also an issue of health and economic equity, Voogt noted. People living in the paved enclaves of lower-income neighbourhoods are more likely to suffer from higher temperatures and lower air quality than those in leafy suburbia, and the more vulnerable group has less ability to adapt to or escape from their inhospitable environment.

“Climate design in cities is not done a lot, so any effort to design for climate is a good thing,” he said. “You’re not going to solve (the climate crisis) because of it – there are so many elements that have to work together to make that happen – but as we battle climate change we also need to mitigate its effects.”

While climate change is an ecological crisis, it is also a behavioural problem.

“In the global scheme of things, Canada is a small player contributing to climate change – even though, per capita, we’re terrible – and this requires a global, international response as well as a local one.”

Personal action

Weis said every individual has a role to play to influence climate action, by changing their lifestyles and their consumption.“

I think people need to be convinced that significantly reducing their own atmospheric footprints is important, at the same time recognizing action cannot stop here: they also need to get engaged in struggles to transform societies at many levels,” said Weis.“

It can be a fine balance to convey to people that personal decisions matter right now, when the only way they can really matter is if many changes far beyond them happen fast – to our electricity grid, to our agriculture and food system, in retrofitting buildings, massively expanding public transportation, and much more.”

The complexity of the problem and the comprehensiveness of the solutions can either lead to paralysis or action, said Hundey.“Part of what’s overwhelming about it is that we have to fix everything. But one thing to understand is that whatever we can do and however we can start, this is what we need to do.“

I don’t think people realize how much influence they can have on climate change solutions. Anything that has ever changed for the better needs momentum, and it’s these things that build momentum.”