Sarah Burch

Sarah Burch
Professor, Faculty of Environment
> Canada Research Chair in Sustainability, Governance and Innovation

Scarcely a day passes that doesn’t bring with it some news of a climate change catastrophe, green-technology game changer or contentious policy proposal. Pervasive floods covered one third of Bangladesh while 27 trillion tons of water were dumped on Texas and Louisiana in 2017. Elon Musk offered to restore power to Puerto Rico using Tesla batteries and solar power. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed to phasing out coal in Canada but approved the twinning of the Trans Mountain Pipeline.

The push and pull of these contradictory trends comes at a time of great change for humanity. Everywhere we look, society is being reordered. Economies are modernizing. We’re becoming more global and more urban while information and ideas are exchanged without friction. New technology is arriving every day that stretches our imagination. For many people, managing all of this change can be overwhelming – especially when a changing climate literally means disaster for many people.

Technologies to reduce emissions have existed for decades

One way we cope with these unsettling changes is to hope that some of the miraculous new technology arriving at our fingertips daily will pull humanity away from the brink of climate disaster at the last minute. Recent breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, alternative fuels, energy storage and big data offer some hope that a sustainable low-carbon pathway is possible. But many of the technologies needed to dramatically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and pursue a sustainable future have existed for decades. It’s also clear that, despite major new climate policy proposals, Canada is not on track to meet its much-heralded commitments under the Paris climate agreement. Why has the uptake been so desperately slow? Why are experiments in low-carbon communities so scattered, disconnected and often incremental?

Research on the transition to sustainable communities (neighbourhoods and urban spaces that aren’t just low carbon, but also economically prosperous, socially just and ecologically rich) suggests that three crucial factors are at play.

Although it’s common to yearn for technical solutions to environmental problems (shared autonomous electric vehicles, aircraft fuelled by algae), the transition to sustainable communities is largely a social and political challenge, not a technical one. Why do so many Canadians jump in their cars instead of hopping on bikes or taking a stroll? Owning a car, and the prestige and convenience that comes with it, may be deeply linked to our identity, our self worth and sense of independence.

The Dutch example

This is of course not true everywhere in the world: to be Dutch, for instance, is to cycle. Between 35 and 45 per cent of Dutch citizens say that cycling is their primary mode of transportation (compared to only about seven per cent of Canadians – even when walking is combined with cycling). But ’twas it always thus in Amsterdam? It was only in the 1970s that a strong public push to get out of cars and onto bikes started to pervade the national conversation in the Netherlands, mostly in response to car-related child deaths – not environmental concerns. This demand was met with ever-improving cycling infrastructure, facilitated by dense urban design and accelerated by social pressure, which has resulted in the remarkable cycling culture we see today. In other words, the technology always existed, but facilitating its use was a social and political decision, and required a deeper shift in values and cultures. A culture shift is possible.

The other reason we might choose a car over active or mass transportation is rather more out of the control of individual Canadians. The shape and function of our cities forces us to choose particular modes of transportation: if bike lanes are non-existent or unsafe, if we have to travel 40 kilometres from our home to our work, if mass transit is unreliable or uncomfortable, we’re left trapped in old patterns of behaviour. In other words, our cities create inertia that locks us into highcarbon, unsustainable lifestyles – even when the technologies exist that could free us.

Crucial role of a compelling vision

The final ingredient of a transformation toward sustainability that is often ignored in favour of the endless search for technological innovation is the crucial role of a compelling, inclusive and desirable vision of what a sustainable future might look like. Should a sustainable neighbourhood in Toronto look and feel the same as Inuvik? Clearly not. There are three dimensions to this vision that research has shown will be more likely to trigger action: the inclusion of different voices (all genders, ages, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, for instance) in the creation of the vision; the use of imagery, story-telling and games to communicate and shape this vision; and a focus on the interplay or synergies among multiple values that we hold dear (equity, justice, environmental integrity, good jobs, affordable housing, public health) rather than a narrow preoccupation with just one.

We know that existential fear is more likely to create paralysis and apathy, while a story about opportunity and the potential for a better life, in which we see our own voice and values, opens up possibilities. The search for climate change solutions reveals a powerful opportunity to pursue the more holistic and transformative challenge of sustainability. Although new and emerging technologies will inevitably be a part of this transition, it is a deeper conversation about what we value that will accelerate change.