These Students Are Building a Guide to the Climate Crisis

Treehugger goes to school.

Skating at Toronto Metropolitan University

Lloyd Alter

Treehugger goes to school every winter when I take all my obsessions about carbon emissions, Passivhaus, and healthy materials and teach them to students of sustainable design at Toronto Metropolitan University.

For the last two years, my students have been assigned research papers on aspects of the climate crisis, in an attempt to produce a sort of encyclopedia of carbon. Some of these subjects are big, such as the impact of different greenhouse gases. Some are smaller, such as the impact of pets, bitcoin, or the future of hydrogen-powered airplanes. They all had to follow the same format: an abstract, the paper, references, a short biography, and a 5-minute recorded video presentation explaining it.

The students are in their third and fourth years at the School of Interior Design and The Creative School, so about half of my students come from journalism, environmental studies, photography, fashion communications, new media, and more. It's a great mix of talented students from all over the world.

It is all very much a work in progress, with 160 submissions in 17 divisions so far that vary in quality, and it will take some time to edit, fact-check, and pull it all together. But at some point, I hope it will be a useful reference document. We have just started uploading it all to but I thought I would share some of the papers here because it is such interesting stuff.

Building Design: Retrofit vs. New

This is probably the biggest section in the guide, covering aspects of green building, from "architecture without extraction" to "electrify everything." A sample:

Rennie Taylor, who is in his fourth year studying photography, writes: "What is better for the environment, retrofitting old structures or starting from scratch with new construction? This paper explores the issue of carbon emissions within buildings, which account for 30% of all carbon emissions in the world, and how to decarbonize structures both new and old."

Clothing and Textiles: Microplastics

Fashion, clothing, and textiles are one of the most interesting sections so far. There is a course called Fashion Communications at The Creative School, and, wow, can they communicate.

Alicia Lam, a fourth-year studying environment and urban sustainability with a minor in public relations, writes: "Plastic pollution is an environmental issue that has been understood for decades now, but in recent years microplastics present in clothing and textiles have emerged causing concern within this industry. Microplastics are tiny plastic particles, stemming from surrounding environments or from materials breaking down from larger plastics."

Dealing With Climate: Environmental Impacts of Pets

This section is a grab bag, really everything that affects our footprints, from Fido to Stanley Jevons, from decoupling to regrowth. Samples:

Logan Brown-DaSilva, an environment and urban sustainability student in his final year, writes: "In Canada, there are about 7.9 million cats and 5.9 million dogs, with about 93.6 million cats and 77.5 million dogs in the U.S. This paper uses cats and dogs as a way to show the environmental impact pets are having on the environment. This paper includes information on how much CO2 equivalent cats and dogs emit and the impacts of pet food on the environment."

Diet and Design: Do Small Kitchens Make Good Cities?

Diet, food, and agriculture are a major chunk of our carbon footprint. Much of it is affected by the design of the distribution systems, the way we store it, and even the way we cook it. I have been talking about how small kitchens make good cities for years, based on a model kitchen designed by Toronto architect Donald Chong. Of course, I had to assign it as a topic.

Madeleine Jung-Grennan, a fourth-year studying interior design after obtaining a degree in business management, writes: "In 2007, Architect Donald Chong developed a concept called, 'Small Fridges Make Better Cities,' and it essentially proposed that if we could shop locally more often, use smaller fridges, and walk to the store instead of drive, it would open up our neighborhoods to less traffic and more lively and connected communities. This paper discusses the benefits of this idea and its downfalls, exploring why this only works if you live in a walkable neighborhood with all your necessities nearby."

Regenerative Agriculture

On a more serious note in diet and agriculture:

Mary-Elizabeth Chin, currently a third-year student studying environmental and urban sustainability, writes: "Regenerative agriculture is an approach to agricultural practices that acts holistically, by functioning like a natural ecosystem. Some examples of regenerative agricultural practices include no-tilling, focusing on the health of soil ecology, and making crops have a polyculture increasing biodiversity. Regenerative agriculture considers the holistic relationship between carbon, nutrients, plants, animals, and soil, to foster a system that can provide food security and combat climate change."

Transportation: Cargo Bike Evolution

When you have a class full of sharp students, you always learn something! I particularly liked this presentation where I learned how cargo bikes used to be very common for deliveries: "One of the reasons why cargo bikes were so popular among the retailers as a means of goods distribution was due to the nature of the retail business itself. The retailer was a salesperson mediating between the customer and the object. And as the mediator, the retailer would also usually be expected to deliver as well as supply."

People didn't have cars, so the big stores all had massive delivery fleets.

Eka Jeladze, a third-year student of the integrated digital program at the School of Image Arts, writes: "This paper talks about the evolution of cargo bikes and the reasons why cargo bikes are seeing a resurgence in today’s world in the everyday lives of regular citizens, as well as in the logistical systems."

Design: Fast Furniture

Most people are aware of the problems with fast fashion, but fast furniture is also a problem. We used to buy stuff that lasts, but these days it's cheaper to buy a new sofa at IKEA than it is to hire a mover to relocate a big heavy old one from Grandma's house.

Megan Friedrich, a fashion communications student who specializes in sustainability, illustration, costume design, and art direction, writes: "Fast furniture has become one of the most flawed retail practices over the past sixty years. Today, furniture companies reach for cheap disposable materials instead of resilient and sustainable choices. Fast furniture has been proven to have several negative impacts on the environment, including overproducing carbon, destroying forests, and creating waste."

Carbon: Carbon Inequality

We'll end with a more serious subject, perhaps the hardest problem we face in dealing with the carbon crisis: the unfairness of it all. The fact that "the richest 1% of humans were responsible for more CO2 emissions than half of the world’s population combined" and that "nearly half of the 50 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions in 2019 were emitted by the top 10%."

Wandia Muchiri, a fourth-year student from Nairobi, Kenya, studying in the interior design program, writes: "To better understand what carbon inequality is, we’ll first be looking at what is known as the carbon budget. Then we’ll discuss what the issue is with carbon inequality, how it affects the global population both geographically and socio-economically, and why it should inform climate change policies."

last lecture in person
Lloyd Alter doing his last live lecture before the pandemic, back in 2020.

Lloyd Alter

In March 2020, I delivered my last class from a lecture hall on campus. I started recording them because clearly something was going to happen with Covid.

In 2021, I couldn't assign group projects or building tours; it was all virtual and my students were all over the world. I thought of this carbon crisis document as a sort of plague project that might be a way for students to work individually wherever they were, working toward a collective end, a useful document that is the sum of all their work.

This is all a work in progress. But in the end, I hope something good came out of all this. Watch continuing progress at The Carbon Crisis.

View Article Sources
  1. Taylor, Rennie. "Building Design: Retrofit vs New." Carbon Crisis.

  2. Lam, Alicia. "Clothing and Textiles: Microplastics." Carbon Crisis.

  3. Brown-DaSilva, Logan. "Dealing with Climate: Environmental Impacts of Pets." Carbon Crisis.

  4. Jung-Grennan, Madeleine. "Diet: Environment and Urban Sustainability." Carbon Crisis.

  5. Chin, Mary-Elizabeth. "Dealing with Climate: Regenerative Agriculture." Carbon Crisis.

  6. Jeladze, Eka. "Transportation: Cargo Bike Evolution." Carbon Crisis.

  7. Friedrich, Megan. "Design: Fast Furniture." Carbon Crisis.

  8. Muchiri, Wandia. "Carbon: Carbon Inequality." Carbon Crisis.