Photo by Lona on Unsplash

In recent months we’ve unexpectedly had to reflect on our lives, work and health, our relationships, travel, neighbourhoods and our cities.

And never before have we been more conscious of the air we breathe. It started with the bushfires, with its choking smoke, then covid-19 and the facemask defence against airborne infection. Is this our wakeup call, our “I can see the Himalayas” time?

Rachel Carson, author of “The Silent Spring”, argued that a war with nature is a war with ourselves. This year, it seems we are indeed at war with both.

Nature is sending us warning signs that we have overstepped the mark. The bushfires are a glimpse of a threatening future world impacted by climate change, where weather extremes shroud our cities with fire and flood, our air is polluted and our crops fail.

Covid-19 has highlighted the impact of human activity on the environment and our health. The slowdown from covid-19 cleared the air and enabled essential biodiversity – on which all human life depends – to flourish, temporarily.

But we now also realise that air pollution can make pandemics worse. Recent studies suggest higher concentrations of the fine particulate airborne matter (PM2.5) from burning fossil fuels increases the covid-19 death rate and amplifies transmission.

And yet, more than 7 million people die from respiratory and cardio-vascular diseases stemming from air pollution every year. Have we conveniently overlooked this? Surprisingly, the lockdown in China may have saved many more lives than claimed directly by covid-19 due to a reduction in pollution.

Our future suddenly seems less certain. But a cleaner, healthier and just future is possible if we show more respect for nature and for each other. Humanity has already outlined a vision – the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

The UN SDGs aim to tackle inequality and end poverty and hunger; eliminate waste and reverse patterns of increasing consumption and production; repair the ecosystems on which we all depend; and reverse climate change and allow a peaceful, inclusive co-existence – leaving no one behind. The SDGs are a vision of a world we all want.

The SDGs acknowledge the difficulty in balancing societal needs with the capacity of the planet. Put too much investment into societal needs and wants, and the environment suffers from over consumption. But a “greentocracy” is also not desirable. We need balance and we need to get smart.

So, in my world of engineering and design of cities, with guidance from the SDGs, where do we start?

First, let’s prioritise clean air. Our cities are largely powered by fossil fuels. As our world rapidly urbanises, airborne pollution will worsen, driven by increasing consumption, with consequences for our health. A rapid transition to a fossil-fuel free economy is needed, not just in our energy systems but also our buildings, transport and industrial systems.

There is no longer an economic argument against renewable energy – it is now cheaper than fossil fuels and urgent investment in transitioning our economy will create jobs, stimulate economies, lessen climate change, clean our air and save lives.

Next, let’s put a fair economic value on the service provided by biodiversity and ecosystems in supporting our way of life. Whether it be fresh air, forests, water or natural resources, we cannot deplete what sustains us. In shaping our cities, we must develop a circular economy where economic activity is decoupled from the consumption of finite natural resources, and design waste out of the system. Putting the true value on nature’s precious services will deliver it justice and change our behaviours.

And then, we need to think “community” and “inclusivity”. A focus on community means going local; local jobs, less time for commuting, fewer imported goods, reduced consumption, greater resilience and more attention to family, neighbours and those in need. Inclusivity means fairly dispersed social infrastructure, accessible non-polluting public transport and public shared green spaces and national parks, creating liveable cities with clean air.

I am an optimist. I believe these recent crises, though terrible, have given us new perspective, with a glimpse of hope for our future. A glimpse of clean air and a more connected community; the breath of life that will inspire us to shape a healthy and just future for all.

Peter Bailey is an Arup Trustee. He was CEO of Arup Australasia from 2011 to 2018, and global director – sustainable development from 2017 to 2019.

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Our Spinifex column is so named, by the way, because it’s for the pointy or “spikey” end of sustainability – the people who are doing the tough and inconvenient work of fast tracking sustainabiity. Spinifex, the plant, may be inconvenient or even annoying at times, but in fact, it’s highly resilient, essential to biodiversity and it holds the topsoil together.

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