climate change first responders

Climate change first responders speak out

Engineers and physicians emphasize public health and safety concerns
Monday, December 10, 2018
By Barbara Carss

Engineers and physicians have become climate change first responders as they deal with the fallout from extreme weather events and strategize how to prepare for the next one. In recent separate but complementary presentations, they underscored some of the most worrisome vulnerabilities they see — framed through the lens of their professional concerns and responsibilities for public health and safety.

“My whole interest in this process is to make buildings more durable,” Gerald Genge, an engineer and building science expert who is leading the task of converting CSA S478 Guideline on Durability in Buildings into a standard to be referenced in Canada’s 2020 National Building Code, told attendees of The Buildings Show at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre in late November. “The loads aren’t constant anymore. With that sort of scenario, it becomes obvious we have to start thinking about designing, not for yesterday, but maybe for tomorrow.”

A coalition of health care practitioners gathering at Toronto’s York University for the release of a 2018 international report and Canada-specific recommendations made a similar case. The Lancet Countdown on health and climate change tracks 43 different indicators — many with crossover insight into the built environment’s performance and use of resources and the productivity of the labour force it houses — drawing myriad links between environmental stress and acute, chronic and indirect health repercussions.

“As physicians, we’re mostly dealing with the downstream problems. That’s what turns a lot of us on to advocacy,” observed Dr. Sandy Buchman, president-elect of the Canadian Medical Association. “We’ve got to get the message out that climate change isn’t just something that happens elsewhere. It’s the public health issue of our time.”

Data is central to climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies to support predictive analytics, monitor progress on reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and identify where more attention is needed. So, too, are professional alliances, across disciplines and beyond partisanship.

“This is a big umbrella and it invites a visionary and also a very practical approach to problem solving,” submitted Dr. James Orbinski, director of the Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health Research at York University and a Nobel Prize winner as the former president of Médicins sans Frontières/Doctors without Borders.

Factoring climate change parameters into building durability

The past is no longer a reliable gauge of what buildings will have to withstand in the future so work is in progress to replace building code assumptions based on historical data of typical conditions for rain, snow, wind, freeze-thaw cycles etc. However, looking away from what Genge calls a “50-year rear view mirror” is a complex undertaking, necessitating global coordination of scientists and government agencies.

“We don’t know the answers yet as to what future loads are going to be,” he said, in explaining why predictive data won’t be fully incorporated into the National Building Code until 2025. As an interim step for 2020, the updated S478 durability standard will focus on the building envelope, calling for consideration of eight climate change parameters: temperature; precipitation; snow; wind; wind-driven rain; freeze-thaw cycles; severe ice storms; and UV radiation.

A new urgency to address climate change may have some positive spinoffs in prompting more attention to other aspects of durability related to deterioration of building systems and materials. The existing guideline was incorporated into the Ontario Building Code more than 20 years ago and Genge, currently president of Pretium Engineering Inc., has been a leading researcher on the structural sufficiency of buildings as they age.

“We know the degree of resistance is going to change. We see it happening all the time in every type of building we are looking at,” he said.

That’s a topic of particular interest for building owners and managers, as evidenced by attendance at a subsequent Buildings Show panel discussion and Q&A with three engineers discussing common capital maintenance and repair issues, but, until now, it hasn’t necessarily been a ranking priority at the design stage. There are currently no mandated standards in the building code.

“There’s only the CSA guideline and, sadly, it was largely ignored,” Genge said. “It was done and it was put on the shelf and it was probably one of the best kept secrets out there. Hopefully, we are going to change that.”

Notably, the revised standard will include an obligation for designers to develop durability plans and consider the building in the long term. New tables with values for the service life of building materials and components will guide them.

Thus far, researchers and regulators have the best insight into likely temperature and precipitation trends. They are seeing evidence, but continuing to fill in information gaps in all the climate change parameters.

Canada’s vast land mass and varying climatic zones complicate the task. Generally: there has been a more pronounced increase in winter than summer temperatures; there are more frequent severe rainfalls; and snowfall has lessened in western Canada and increased in the Atlantic provinces where it’s accumulating through severe storm events rather than steady increments.

While more data is needed to underpin modelling of wind and wind-driven rain, some of the readily apparent conclusions have clear repercussions for existing buildings and streetscapes. Genge predicts there will be lucrative new markets for abating pedestrian level wind tunnel effect and window upgrades.

“If we keep designing windows and window wall systems as we do today, they are just going to leak,” he asserted.

Engineers dealing with the existing building stock concur, as they point to the prevalence of issues on the east side of buildings (in south and southwest Ontario) affecting windows, facades and balconies. “That’s tied to our climate — sideways rain in the spring and the fall, rain out of the east — and tied to the fact that a lot of our buildings have face-sealed windows,” Daniel Martis, a principal and project manager with Morrison Hershfield, told Buildings Show attendees.

Researchers will also assess how higher temperatures influence air buoyancy and stack effect and the resulting consequences for ventilation design and fire safety. In addition, ice storms are expected to create heavier physical loads on flat surfaces and hazards if/when they fall, while more UV radiation could damage and speed the deterioration of building components.

“We can’t guess. We need better models,” Genge said.

Health, environment and economic interests overlap

Contributors to and endorsers of the Lancet Countdown similarly acknowledge that there are still many information gaps to fill in its ambitious slate of indicators. These are divided into five key categories, examining: environmental and health impacts; adaptation measures; mitigation actions; financial and investment trends; and public/political engagement.

The newly released 2018 iteration of the Countdown is part of the international medical news and research journal’s planetary health initiative, which has already forged a broad coalition of health practitioners, researchers and policy specialists affiliated with medical and academic institutions, government agencies and non-governmental organizations worldwide. Supporting Canadian groups, including the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Public Health Association and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, also released affiliated Canada-specific recommendations in tandem with showcasing the findings and recommendations of the global report,

“The Countdown is really about tracking progress,” explained Ian Hamilton, a lecturer and senior researcher at University College London’s Energy Institute and co-investigator with Research Councils UK’s Centre for Energy Epidemiology, who participated in the York University event.

The expansive range of indicators cover many interests that the commercial real estate and facilities management sectors share, such as: carbon intensity of the energy supply; infrastructure resilience; environmentally exposed or detrimental investments; carbon pricing; and corporate engagement in health and climate change. Notably, the report’s eight finance indicators are framed as “four broad themes: the economic costs of climate change; investing in a low-carbon economy; economic benefits of tackling climate change; and pricing greenhouse-gas emissions from fossil fuels” — a statement that could have been pulled from innumerable recent commercial real estate analyses.

Ironically, Ontario receives a share of the credit for an $11 billion increase in global revenue derived from carbon pricing in 2017, which, in turn, increased the portion of global carbon price revenue directed to reducing emissions.

“This increase is driven by a combination of increasing carbon pricing coverage in 2017 (with the introduction of the Ontario, Canada, emissions trading system, and carbon taxes in Alberta, Canada, in Chile, and in Colombia), an increase in average prices, and an increasing share of emissions trading system permits bought at auction (rather than distributed for free),” the Lancet Countdown executive summary states. “The most marked change is a shift of approximately 4 per cent of total revenue from revenue recycling to mitigation. This is in part driven by Colombia and particularly Ontario, which have committed to allocate all revenues from their newly introduced instruments to further mitigation action.”

The July 2018 termination of Ontario’s cap-and-trade system will now skew those numbers in a different direction. Nevertheless, adaptation and mitigation proponents suggest the “big umbrella” of health could be an antidote to rising partisanship.

“Health is one of the big motivators that countries can actually get behind,” Hamilton maintained.

“It’s not about pointing the finger. It’s about: How do we change?” agreed Ian Culbert, executive director of the Canadian Public Health Association. “Everyone is going to have the same health impacts.”

Genge points to the Montreal Protocol for the elimination of ozone-depleting substances — an effort launched in 1989 — as a hopeful example of what global commitment and coordination can achieve. “The ozone layer is actually healing,” he noted.

Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management.

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