Photo by Ananya Bilimale on Unsplash
Photo by Ananya Bilimale on Unsplash

How Can We Make Sense of Climate Improvements Amidst a Health Crisis?

Editor's note: This post is part of Gensler's Impact by Design 2020 report and our ongoing exploration of how design is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many of us have seen the dramatic images showing the Himalayas towering over villages and cities across Punjab, India. The majestic peaks hadn’t been seen from that vantage point in decades because of a thick smog that always blankets the area.

This dramatic transformation in air quality in India — as well as air and water improvements in cities around the world — has been attributed to the unprecedented COVID-19-induced lockdown. Street and air traffic has come to a near halt. Shops and markets are deserted, and tourists are staying home. It’s all having a positive impact on the environment, even as it’s severely impacting the economy.

We know these improvements in air quality will be short-lived as the world begins to get back to work, so what can we learn from the environmental silver lining we’re witnessing?

At the very least, the reduction in emissions and the restoration of natural habitats may signal a fresh start — a clear call for action on climate crisis.

What we’re learning now

The World Economic Forum predicts that COVID-19 may trigger the biggest fall in carbon emissions since World War Two. In April, NASA reported a 30% decrease in air pollution across the United States’ Northeast region over the course of just a few weeks. However, while emissions have seen an overall reduction during COVID-19, the improvement is uneven across the globe.

A drop in emissions is expected as a by-product of all activity (including the economy) slowing down and, in some instances, coming to a complete grinding halt — take air travel and transport, for example. But even though the evidence is before our eyes, pollution actually remains for a long time. Carbon dioxide, a notorious pollutant, lingers for around 100 years in our planet’s atmosphere.

While any drop in emissions is welcome, a short-term solution isn’t exactly what we should be looking to achieve.

The important and encouraging lesson we can learn from the COVID-19 crisis is that we have to start somewhere and that every effort counts. And the good news is that we can still control a number of pollutants, which will disappear relatively quickly as we chip away at more-persistent pollutants as part of a long-term plan.

The role of the built environment

Our collective response to COVID-19 has demonstrated a level of resilience that illustrates the degree of commitment that we are capable of. So, what can we do now?

Those of us in the building industry know we have a role to play. Buildings are responsible for around 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to Architecture 2030. These attributable emissions are the result of the “making” and “using” of a building. We explore these two areas of impact in depth in Gensler’s 2020 Impact by Design report.

The report also highlights a set of resilience strategies architects and designers can consider in order to make a positive impact. They include strategies for Reuse, Size & Shape, Materials, Energy, and Water.

A focus on materials and energy has particular resonance. If we can minimize the energy expended in material production for building — by prioritizing the use of locally-sourced materials, for example — then we can begin to lower a building’s carbon footprint. We can do the same if we can minimize the amount of energy we use during operation of our buildings by, say, creating high-performance buildings that take advantage of photovoltaics and other renewable energy sources.

Using the crisis as a catalyst for positive change

In normal times, architects and designers have a great responsibility, and an opportunity, to influence the direction the industry is headed and to challenge business-as-usual approaches. Last year, Gensler deepened its commitment to combat the impact on climate change in the built environment by announcing the Gensler Cities Climate Challenge (GC3), our commitment — and our challenge to the entire design industry — to eliminate all greenhouse gases associated with the built environment.

In these abnormal times, we have seen what’s possible when we limit CO2 and other emissions, so the questions we ask and the challenges with which we are faced, have taken on new relevance.

The equation is simple. We start to regain control when we minimize pollution sources. And the tangible improvement to the air we collectively breathe and water we drink is almost immediate. These are the clear benefits of making the choice to switch to clean energy sources. If we take immediate action now, we will reap additional benefits in the long run.

For any media inquiries, please contact Kimberly Beals at .

Nermine Zahran
Based in Sydney, Nermine is an Architect and Sustainable Design Leader at Gensler. Nermine believes it is vital to continuously learn – and to educate others in the industry and in the general public – about ways to minimize the impact of the built environment on the planet. Beyond her aim to positively influence materials selection, construction methods, and ongoing energy-efficient operations strategies, she also seeks to ensure that the buildings and spaces we create are human-centered and improve human health and well-being. Contact her at .
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