ACT – Action on Climate Team at Simon Fraser University (SFU) helps organizations and communities embed low carbon resilience (LCR) approaches and nature-based solutions into their planning and operations. Founded in 2006, ACT was the first university-based think tank in North America dedicated solely to climate change adaptation. Today, it pursues climate action research for practice using the lens and approach of LCR. ACT has an established and growing network of cross-sectoral partners that help to co-create effective policies, strategies and investments to systemically advance climate resilience and reduce greenhouse gas pollution, while advancing other sustainability priorities across sectors and scales.
Alison Shaw is the executive director of ACT and a climate change and sustainability specialist with over two decades of experience leading climate change and sustainability science and policy research in the academy and in practice through her consulting company FlipSide Sustainability. Currently, her work with ACT is focused on developing and accelerating LCR planning approaches and strategies across areas of decision-making and governance. LCR refers to a step change in climate action that coordinates and mainstreams adaptation (climate resilience) and mitigation (emissions reduction) in strategy, policy, planning and decision-making processes, while also ensuring climate actions multi-task to advance other social, economic and environmental priorities.
From 2018 to 2021, ACT initiated research-to-practice approaches through the Integrated Climate Action in B.C. Communities Initiative. This three-year initiative co-created LCR pathways with 10 partner communities across the province. Throughout the project, ACT published a series of resources and toolkits to support an already-developed network of cross-sector organizations ready to take meaningful and achievable climate action. This piece of research-for-practice work has earned her recognition in the public and private sectors as a resource for how to apply effective, integrated climate and sustainability solutions.
Working with local governments and consultants, Shaw and collaborators have identified opportunities to embed LCR in climate planning, community planning, asset management and corporate strategy.
We spoke with Shaw about her work with the ACT team at SFU.
What are some of the projects ACT is currently working on?
We have had such tremendous success with and interest in our LCR planning approaches and tools—identifying climate action strategies that multi-task—that we are trying to keep up with the demand for resources. Currently in the pipeline are resources and tools relating to:
- The LCR business case—investigating how to make a case for adaptation and resilience spending now to avoid magnitude greater costs into the future;
- An LCR Strategies and Indicators report that can be used as a reference to support accelerated climate action planning and implementation; and
- An LCR and the Sustainable Development Goals report, showcasing the opportunities to use systemic climate action, and decisions about resilience and zero-carbon targets to advance more effective, resilient and sustainable investment across the 16 other areas of SDG research, policy, and planning. Stay tuned!
We are also excited to be launching the Natural Solutions Initiative 2021-2023 (NSI). ACT is working with research and practice partners to synthesize the great work being done on nature-based solutions (NbS) internationally. NbS is a flagship LCR approach that reduces climate risks and emissions while advancing other priorities such as biodiversity, equity, health and well-being and cost savings.
The value of protecting, restoring and engineering NbS is valued, but is consistently underestimated due to disciplinary siloes across four challenge areas: climate change, biodiversity, equity and justice, and service delivery. The NSI aims to develop a more coherent and systemic framework for scholars, practitioners, leaders and decision-makers to apply when accounting for the multiple values that natural and nature-based systems can play. The goal is not to quantify nature, but to better understand the benefits and trade-offs that natural systems already provide and to more effectively harness their value.
For example, planting trees and vegetation in urban neighbourhoods mitigates the urban heat island effect and can be prioritized as an equitable adaptation strategy for low-income neighbourhoods. Surrounding forests and creeks naturally absorb and retain water, minimizing flood risks. They also support biodiversity and carbon storage and sequestration, all of which will be increasingly valuable over time.
We are excited about working with partners to apply this framework in practice across different scales of NbS action—watershed, community, neighbourhood and building scales. The goal is to promote what Indigenous communities have known and held dear for time immemorial: working with nature—protecting natural systems and engineering our built environment to promote these systems, will lead to far more resilience and sustainability under rapidly changing conditions.
What are some of the challenges facing B.C. communities and organizations when it comes to taking climate action?
To date, climate action has been siloed. Many public and private sector actors have been focusing on their isolated emissions sources without paying adequate attention to both the impacts of climate change, and the influence of these changes over time on their strategies and investments. Effective adaptive responses, account for the multiple hazards of projected climate changes and prioritize strategies that also reduce emissions, preventing further impact on global emissions profiles, and minimizing future climate impacts.
Instead of focusing on one or the other, the LCR approach demands more systemic thinking. LCR takes as a foundation that both adaptation and mitigation responses aim to minimize the impacts of climate change over the short and long-term. And, by undertaking actions to minimize climate risk and reduce emissions we must also advance other social, environmental and economic co-benefits, quickly shifting communities toward resilience and sustainability. For example, the strategy to increase more electric vehicles still promotes car-oriented development in our communities, neglecting the land-use changes needed to promote walkable, bikeable communities—which also promotes pollution abatement, increases health and livability, and has the potential to increase social connection and community engagement.
Through the LCR planning process we have found that by bringing decision-makers from across disciplines, departments and sectors together to learn about regional climate impacts and to co-identify and prioritize vulnerabilities and risks and emissions reduction opportunities, it becomes easier to identify synergies, trade-offs and co-benefits. This systemic thinking and coherence is crucial to facilitate future-oriented decision-making.
All organizations suffer from the siloed effect. It is equally true and imperative that all must—with urgency—equip their leaders, decision-makers and partners with the best available climate change knowledge to anticipate climate impacts, lower emissions and prioritize next steps together. This is how we will accelerate the innovation needed to address the scale of the climate crisis. Siloed thinking will not work—we need systemic solutions that multi-solve.
How can the LCR Planning Handbook— and other ACT tools—help B.C. communities and organizations take climate action?
ACT’s LCR Handbook is a guide for how to streamline limited resources and capacities from what is typically two planning processes—adaptation and mitigation—into one. It also crucially advances the idea that climate vulnerability, risk and emissions reductions should be every departments’ mandate ranging from strategy and finance to planning and operations. The handbook showcases an effective sequence to follow to build cross-departmental, cross-sectoral awareness, and to co-evaluate climate risks and emissions to identify actions that multi-solve. The process has been effective in building shared responsibility and accountability for implementation as well.
For decision processes, rather than planning processes, ACT's LCR Decision Tool guides leaders and decision-makers on ways to embed three additional decision criteria: first, does the decision reduce climate risk, second, does it reduce emissions, and third, what other social, environmental and economic co-benefits does it advance? The goal is to embed climate data and action into all decisions and everything we do. Doing so will help our organizations, communities, institutions and societies manage the avoidable impacts of climate change, while also supporting international efforts to avoid the unmanageable by shifting toward zero-emissions before mid-century.
As a climate researcher and advocate, how do you remain hopeful about our ability to mitigate and adapt to climate change?
Having been in this area of research and practice for over 20 years, I often pay homage to those scholars and advocates that have come before me, many of whom worked on the original Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment reports, and even earlier. I think of how over 100 years ago, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius documented his findings that showed how emitting carbon dioxide into a finite atmosphere was very likely to exacerbate what he coined ‘the greenhouse effect’. Thinking about the shoulders I stand on gives me momentum—keeping my head in pioneering approaches and innovative solutions gives me hope. Seeing changes in policy, technology and practice as well as in community planning and development give me hope, as do changes in societal norms related to growth, consumption and concepts of success among the new generations.
In fact, the new generation of professionals and youth that are clamouring to do research, social enterprise and community work in these areas are a reason for hope. Almost 30 years ago, when me and my cohort chose to be educated in environmental studies, environment was a very dirty word. We were viewed as critical theorists or scholarly rebels, who were too closely traversing the boundaries between science, politics and advocacy. Today, educational institutions are considered negligent if they are not teaching on these topics, encouraging interdisciplinary knowledge creation and mobilizing knowledge and practical solutions across diverse sectors. There are millions of students worldwide being trained in these areas, and these are the people that mark a tidal shift and will have transformative impact. Working at SFU—an educational institution that is taking these issues very seriously in research, curriculum, collaborations and partnerships, gives me a lot of hope!