Global Futures in Focus with Dominic Barton

Sustainable Futures - Global Futures in Focus with Dominic Barton

Listen to each of the five episodes wherever you get your podcasts.

icons   icons   icons   icons

Listen on YouTube

Remote video URL

Episode description

The existential threat of climate change is very real. We can physically feel it and see it across the world. In this episode, Dominic Barton uncovers the role that sustainability plays as a driver of modernization — where industry and environment, ecology and the economy are not conflicting goals, but intrinsically linked.  

We hear from international experts including Dr. Sarah Burch, Canada Research Chair in Sustainability Governance and Innovation, and Dr. Suzanne Kearns, founding director of the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Aeronautics.

Featured in order of appearance:

Dr. Vivek Goel
Dr. Suzanne Kearns
Dr. Daniel Scott
Dr. Sarah Burch
Dr. Leia Minaker
Dr. Amelia Clarke
Dr. Rebecca Ronney
Celine Isimbi
Jason Amri

Episode transcript

Dr. Suzanne Kearns:  The sustainability problem is bigger than one organization, you know, one industry one country, right? It's going to take everybody working together.

Dominic Barton:  The existential threat of climate change is very real. We physically see it, and we feel it across the globe every day.

Multiple Voices: Air pollution is expected to worsen with climate change…The ski season in the U.S. is on average a week shorter than it was a century ago…Wildfire season is already underway and ahead of schedule... Norway has become the first country to allow commercial deep-sea mining. Environmentalists…

Dominic Barton: It really struck me many years ago when I started seeing industry leaders taking the issue of sustainability seriously. In 2002 few business leaders were talking about climate change. It was a science set of commitments. The UN was pushing on this, Al Gore was pushing on this, many investment firms, especially with long-term goals have been focusing on environmental, social and corporate governance—ESG indicators—when making decisions for some time. This series, Global Futures in Focus, examines the intersection of the global futures, that space where solutions can be developed to make the world a better place for all. Sustainability bridges all of the global futures. It takes into account our quality of life under an umbrella of social economic, human health and environmental well-being. 

This is Global Futures in Focus from the University of Waterloo. I'm Dominic Barton. For more than 65 years, the University of Waterloo has dedicated itself to making a difference in the world. This small university in the middle of southwestern Ontario has stepped up to the global stage. I've been witness to the many astounding students, researchers and alumni who've taken it upon themselves to question orthodoxies. You'll hear from a few of them in this episode. Their stories underline the role sustainability plays as a driver of modernization, where industry and environment, ecology and the economy are not conflicting goals, but intrinsically linked. You can see this mentality in action across society. There's momentum growing as a result of pressure from consumers, employees and communities. More and more countries and companies are moving to a model of integrated reporting, which includes sustainability factors. Waterloo's President Vivek Goel has been thinking a lot about the evolving role of the University in this area. 

Dr. Vivek Goel: The climate crisis, obviously, our biggest challenge we face as a planet. We have strengths in climate, in water, in energy. We can really start to focus in on where we can have an impact, including the environment, but also thinking about water, about thinking about addressing poverty, addressing the other big challenges that have been identified, for example, in the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.  

Dominic Barton: Over the course of my time at management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, I had a rule that I would connect with two CEOs every day. What I found is that the majority of leaders are trying to make a difference, but the challenge for them is how to balance the intentions. I would ask them a series of questions and always include these two: if they could do over their leadership role that they were in, what would they do differently, and what would they teach their 21-year-old selves. One of the leaders that I really respected told me that you need a microscope in one eye and a telescope in the other while still being able to see. For too long, there's been a reliance on short-term thinking on the part of industry and government leaders, and it's put our planet in jeopardy. Collective action is required. We need to change the way we do things. I'm hopeful because of the technology and good policy on the horizon. Business leaders have long struggled to weigh their immediate financial needs and objectives against those objectives many years into the future in order to succeed over the long term. At the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Aeronautics, or WISA, they're exploring innovative solutions to respond to the challenge of creating a sustainable future for the air transport sector. Aviation professor Dr. Suzanne Kearns is WISA’s founding director. 

Dr. Suzanne Kearns:  It's not lost on me the idea that these young people that I'm teaching who are passionate about aviation that if we don't prioritize sustainability, it is their career that's going to be most impacted. So I think that's what's exciting to me is how much young people have embraced the concept of sustainability, and I feel like the all the different momentum and activity and all the research projects that are going on, are really illustrative that there is not one single solution to the sustainability problem. I look at it like  a mosaic, right, that there's probably hundreds or thousands of little points. And what we try to do is to kind of just draw a circle around all those points, and sort of put that picture out there to say, ‘You know, it's going to take all of us.’ nd I think it's all about creating a future for the next generation.

Dominic Barton: WISA is the kind of institute that could only happen at Waterloo, and within the ecosystem of sustainability that continues to emerge here. Waterloo is delivering on its mission to be the world's leading hub for sustainable aeronautical research, technology and education. Powered by exceptional faculty, researchers from all six of Waterloo Faculties, as well as students and industry partners, their findings are already playing an important role in charting a brighter future.

Dr. Suzanne Kearns: The reality is when you look across the industry today, a lot of people have never encountered the concepts of sustainability or climate change. I went to one of the largest schools in the world for aviation. It was a university that was literally attached to the airport. So, you'd go to class and then go flying and walk directly to the airplanes. And there was nothing that was an environmental class that was part of my curriculum whatsoever. And so I think there's this whole generation of leaders in the aviation space learning about this for the first time. In addition to that, I believe that although internationally aviation has set the goal of net zero by 2050, that I think it's a bit of a distraction to have a specific target because I don't believe sustainability has an endpoint. It’s not like we have a mission accomplished sign and we'll all celebrate, you know, we've achieved sustainability. I think it's a concept like safety that has to be integrated into every job and every day. You know it has to always be something that's a consideration that you take in when you go to work. And so that creates a huge challenge because then how do you take the entire sort of working population in aviation and help them access accessible online education to support that objective? So that's something that we thought would be really valuable that WISA can support to be in service to industry.

Dominic Barton: We live in a very mobile world. A growing middle class wants to see the world and that interest in travel and tourism is having an impact like never before. Dr. Daniel Scott is a professor of geography and environmental management. His research focuses on sustainable tourism, and in particular, on the transition to a low-carbon tourism economy, an adaptation to the complex impacts of a changing climate. 

Dr. Daniel Scott: Tourism as a sector up until the pandemic, which really devastated the sector globally, tourism was growing roughly at five to six per cent a year, versus the global economy in the sort of three per cent range. So, for 20,25 years, tourism was growing faster than the global economy. And aviation was doing the same. Boeing and Airbus are developing hydrogen-based aircraft, but they're very early in this sort of technology cycle. Part of what we've already looked at as part of the Tourism Panel on Climate Change is the 10 or 12 I think we found different net-zero roadmaps for aviation. They're all different. Some include large amounts of hydrogen, some none, some have demand management, which means the sector can only be so big, so only so many passenger kilometers available, which then raises other questions. How do you distribute that equitably? Is it a user pay system? Do you use climate-justice principles and allocate at least some of those to small island developing states that would see their tourism sector devastated if they couldn't get people there by air? And those questions aren't even being asked right now. And that's part of our role as a panel of experts is to get those policy questions on the agenda now so that we can at least think about them because they're going to raise their ugly head in maybe it's five years, maybe it's 10 years, but certainly in the 2030s, we're going to have to face this, you know, discussions like that. We've always argued, you know, climate change can't be solved in silos, whether it's at the University of Waterloo level, we need to work in a more of an interdisciplinary way. And then our, our Waterloo Climate Institute is part of that solution to bring people from across campus together. And when you go up to the sector, it's the same, same challenge. We've got fragmented expertise in Canada, Europe, North America, the Global South, and connecting those people together, and importantly, connecting them with the decision-makers who, who have questions, who have information needs, is our sort of main goals.

Dominic Barton: Waterloo's global futures are a reminder of the need for connections across disciplines and beyond campus. Whether science or arts or engineering, bringing together a variety of ideas and concepts is what the University of Waterloo is all about. Universities aren't typically known for moving fast, and there is a perception that they aren't great at sharing their knowledge with the outside world. I think Waterloo is an exception. Because of its origins of being built and developed in tandem with community and industry, Waterloo has always been focused on connecting and partnering with decision-makers, governments and business. It's one of the ways it has stayed ahead of the curve when it comes to meeting the needs of an evolving world. 

As a lead author of the Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Dr. Sarah Burch promotes something that I've long believed: it's often the little things that can make a big difference. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is an intergovernmental body of the United Nations. Its intent is to advance scientific knowledge about climate change caused by human activities. Dr. Burch is a professor and Canada Research Chair in sustainability, governance and innovation.

Dr. Sarah Burch: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tells us that individuals and individual choice controls, you know, 40 to 70 per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions, which would on the surface suggest that it is entirely a matter of individual decisions, which is actually not at all what the report ultimately concludes. It concludes that in many ways, our hands are tied as individuals. We're locked into high-carbon ways of living because our cities are designed the way they are so that we have to drive, you know, these vast distances between affordable homes and our work. Because we don't have options for affordable electric vehicles or convenient or reliant mass public transit that's electrified. You know that our buildings are built to a shoddy standard and wildly energy inefficient. So, it's actually collective decisions that are made by governments at all levels, from the municipal to the provincial and state on up to the national governments, that would unshackle us from those high-carbon pathways and allow us to choose, kind of you know, unleash the potential of individual choice. So when individuals demonstrate through their own actions that this is a matter of priority to them, when they vote, when they write letters, when they take the individual actions that are available to them, they send the signal that this is something that they're voting on. This is something that matters to them. And they are freeing politicians. They are giving them permission to lead, and to then set the, you know, set the policies in place that would advance this even further. Individual action is incredibly important, not least because it's taking some power back into your own hands and feeling like, ‘Yes, I'm constrained in lots of ways, but these things I have a choice over and so I'm going to make the changes I can, and hopefully be a part of that greater groundswell.’

Dominic Barton: I've been fortunate to visit many cities across the globe. I've been awed by the density and design of many, including booming metropolises in China, South Korea, Japan, India and South Asia. The shift from rural to urban settings is having a dramatic impact on our world, and most specifically on our cities. When I was at McKinsey, we saw the emergence of cities more than countries as the new leading markets. More than 80 per cent of global GDP is generated in cities. This massive urbanization is also resulting in about 70 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions coming from cities and being responsible for two-thirds of all energy usage. The world is urbanizing faster than ever before in human history. By 2050, 75 per cent of the global population will live in cities. Cities are becoming as important as countries when it comes to being leaders in sustainability. They're doing so because they need to. The Future Cities initiative developed by the University of Waterloo is a powerful mobilization of Waterloo is extensive expertise, uniquely tailored to shape the destiny of cities in Canada and around the world. Dr. Leia Minaker is a professor in Waterloo’s School of Planning. She is the director of the Future Cities initiative, overseeing a new Master a Future city program. She advocates that cities need to be thinking about not just environmental sustainability, but social sustainability. 

Dr. Leia Minaker: At the same time, we're in the midst of this technological revolution, which is disrupting the world across all sorts of domains. We're dealing with climate emergencies, global conflict, and increasing recognition of inequity around the world. So, in so many areas in so many domains, cities are going to be important in helping the planet be more sustainable because they have such a huge impact on sustainability. But not just environmental sustainability, also social sustainability. 

Dominic Barton: A sustainability agenda goes hand in glove with the performance of a company or an organization. What shifted my perspective on sustainability was working in South Korea in the late 1990s. There was a mayor in Seoul then, a business-focused guy. He was known as The Bulldozer. He would continually push me by saying, “Are we doing enough to protect our environment?” I found it honestly a bit of a wakeup call because it was coming from a hardcore business guy, but he was thinking about sustainability concepts while still pushing for development. Sustainability is not just an NGO issue. It's an issue that business and governments must and are now prioritizing. We have better capabilities and technologies to measure and respond to what is going on. 

Dr. Amelia Clarke is a professor of sustainability management. She is someone who measures whether we are meeting our sustainability goals. She is the co-lead on the Municipal Net-Zero Action Research Partnership, which supports municipalities to monitor measure and achieve their greenhouse gas mitigation goals within Canada's net-zero commitments. Her team is working closely with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and 11 other Canadian universities to improve greenhouse gas indicators, develop carbon accounting systems, and establish collaborative governance for community-wide emissions within 250 Canadian municipalities. They've developed software that is freely available to municipalities that aligns their reporting with international standards for reporting greenhouse gas emissions. 

Dr. Amelia Clarke: Together we're hoping to, to support municipal action on achieving like really setting the targets to net zero having actionable plans, but having really good monitoring and measurement systems so they can make good resource-allocation decisions to be on the right trajectory. And then for those that are large or it matters, they can disclose their climate risk in their financial statements to attract investment. We have seven municipalities in Canada who are currently sharing within their financial statements their climate risk, and so our project has been working with six of those to learn from their experiences, to support them in their next steps and standardization. Municipalities recognize this is a good way to communicate to their, through financial statements, and important to consider these risks. But it's a new space. So, the fact that these Canadian municipalities are doing it and they're, they're talking to each other and we're coming up with standard methods will help other municipalities in other parts of the world. Because this is a global movement, climate risk disclosure. 

Dominic Barton: A growing population puts a startling amount of pressure on the Earth's resources. In Canada, we are known for having an abundance of resources. We're very fortunate to have this endowment, but with this comes risk. We've long heard that water will be the next oil. Water is a finite and irreplaceable resource that is fundamental to human life. It's only renewable if well managed. Today, more than 1.7 billion people live in depleting river basins. It is a trend that we'll see two-thirds of the world's population living in water-stressed countries within this decade.  

Dr. Rebecca Rooney is a biology professor and internationally renowned expert in wetland assessment. She studies the impact of urbanization on the environment, specifically wetlands. Canada is home to a quarter of the world's wetlands. However, nearly 60 per cent of its traditional wetlands have been lost, largely due to urbanization. These wetlands are home to many species at risk. As Dr. Rooney points out, studying wetlands provides a unique perspective on both the impact of urbanization and potential ecological solutions to combating climate change.

Dr. Rebecca Rooney: Wetlands are these climate change superheroes. I kind of describe this carbon storage and carbon sequestration to people like your bank account. So you have your principal and every year it's earning interest, and the stored carbon that's in the soil that's locked away and not decomposing is like your principal. This is like the built-up accumulation of carbon from years past. In wetlands, the bulk of what we're talking about when we say you know, the carbon storage power of wetlands. There's also the interest that you're earning every year by having that wetland. And that's the sequestration potential. So, every year the plants grow. So, it can be like a lot of biomass, a lot of carbon that's taken out of the atmosphere, turned into plant sugars and stored in that plant tissue. And then at the end of the season, you know, these are plants which start to decompose, just like in your garden, but because of the wet soil, they don't decompose fully. And so, a lot of that carbon just gets buried and baked into that soil. And so, you're adding to your principal every year with your sequestration. And when you drain a wetland, not only do you lose the, you know, principal, the stored carbon that's been accrued over many years, sometimes like a 10,000-year period, but you also lose that sequestration potential moving forward into the future. And so, you have to kind of average that into your costs when you think about what we lose when we drain wetlands. Not just the carbon storage which is substantial, but also the sequestration potential for the future.

Dominic Barton: If done right, sustainability holds the key to supporting equity in society. The UN Sustainable Development Goals established in 2015 are considered a blueprint for peace and prosperity for humankind. The 17 SDGs were intended as an urgent call for action to all nations around the world to help end poverty and improve the quality of life for all. Unfortunately, most countries, including Canada, are failing in their efforts to meet these goals. Waterloo is the founding institution and host of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network Canada. The organization's goal is to promote the SDGs and encourage the public to embrace the concepts. 

Celine Isimbi is a student pursuing joint honours in environment, resources and sustainability, and geography and environmental management. She is also pursuing a minor in political science at Waterloo with the co-operative degree program. She is a person focused on making a difference. Celine deliberately chose co-op jobs at the University, where she could take what she learned in her studies and apply it to the local, national and international stage.

Celine Isimbi: I just want to emphasize the possibility of collective power, collective people power, I want to emphasize that I chose an environmental studies degree because that's where I personally aligned. I chose that because in high school those are the things that I just was attracted to. Those are the places in which I found home in. But you do not have to be an environmental studies student to care about the environment. Environmental justice scholars define our environment as the place we live, work and play in. So, it's not just the natural environment. It's our workplaces, it’s our home spaces, it's our community spaces. And so, we need everybody in every place to be doing something to ensure that we have a climate-just, environmentally just future. And so, you do not have to be, you know, this quote unquote youth organizer, quote unquote youth activist to care about the outcome of the person next to you.

Dominic Barton: Like Celine, co-op student, Jason Amri, has lofty goals aimed at uncovering environmental solutions. Jason is a computer science and business student and co-founder of 3cycle, a recycling program that aims to recycle waste from 3D printing or additive manufacturing. He has found support as a budding tech founder through the GreenHouse social impact incubator and Velocity, Canada's most successful incubator program, backed by the University of Waterloo.

 Jason Amri: 3cycle’s goal is to close the loop on 3D printing. This means making sure that every bit of plastic waste from 3D printers is collected and turned back into a usable material. To actually achieve this goal, we partner with what we think is the largest unserved market, which is community organizations. Things like high schools, universities, makerspaces, libraries, small businesses, who otherwise don't have access to industrial PLA recycling services. While 3D printing is a really innovative technology that allows people to prototype very quickly at low cost, something around like 40 per cent of plastics used in FDM 3D printing ends up going to waste. And since that material can't really be recycled through traditional processes, around 90 per cent of it will end up in landfills without actually undergoing any recycling. 

 Dominic Barton: As we've discovered, sustainability is connected to our social, economic, technological and environmental well-being. While the global climate emergency is the greatest threat to our collective future, we're also challenged in preserving biodiversity, ensuring clean water for all, and producing enough food for a growing planet. Celine Isimbi and Jason Amri are examples of young people who recognize a need and then raise their hand to offer a solution. That's leadership. Waterloo researchers like Sarah Burch, Leia Minaker, Suzanne Kearns and Daniel Scott are not only raising important questions about climate change, but they are doing their part to develop sustainable solutions. And Rebecca Rooney reminds us of the importance of listening and monitoring our surroundings to gain insight into the health of our environment. 

The University of Waterloo is a community of students, researchers and graduates, who are more prepared for change and a shifting future than many others in the world. Their appreciation for the importance of sustainability within every facet of our society will lead to discoveries that will make our world a better place, especially for those less fortunate. A common trait of the people I've encountered at the University of Waterloo is that they genuinely care about their world and those in it. That empathy is an integral characteristic of modern leadership. The world needs leaders who are passionate about change, leaders who are willing to take risks, and leaders who are just as worried about their communities as they are about the bottom line. 

You've been listening to the sustainable futures episode of Global Futures in Focus. I encourage you to listen to our other global futures episodes, where we focus on the global transformation cutting across technology, society, health and the economy. I hope they inspire you to make a difference in your own unique and perhaps unconventional way. I'm Dominic Barton.