Craig Applegath is an architect, urban designer, and one of the world’s first architects to design zero-carbon buildings – using design strategies that substantially reduce a building’s impact on the environment. In addition to practicing architecture, three years ago Craig launched the Twenty-First Century Imperative podcast. The goal of the podcast is to explore the insights, approaches, experiences of scientists, planners, engineers, designers, business entrepreneurs, politicians and other successful change-makers, who are finding smart, effective ways to answer one or more of the three critical challenges of the Twenty First Century Imperative. Craig believes these are:  

How will we continue to live on our planet without destroying our biosphere? How will we repair and regenerate the environmental damage we have already caused? And, how will we successfully adapt to the escalating impacts of climate change?

Craig is also taking an active part in meeting our environmental challenges in his architecture practice through the design of highly sustainable zero carbon buildings, but also by planting trees. In fact, as part of his not-for-profit fundraising efforts for his podcast, Craig is using the Patreon application that allows donors to plant trees by supporting his podcast. Below is my interview with Craig.

What is the nature and intensity of the climate change problem right now?

Climate scientists now estimate that 350ppm concentration of CO2e in our atmosphere is the maximum sustainable concentration, and yet we are now at 408 ppm of CO2e, and it is increasing. As a result, the average global atmospheric and ocean temperatures are increasing with perilous results. Polar ice caps are melting at a rate faster than predicted by previous climate models. Severe storm events are increasing in both intensity and frequency with every passing year. The immediate results of the impacts of global warming are increasing floods, droughts, hurricanes, typhoons and toranados,  as well as disrupted and warming climate zones. And most frighteningly, in the longer term, we are looking at the possibility of run-a-way global warming becuase of acelerating positive feedback loops. If this happens we are looking at the probable extinction of much of the planet’s existing plant and animal life.

What are the implications of climate change for us as a species?

My past training as a biologist makes me very worried about the implications of climate change for our future survival as a species. You know, our health and welfare on this planet is entirely predicated on the health of our global ecosystems. We are dependent on other living things and the ecosystems they constitute for our existance. We depend on the health of our ecosystems for food, for energy, for most materials, for everything we need as a species to survive and thrive. Unless we can figure out a way as a species to meet the challenges of climate change that we have created – and to do so within the next ten years – I don’t think there is much hope for our species.

Is it possible for us humans to live in harmony with nature, without harming it?

So far, our species has not been very good at living in harmony with nature. For the last three and a half centuries since the industrial revolution we have been pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere without seriously recognizing the future implications and costs of our behaviour. But that does not mean we cannot change our behaviour going forward. The good news is that we now have all the knowledge and all the technology necessary to live on our planet without harming the ecosystems that sustain our lives. The bad news is that we don’t have long to change our current behavior. The UN currently estimates that we have at most ten years from now before it is too late. 

What do we need to do in order to pull back from the brink of climate change disaster?

I think there are five critically important things we need to do if we want to pull back from the edge of the climate change cliff we have now arrived at: First, we need to rapidly develop our renewable energy capacity, including wind power and photo voltaic power, to replace our current fossil fuel powered energy systems. 

Second, at the same time we are developing our renewable energy capacity, we will also need to develop our ability to store renewable energy using some combination of electric batteries and hydrogen storage. 

Third, we need to completely electrify both our cities, including all of our building stock, our transportation systems – including cars, buses, trains and even planes – and our manufacturing systems. As an integral part of this, we need to develop smart electrical in our cities and communities that can move energy around the grid in the most efficient and effective manner possible.

Fourth, we need to deal with the current fossil fuel legacy systems that are now in place while we are developing our renewable energy systems. The good news is we now have the technology to do this! We are now at a point where we can rapidly scale the use of algae bioreactors to remove the CO2 and NOx and SOx from any fossil fues combustion emissions. This is news to many people, and if you haven’t heard about this technology you sould check out what the PondTech company is doing in Canada. Believe it or not, this technology is easy to scale and is actually profitable given the value of the algae that is produced as a biproduct. Using this technology we can remove the emissions of all the fossil fuel burning generators, heating plants, cement kilns, and even steel mills. 

And fifth, we need to deploy effective strategies for reducing the concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere, and to my mind, the most effective and powerful strategy for doing this will be to reforest huge areas of our planet as quickly as possible, while at the same time stopping the on-going clear-cutting of large areas of forest that is now happening all around the world. We also need to look for innovative ways to increase the forest cover in our cities and suburban communities as well. Indeed, if you are looking for ways to make a difference, for ways to make a contribution to our collective responsibility to meet the challenges of the Twent First Century Imperative, planting trees is a great place to start!

Is the environmental damage caused by us repairable? Can we heal and regenerate the biosphere after all we have done to it?

Yes, and No! Over the past century we have been responsible for the extinction of hundreds of species of plants and animals that we will never see again, and many scientists now assert that we are now in the midst of and causing the sixth great extinction. Having said this, nature, or biology, is a very powerful force, and if we can pull back from climate change disaster, then I think we have a chance of saving ourselves and our biosphere from it changing into something that we will no longer be able to inhabit. As mentioned in my answer to your last question, I think one of our most powerful tools for helping nature to restore itself, will be widescale and intense reforestation. Forests not only suck CO2 out of the air but they are the homes for most of the species that live on land. A few months ago, the Thomas Crowther Lab in ETH Zurich published an article in Science Magazine saying that there was space on the planet that was not otherwise inhabited by us that could be planted with 1.2 Trillion trees, and that this scale of reforestation had the potential to remove a decade’s worth of CO2 emissions from the atmosphere. That’s very significant and very promising. 

What, in your opinion, can our readers do to help undo the damage already done to the earth and its ecosystems?

Well, I know that the typical answer to this question would include suggesting that we try using public transport and bicycles instead of cars, recycle materials like glass and plastics, and eat less red meat, all of which I believe are good things to do. But none of them are going to move the needle on this problem. Personally, I think the three most important things people can do are: First, plant trees, pay others to plant trees, and push your local government to reduce deforestation in your communities if it is happening. Second, understand and be part of shifting to the electrical energy economy that we will need to use zero carbon electricity in the future. So if you are going to buy a car, make sure it is an electric car. If you are going to do home renovations or buy a house, then make sure it can be electrically heated. And third, support the increase of density in your community because increasing density reduces per capita emissions.

What is going to be the consequences of climate change for us in the long run?

The bad news is that we only have ten years to make the changes we need to how we are now living on the planet and pull back from the brink of climate change disaster. But the very good news is that we have all the technologies and all the resources we need to deal with climate change if we can get our act together and do it. But time is running out. We need to act and we need to act now.