Schulich’s McEwen Building receives OAA 2020 Design Excellence Award

The Rob and Cheryl McEwen Graduate Study & Research Building at the Schulich School of Business, York University, has been named a recipient of The Ontario Association of Architects (OAA) 2020 Design Excellence Awards.

“We are very pleased to have external peer review confirm that we have achieved a very high standard of accomplishment for the McEwen Building, as this was always our intent,” said James McKellar, professor of real estate and infrastructure, and associate dean, external relations.

Rob and Cheryl McEwen Graduate Study & Research Building

The biennial OAA Awards program recognizes and celebrates building projects that demonstrate architectural excellence, creativity and sustainable design. A jury of design and architecture experts selected 10 winners. Each of the 10 award-winning projects will be showcased later this month on OAA’s YouTube channel. Members of the public will be able to vote for their personal favourite and the top selection will receive a People’s Choice Award.

Designed by the international architectural firm Baird Sampson Neuert Architects, the Rob and Cheryl McEwen Graduate Study & Research Building is one of the most environmentally sustainable academic buildings in North America. The $50-million building has a number of leading-edge technical features at the forefront of environmental sustainability, including a 27-metre high solar chimney for radiant heating and cooling, a green roof and rainwater recapture system.

This year’s award recipients will be honoured during a special online Celebration of Excellence taking place on Oct. 1.

For more information, please

York research calculates that humans have overshot sustainable use of Earth’s resources

glass planet in a forest with sunshine

As of this past Saturday, humanity has overdrawn its ecological account for the year. Known as Earth Overshoot Day, Aug. 22 marked the day when humans will have used as much from the Earth as the planet can renew in a year. York University produces the data that informs this calculation.

The good news is that Earth Overshoot Day this year arrived 21 days later than in 2019. Coronavirus-induced lockdowns around the world have reduced wood harvests and the burning of fossil fuels. Even so, the world will demand more from nature than can be renewed this year.

York University has partnered with the Global Footprint Network to calculate the ecological footprint and biocapacity of every nation on the planet. This data is needed to determine Earth Overshoot Day.

“At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us the true scale of our global interconnectedness, we have an opportunity to leverage partnership and collaboration to overcome complex global challenges like inequality, COVID-19, and of course, climate change,” said President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda L. Lenton. “York is proud to provide leadership through an international research collaboration like the Ecological Footprint initiative that helps countries determine whether they are on track to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals, and gives us the data to calculate Earth Overshoot Day.”

A message from Lenton for Earth Overshoot Day can be found on YouTube.

Eric Miller
Eric Miller

Eric Miller leads a team of researchers and graduate students in York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies to produce the National Footprint Accounts for the Footprint Data Foundation, a Canadian not-for-profit organization.

Miller and his team measure the carbon footprint, the amount of built-up land or urban sprawl, how much forest is used for timber and paper, how much cropland and pasture is used to produce food and the amount of seafood fished every year. These all add up to humanity’s ecological footprint.

Since 1970, humanity’s ecological footprint has overshot the capacity of nature to sustain it. The resulting ecological debt has been an accumulation of carbon pollution in the atmosphere and declines in biodiversity.

“As we emerge from the pandemic, we must rebuild our economies for well-being and sustainability,” Miller said. “We need regenerative economies that use natural resources at rates that can be sustained.”

York’s measurement of the Ecological Footprint helps to inform individuals, communities, and governments to make better decisions on how to better manage resources, reduce economic risk and improve well-being.

COVID-19 pandemic prompts rescheduling of COP26

Professor Idil Boran on a COP25 panel_image by C Hoicka
Professor Idil Boran (second from the left) hosted a panel at COP25 panel. Image courtesy of Professor Christina Hoicka

Since March 2020, there has been much discussion about what the COVID-19 pandemic means for other global problems facing humankind, especially climate change. The Secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has responded with a call for action for a climate-resilient recovery from COVID-19.

Professors Dawn Bazely (York University’s Designated Contact Point for the UNFCCC) and Idil Boran (annual Head of Delegation since 2012) have been closely monitoring the situation and will be keeping the York University community regularly informed via YFile.

COP Participants at the 25th conference of the parties
COP Participants at the 25th conference of the parties. Photo courtesy Photo credit: UNFCCC photo desk

The UNFCCC has rescheduled its key meetings. The 26th Annual Conference of the Parties (COP26) originally planned for November 2020 in Glasgow, Scotland, has been postponed until November 2021. Details are available here.

York University holds observer status as a member of the Research and Independent Non-Governmental Organizations (RINGO) constituency. Since 2009, when Bazely obtained Observer Status for York University, she has issued an annual call for expressions of interest from members of the York University community interested in attending the Conference of the Parties (COP) to form the annual delegation. This year’s call has been postponed until summer 2021.

Professor Idil Boran on a COP25 panel_image by C Hoicka
Professor Idil Boran (second from the left) hosted a panel at COP25. Image courtesy of Professor Christina Hoicka

By joining York University’s UNFCCC COP delegation, which changes in its composition annually, an attendee at the COP is granted access credentials. Although the number of credential spots have varied since 2009, they are limited, due to the demands from the growing number of accredited observer organizations. Consequently, not all students, faculty, staff and other members of the York community with an interest in attending a COP can be accommodated. Nevertheless, Bazely and Boran try their best to give as many people as possible a chance to experience the annual two-week COP, for the benefit of their research interests.

The York University protocol for participation in the delegation consists of five steps:

  1. Call for expressions of interest in joining the York delegation, published in YFile.
  2. Submission of an expression of interest outlining the applicant’s research plan.
  3. Selection based on the attendance quota [availability of spots] granted by the UNFCCC and relevance of COP attendance for the applicant’s research.
  4. Prior to attendance: participation by the applicant in training about best practices and UNFCCC code of conduct (mandatory for first-time attendees).
  5. After attendance: post-participation report and participation in the debrief to the York University community.

Updates on COP26 will be posted in future issues of YFile.

New book explores interwoven areas of energy, environment and the economy

glass planet in a forest with sunshine - Usa map
glass planet in a forest with sunshine
Hassan Qudrat-Ullah

A new book co-edited by York University Professor Hassan Qudrat-Ullah and Muhammad Asif from Glasgow Caledonian University addresses the vital and interwoven areas of energy, environment and the economy within the field of sustainability research.

Dynamics of Energy, Environment and Economy: A Sustainability Perspective (Springer, 2020) explores issues such as energy security, depleting fossil fuel reserves, novel energy technologies and climate change, as well as the dynamic global response from the perspective of policy, technology and economics.

Dynamics of Energy, Environment and Economy: A Sustainability Perspective
Dynamics of Energy, Environment and Economy: A Sustainability Perspective

“Unified by the common goal of making better decisions in the sustainable production and consumption of energy, this book provides unique and innovative insights and modeling-based solutions for sustainable energy policy design and assessment,” said Qudrat-Ullah. “Innovation solutions to a variety of issues in dealing with energy-environment-economy interaction are provided with a focus on energy availability, adequacy, affordability and acceptability.”

According to the authors, the book examines successful integrative solutions in the discourse on complex climate change and energy dynamics; includes methods, techniques and perspectives for socio-economic and environmentally oriented energy supply systems; and features “sustainability insights” including novel solutions for sustainable performance through energy production and consumption systems.

The text will serve as reference book for upper-level undergraduate and graduate students, researchers, academics, policy makers, NGOs and developmental sector professionals within related fields.

Dynamics of Energy, Environment and Economy: A Sustainability Perspective is available for purchase online.

York University named one of Canada’s Greenest Employers eight years in a row

Image shows a hand holding a pine cone against a lush backdrop of greenery
Image shows a hand holding a pine cone against a lush backdrop of greenery

York University has been named one of Canada’s Greenest Employers for 2020, an honour it has achieved eight consecutive times for initiatives such as sourcing sustainable food options.

More than 30 per cent of the food York purchases is local, sustainable-certified, Fair Trade or Rainforest Alliance-certified. In addition, it has its own 2,000-square-foot community garden on the main campus.

York has integrated its commitment to sustainability into its research, teaching and decision making, including linking it to our understanding of our ecosystem with our Social Procurement Policy,” said Carol McAulay, vice-president finance and administration. “We have established a framework of values and principles to advance the long-term health and vitality of our communities and to recognize that our procurement processes can have positive and sustainable social impact.

The title of Canada’s Greenest Employers recognizes national leaders in developing not only a culture of environmental awareness, but exceptional sustainability initiatives.

Each year, the editors of Canada’s Top 100 Employers choose the organizations that will be named Canada’s Greenest Employers based on the development of unique environmental initiatives and programs, their success rate in reducing the organization’s own environmental footprint and in engaging employees in these environmental efforts. They also look at how closely the institution’s public identity is linked to these sustainable initiatives, and their ability to attract new employees and clients as a result.

Additional York sustainability highlights

• York’s Social Procurement Policy provides unique opportunities to reinforce the University’s vision and policies, as well as its role as an anchor institution to create a responsible and sustainable supply chain process, 

• It has built a culture to embrace social procurement at the University while leveraging its purchasing power to benefit local economies. 

• The University offers more than 500 courses related to sustainability and the environment across several faculties.

• Its Eco-Campus in Costa Rica is next to the Las Nubes Forest Reserve, part of the largest rainforest ecosystem in Central America, and is dedicated to education and research on neotropical conservation, eco-health, community well-being and sustainable livelihoods for neighbouring communities.

• In addition to offering a mix of transportation options, York also hosts an annual Bike to York Day, maintains three on-campus bike repair stations, two car-share operations, online carpool-matching and preferred parking for car-poolers, and has two new subway stations connecting the campus to the city.

• York uses PV solar panels, rainwater recapture systems and maintains several green roofs on campus buildings, as well as offering electric vehicle charging stations.

• New buildings are constructed to meet LEED Gold certification and there are LED lighting retrofits, water-saving fixtures, a formal ZeroWaste program, which diverts 68 per cent of waste from the landfill, plus a FreeStuff residence exchange program for students and a battery recycling program,

• York University also holds an annual Earth Day campus clean-up event, a weekly farmers market, an Oasis clothing bank and its print services are Forest Stewardship Council certified for paper sourcing, double-sided printing and advocating the use of e-documents.

Read more about York University’s commitment to sustainability at

Pollution Reporter empowers citizens and addresses environmental data limitations

Smoke coming out of an industrial pipe.
Smoke coming out of an industrial pipe.

Roughly 40 per cent of Canada’s petrochemical production takes place in an area known as Chemical Valley in Sarnia, Ontario. Located on the traditional territory of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, the region is home to an Imperial Oil refinery, one of the oldest facilities of its kind in the world.

That refinery, and the emissions it is responsible for, are the focus of Pollution Reporter, a new mobile app designed by a group of researchers including Reena Shadaan, a PhD candidate in York University’s Faculty of Environmental Studies.

Developed by the Environmental Data Justice Lab at the Technoscience Research Unit (TRU) at the University of Toronto, Pollution Reporter aims to empower citizens by helping them link emissions directly to polluters and potential health harms, and to give community members a simple way to report pollution to the Ontario Spills Action Center. As an Indigenous-led lab guided by the protocols of Indigenous data sovereignty, the TRU doesn’t collect any data from the app.

Pollution Reporter team development members Vanessa Gray, left, Reena Shadaan, Kristen Box, and Michelle Murphy.
Pollution Reporter team members Vanessa Gray, left, Reena Shadaan, Kristen Bos and Michelle Murphy

Pollution Reporter users can search emissions data related to the refinery by pollutant, health category or symptom. This includes under-represented health harms, such as hormone disruption, low-level effects, subclinical impacts (such as feeling a bit foggy), intergenerational effects and persistence in land and bodies, categories that, according to the app developers, are often neglected in government health research but are well-known and felt in communities.

Pollution Reporter aims to give community members a simple way to report pollution to the government
Pollution Reporter aims to give community members a simple way to report pollution to the government

As a research assistant at the TRU and part of the lab’s environmental data justice team, Shadaan co-lead the creation of Pollution Reporter. Her role involved data research and working with an app development company, Reflektor Digital, to turn the team’s vision into reality.

Shadaan has been active in the field of environmental justice, having worked with survivors of the Bhopal gas disaster and focusing her current research on occupational hazards impacting discount nail salon workers, however this is her first time working on an app. She became involved with the TRU after the encouragement of her PhD supervisor, Dayna Scott.

Shadaan says learning how to convey complex information in a simplified way for the app, in contrast to the academic writing she is used to, has been an exciting learning experience, and has strengthened her own understanding of government and industry-produced pollution data.

Previously, those interested in the pollution in their community, or in any region, relied on information from the National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI), a federal government agency responsible for an inventory of the emissions data that companies are required to collect and report annually.

With Pollution Reporter, created as part of a broader environmental justice project called “The Land and the Refinery:Past, Present, and Future,” Shadaan and her colleagues hope to make information about pollution and health harms more accessible, and to make connections between polluters, emissions and potential health impacts more transparent and explicit. Their aim is to highlight industrial and governmental responsibilities for pollution-related harms

The app includes health harms typically overlooked in government research but well-known in communities
The app includes health harms typically overlooked in government research but well-known in communities

Shadaan says that while the NPRI is a helpful resource, the information it contains and the way it is conveyed is limited and inaccessible. Information about hazardous chemicals associated with specific facilities can be found, but she says they often have complex names and lack descriptions of basic functions and effects.

With much of the existing data on pollution and health harms behind paywalls and conveyed in difficult language, Shadaan hopes the app will make understanding chemicals less off-putting. She cites her own example, having recently read about the effects of a chemical that impacted a gland located at the posterior of the ocular globes.

“They could just say it’s behind the eyeball,” Shadaan explained.

Shadaan sees the project, which she and her colleagues began working on in early 2018, as a success so far, but hopes to see it grow. There are plans in the short term to include data from other facilities in Chemical Valley, and eventually to expand beyond the region.

Pollution Reporter can be downloaded for free.

Steering clear of the car on the road to economic recovery

Streetcar in Toronto
Streetcar in Toronto

Patricia Wood, a professor of geography at and co-founder of the City Institute at York University, is worried about growing fear that density is a factor in the spread of COVID-19 and that riding public transit increases the risk of community spread.

“There’s nothing to indicate anywhere that it is unsafe if other precautions are in place,” Wood explains, noting that many transit systems around the world are seeing large ridership numbers as masks, soon to be mandatory on the TTC [Toronto Transit Commission], are provided and distancing measures are put in place.

“But if people think it’s an issue,” says Wood, “If we demonize or fear monger around riding transit, we’re in real trouble.”

Patricia Wood
Patricia Wood

She says significant urban mobility and economic issues will arise if current levels of service funding – reduced to meet decreasing ridership and the financial impacts of the pandemic – are maintained over the long term if commuters are hesitant to ride transit.

“We need to shift our thinking and recognize how essential transit is.”

COVID-19 has altered transportation patterns for individuals, families and entire cities as fewer people are using cars or public transit, leading to reduced service levels and layoffs in transit systems across Canada.

Although exacerbated by the pandemic, many of the challenges facing Toronto’s system predate COVID-19.

The TTC, unlike several other major transit systems around the world, relies heavily on fare box revenue to fund its operating budget, meaning Toronto has been hit especially hard by the significant drop in ridership brought by the pandemic.

Crucially, as a public agency, the TTC isn’t eligible for the federal wage subsidy program, they have faced additional challenges keeping drivers and in buses as the pandemic progresses.

Wood says that continuing with reduced service levels as people return to work will lead to a mess on the roads and ultimately less mobility if more people opt to drive.

“We can’t afford it, because mobility is what fuels an urban economy.”

While the amount of traffic-related pollution in the atmosphere decreased as fewer people were on the roads during the lock-down, Stefan Kipfer, an associate professor of environmental studies at York University, says that there is real danger of a significant spike in automobile use as economies reopen.

Like Wood, he is concerned about fear and misinformation around transit and pandemic spread. “There is a danger that we will have an increase of the rate of car transportation compared to the pre-pandemic levels,” Kipfer says. “We need to avoid this at all costs.”

Stefan Kipfer
Stefan Kipfer

Kipfer is involved with an emerging coalition of transit advocacy organizations across the country that are calling for fare elimination, federal funding for transit authorities and a national public transportation strategy that includes inter-city and inter-regional train and bus service.

“We’re asking for a new role of the federal government to build transit capacities across the country and to use this crisis as an opportunity to shift priorities to just and sustainable mobilities,” Kipfer explains. “In any moment like this, we have an opportunity to do things right.”

A significant public investment in mass transit and active transportation would kickstart the recovery by increasing economic participation, says Wood, and cities must invest to ensure that workers who can’t or don’t drive can get to jobs that are essential to keeping the city running.

“We have to step away from the way we privilege space for the automobile,” says Wood.

“Almost two million people in normal times ride the TTC every day, we cannot accommodate that in smaller scale vehicles. We have to think about maximizing what public transit can deliver.”

While the transit system struggles to adapt to a new normal, Wood argues that the old normal, in terms of funding and service levels, wasn’t sufficient. She expects that even with mask use and cleaning provisions in place, past levels of overcrowding – “packed in like sardines” – are less likely to be tolerated in a pandemic world.

Kipfer agrees that current and even past levels of transit service won’t be adequate, estimating that service levels may need to be dramatically increased to provide capacity for physical distancing.

He believes that expanding service, in addition to strong public health messaging about how people are kept safe on transit, will be critical moving forward.

Ultimately, most peoples’ transportation choices come down to what they are able to afford. However, Wood says research has demonstrated that even those with access to a car can often be incentivised to ride transit if the service is frequent and comfortable. She adds that investing in active transportation such as walking and cycling will make a huge difference, given that typical commutes in Toronto are less than ten kilometres.

However, Wood wonders whether public and political appetite will still exist for spending on large transportation infrastructure projects as cities manage an ongoing pandemic that could impact the economy for years.

Costly subway investments that lack a strong business case, such as proposed TTC extensions to Scarborough or Markham, may be particularly vulnerable, Wood explains, noting that a highway extension like the planned widening of Highway 401 may not be subject to the same level of scrutiny and debate as transit projects typically have.

Whether or not funding is increased, or ridership numbers rebound in the future, Wood maintains major gaps faced by the TTC and other systems across the country will ultimately still need to be addressed.

“Public transit, especially in a city like Toronto, is absolutely essential,” says Wood. “There is no economic recovery without public transit.”

She says municipalities need to step up with positive messaging to counter fear around public transit, noting the issue impacts the University community as well, given York’s role as a major transportation hub. “Campuses can’t accommodate a huge uptick in automobility, and we don’t want to see it.”

By Aaron Manton, communications officer, YFile

Dahdaleh Institute-led team contributes to UN’s International Day for Biological Diversity

The United Nations (UN) Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) solicited messages from the world community for the International Day for Biological Diversity 2020, which was marked on May 22. The messages addressed the theme “Our solutions are in nature.”

Idil Boran

Dahdaleh Institute Member of Faculty Idil Boran, a professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS) at York University, with her Synergies of Planetary Health Research Initiative team, submitted a statement to the UN’s call. Titled, “Nature-based solutions: Catalyzing action for biodiversity, climate, and health,” the statement outlined principles for an effective agenda for nature and people.

Boran, author of Political Theory and Global Climate Action: Recasting the Public Sphere (Routledge 2019), recently joined the Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health to develop and launch the “Synergies of Planetary Health Research Initiative.” Partners in the initiative include the German  Development  Institute/Deutsches  Institut  für  Entwicklungspolitik (DIE), and the Institute of International Relations, University of São Paulo.

“It is very exciting to start this project on such a strong note,” said Boran.

She noted that her team developed the Synergies of Planetary Health Research Initiative to create stronger links between actors addressing biodiversity loss and climate change. Nature-based solutions by non-governmental and local actors, such as businesses, investors, cities, regions and civil society organizations, could contribute to the effective and integrated governance of multiple global issues such as biodiversity, climate change and health.

“The UN Convention on Biological Diversity is a key actor in this space,”said Boran. “It is essential to engage with them with interdisciplinary research methodologies and concrete policy recommendations for governance synergies.”

This is not Boran’s first time working with the United Nations. She actively participates in the UN Climate Change conferences, known as Conference of the Parties (COPs), organizing and speaking at official events since 2012, and engaging researchers and practitioners.

In February, with the Synergies team, Boran made recommendations to the CBD which outlined strategies to address the drivers of biodiversity loss and shape a post-2020 global biodiversity framework.

Statements were also submitted by the secretary-general of the United Nations; the president of Costa Rica; the president of the United Nations General Assembly; the minister for environment, forest and climate change, Bangladesh; the mayor of Bonn, Germany; the mayor of Montreal, Canada; the director general, WWF International; the chief of the assembly of First Nations National; the secretary general, Asian Indigenous Peoples Pact; and others.

Read the full statement here:

New paper in Nature’s Scientific Data describes ins and outs of Ontario Climate Data Portal developed at York University

research graphic
featured image for research stories

In 2018, scientists at the Laboratory of Mathematical Parallel Systems (LAMPS) at York University launched a user-friendly, accessible Ontario Climate Data Portal to provide the most robust climate change projections for Ontario. Now, the team has published a paper in Nature’s Scientific Data to describe, for the first time from a more scientific perspective, the portal’s structure and functions, extensive datasets and data development methodology.

Huaiping Zhu
Huaiping Zhu

Professor Huaiping Zhu in the Department of Mathematics & Statistics (also director of LAMPS and the Centre for Disease Modelling and Tier 1 York Research Chair in applied mathematics) is lead author on the paper. Co-authors include other York colleagues in LAMPS (Ziwang Deng, Xiaoyu Chen and Xiaolan Zhou), Lassonde School of Engineering (Jinliang Liu), and the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change (Richard Bello), and Xin Qiu at SLR Consulting (Canada) Ltd. Zhu also led the development of the portal, which hosts terabytes of data that cover 120 years (from 1981 to 2100).

The paper outlines how the portal provides a super ensemble of projections under various greenhouse gas concentration trajectories adopted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, offering users thousands of static and interactive maps, trend lines, summary tables, reports and down-scaled data. It also describes the sources of data used to develop the projections, including conventional weather station observations, comprehensive reanalysis and down-scaled data.

“We also discuss how we are striving to improve the portal to expand its capacity, like the inclusion of historical analyses and enhancing its functionality for those accessing the portal through mobile devices,” said Zhu.

So far, 10,000 users have accessed the portal, including academics, practitioners from governmental agencies (federal, provincial, regional and municipal), consulting companies and others from the private sector, and significant figures like the former Environmental Commissioner of Ontario and the spokesperson of Environment and Climate Change Canada. These robust climate projections have been used to assess risk and guide climate change policy and adaptation plan development.

“One of our motivations for developing the portal was our belief that progress on identifying future adaptations to climate change was being hampered by the inaccessibility of authoritative information to the non-specialist,” added Zhu. “As well, the portal will fill an important gap by serving as an invaluable source of data and training for undergraduate and graduate students.”

The paper, The Ontario Climate Data Portal, a user-friendly portal of Ontario-specific climate projections, was published on May 19, 2020.

Social distancing means a breath of fresh air, but for how long?

Mark Winfield
Mark Winfield

As working and spending more time at home are becoming the new normal for many families, our air is getting cleaner as a result.

With fewer people driving, especially to and from work, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the amount of traffic-related pollution in the atmosphere is decreasing noticeably.

According to York University Professor Mark Winfield, co-chair of the University’s Sustainable Energy Initiative, clear and significant improvements in air quality can be observed locally, across the country and around the world as a result of people staying off the roads.

Winfield says that road transportation – specifically of those using internal combustion engines – accounts for around one third of Ontario’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. With a significant number of those cars staying in their driveways, the environmental gains become meaningful.

Similarly, cars and trucks are the source of approximately one-third of precursors for smog. Levels of nitrous oxides, carbon monoxide and particulate matter are also declining as people drive less, and to fewer places.

Winfield notes that the extent to which transportation is a contributor to air quality issues varies across jurisdictions. Whereas pollution and emissions in other parts of the country can be attributed more directly to energy production and industrial activity, emissions from these sectors have been declining in Ontario over the past decade. This means that, in order to make a dent in Ontario’s overall contributions to climate change, critical changes will need to be made to the way we get around.

While we are observing a noticeable drop in emissions, similar to what the world experienced following the economic crisis of 2008, we shouldn’t expect to see a significant change in the trajectory of global temperature. Much of the hard work of tackling global emissions still lies ahead.

However, whether the current reductions in GHG emissions motivate future strategies to fight climate change will depend largely on the choices people make about their transportation habits in the long term, and which aspects of the current paradigm stick.

“Depending on how things play out with COVID-19, we may see permanent adjustments in terms of peoples’ willingness to work from home and not commute,” Winfield says, “and we may eliminate a significant portion of emissions from transportation that way.”

Right now, society is engaged in what Winfield describes as a mass experiment of the viability of new work patterns, an experiment that could head in several different directions.

There’s no certainly that current attitudes and habits toward driving will last as economies begin to re-open and people are drawn out of their homes, either by choice or necessity.

“It could play out in the opposite way as well,” he cautions. “Even today, we’re already hearing reluctance, in particular, to taking public transit.”

Road transportation accounts for around one third of Ontario’s greenhouse gas emissions

Winfield expects that many commuters will opt for personal automobile use over less carbon-intensive forms of transportation until a COVID-19 vaccine is available. Such a shift toward automobile-based transportation habits could lead to significant increases in pollution and would undermine the recent environmental benefits of transit use and carpooling.

He also predicts that dense, transit-oriented urban planning may become less desirable given the role close human contact plays in disease transmission, making emission-driving urban sprawl more difficult to combat in the future.

Ultimately, this has demonstrated to Winfield that society does have an ability to change trajectories.

As economies re-open, a return to business as usual would mean these environmental gains wouldn’t make much of a difference in the long run. However, if some of the changes to the way we live, work and move are permanent, we may see a less carbon intensive society as a result.

Winfield sees the potential as more people and organizations do increasingly more things online and remotely, but also expects to see intense pressure to return to the status quo.

Either way, while individual behaviour will be a major variable, there are numerous policy decisions governments can make to support more people to work remotely even as public health restrictions are eased.

According to Winfield, access to the Internet, especially in low-income households and remote rural communities, as well as access to childcare and clean transportation, are crucial challenges, exacerbated by class, that governments will have to pay attention to. There are also many questions about how people will react to these dramatic lifestyle changes over time.

“We’re at an inflection point,” he explains, “but which way it goes, at this stage in the game, is at best unknown.”