By Cyndee Miller
It’s Earth Day and this year’s event comes with an even greater level of urgency—and action. Two-thirds of people say climate change is a “global emergency,” per a survey by United Nations. And some high-profile government and business leaders are stepping up. The United States rejoined the Paris climate agreement, and after unveiling its bold Green Deal in 2019, the European Union announced yesterday it’s increasing the number of companies required to publish environmental and social data. On the business side, General Motors proclaimed it plans an all-electric vehicle future by 2035 and BASF is sharing its map to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. While acknowledging Asian companies have lagged on investing in environment, social and governance efforts, Loh Boon Chye, chief executive of the Singapore Exchange, called 2020 an “inflection point.”
Of course, turning that sort of big thinking into reality requires an exceptional mix of capital, commitment, creativity—and projects.
Consider this your whirlwind tour:
As you might expect, there’s been serious action on the renewable energy front. Some are small-but-smart efforts, like the Spanish city of Seville launching a biogas pilot, turning its abundance of oranges into the power ingredient for clean energy at one of its wastewater treatment plants. And some are larger. Campos del Sol, number 43 on PMI’s Most Influential Projects 2020 list, is a US$320 million solar plant under construction in Chile. At full capacity, the 382-megawatt installation will generate enough energy per year to help slash annual carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 900,000 metric tons. That’s the same as taking nearly 200,000 cars off the road for a year—and could put the country a whole lot closer to meeting its goal to be carbon neutral by 2050.
Project leaders are also mobilizing to reimagine urban development in more eco-friendly ways. Danish design studio C.F. Møller Architects is working on Storkeengen. What’s especially interesting about this project is that it balances needs on three fronts: urban planning to satisfy the city’s expansion needs, climate-change adaptation to help mitigate the impact of flooding and nature conservation to stabilize the local ecosystem.
Another approach that’s gaining traction is nature-based solutions, which promote climate resilience in urban areas by tapping into nature itself. One example is CityAdapt, a project by the United Nations Environment Programme. In El Salvador, the group reduced surface runoff from a coffee plantation, which can cause erosion and flooding in the ecosystem. Here, too, the project wasn’t just a good move for the local environment, it also improved coffee productivity, meeting local business needs. (For more on that one, check out the Projectified interview with Leyla Zelaya, the national coordinator for the CityAdapt project in San Salvador, El Salvador.)
A core piece of any urban development is mobility, and project leaders are making big, bold moves here as well. One of the biggest changes: bike and pedestrian paths—and lots of them.
Even fashion, not exactly known for its high sustainability cred, is coming around. Ecoluxe designer Stella McCartney is working with Google on a pilot project using data analytics and machine learning to give brands a more comprehensive view of their supply chain, with the goal to better measure the impacts of its raw material sourcing on air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, land use and water scarcity. It’s not just the posh designers, either. Fast-fashion giant H&M launched Looop, billed as the world’s first in-store garment-to-garment recycling system. And footwear giant Nike is embedding sustainability into its product development projects. Look no further than Space Hippie, a line of eco-friendly sneakers made from yarns containing at least 85 percent rPoly made of recycled plastic water bottles, T-shirts and yarn scraps.
We can’t talk about Earth Day without mentioning some of the amazing projects to protect and preserve the plants and animals that we share our planet with. (They also happen to be some of my very favorite projects to follow.)
Case in point: Elephant World Cultural Courtyard, a sanctuary designed to bring the Kui people and their elephants back to their homeland in northeast Thailand. Launched in collaboration between the Surin Provincial Administrative Organization and architecture firm Bangkok Project Studio, the space spans 8,130 square meters (87,510 square feet) and includes a programming space, elephant hospital, temple, graveyard for elephants and museum dedicated to showcasing the Kui culture.
The need for these kinds of projects has only been accelerated by the climate crisis. When wildfires consumed half of Kangaroo Island, they decimated one of the world’s most iconic biodiversity hubs. Tens of thousands of creatures—from kangaroos to cockatoos—were left stranded in a barren wasteland without food, water or shelter. As the smoke cleared, rescue teams raced in to launch the Kangaroo Island Recovery, number 11 on our list of Most Influential Projects of 2020. Now the team is out to minimize the impact of future bushfires by planning buffer zones, fire breaks and small-scale ecological burnoffs. “If we can protect lots of small patches, it gives these threatened species a greater chance to survive a bushfire in the future,” says Pat Hodgens, a fauna ecologist at Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife.
Last year around this time, I wrote about prospects for a green economic recovery: With the right investments in the right projects led by the right people, we can conquer the coronavirus, rebuild our fragile economy and protect our planet—all at once. Now I had no idea we’d still be in that same situation, but I still believe that’s the path forward.
And on Earth Day this year, it’s worth considering how project leaders can step up and take responsibility for delivering a more sustainable future.