Malcolm Shield participated in the first cohort of the Sustainability Scholars Program during the summer of 2010. Since then, he has leveraged his Scholars experience to play a key role supporting cities both internationally and locally to accelerate their climate action planning and policy development. Malcolm is also the guest speaker at the Research to Action: Advancing Urban Sustainability Conference 2019. Here’s what he had to say about his career path and what he sees as the next big things in climate action and decarbonisation.
Question: Tell us about your background and how you came to work in sustainability.
My background is in engineering as a combustion engineer, and my interest in the mechanics of combustion led me to doing my PhD at UBC. At a certain point, I began to question what I was hoping to achieve through my research and realised that although my research focused on the technicalities of emissions reduction, what I was really trying to do was tackle climate change and improve air quality. That moment of realization—or rather the progression of “ah-ha!” moments reinforcing that climate change is an existential problem and that, beyond any doubt, humans are the cause—is what drew me into trying to tackle the energy and emissions conundrum. As an engineer, I was familiar with technical solutions to climate change, but it became clear to me that despite the abundance of clean technologies, the financial and policy mechanisms supporting them were not as strong as they could be. This trifecta of technology, finance, and policy is what drew me in to working on climate solutions as a professional problem solver not only as a professional engineer.
Question: What did you do at C40 Cities? What will you be doing in your new position at Associated Engineering?
C40 Cities is an international non-profit that provides climate change advisory services and technical support to cities globally. They serve as a forum to bring cities together with the intent of accelerating climate action. My role with them was broadly to act as an advisor to some of the world’s largest cities on their climate action planning process and the contents of their climate strategies. As a specialist in climate change mitigation—the avoidance of greenhouse gas emissions, as opposed to adaptation (the response to climate change)—I was brought on, in essence, to export some of the approaches, knowledge and insights developed while I was working at the City of Vancouver.
My new role at Associated Engineering is as their energy planning and emissions strategist. I am building a strategic advisory service and team to further enhance the level of service we as a company, but also as an engineering profession provide governments and private clients. We know that we can’t adapt our way out of the climate change problem, so our goal is to develop a comprehensive suite of climate solutions that span the spectrum from mitigation to adaptation.
Question: What kind of impact has the Greenest City/Sustainability Scholars Program had on your career?
I was a Greenest City Scholar in the first year of the program in 2010. At the time, I was doing detailed research into combustion engines used in road transport and was looking for a change in direction. Engineers have a lot of solutions for climate change and I wanted to accelerate getting these technologies to market and so I responded to the Scholars Program on the basis of “If we have the technology why isn’t it being used?” The financial structures that are in place aren’t effective and in 2010, government policy wasn’t effective in the way it is now (and it must be said that globally, government policy still has a long way to go). I made a deliberate choice to look at policy to understand how it can better support clean technology and emissions reductions.
"The program allowed me to change the course of my career
and move away from engineering and into public policy.
It allowed me to use my engineering skills in a different
setting and gave me the opportunity to explore
a different fieldthan the one I had
trained in up to that point."
Question: What is the biggest climate action problem you are trying to solve?
In some ways it’s a problem that all of us are trying to solve. It is a lack of time. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been clear about the research telling us that we have to be on a clear path to zero emissions by 2050 and that the direction to achieve this has to be set now, to be in effect by 2030. The fundamental challenge is that we don’t have the luxury of time to get solutions built and deployed. If we’d been having these conversations in the early 90s, time would have been more on our side. We have to deliver equitable, practical, cost effective, and well-considered solutions that can be rolled out quickly and yield reductions in a timeframe that is realistic in terms of meeting the required emissions reduction targets. The challenge now is to balance speed of action with considered solutions to avoid unintended consequences while continuing to ensure equity, economic benefits, improved human health and environmental protection.
Question: What unique methods are you bringing to address the problem?
The methods themselves aren’t particularly unique, it’s the problem that is unique. We haven’t seen changes in the climate the way we’ve seen them in the last few years and more broadly since the Industrial Revolution. The skills and solutions exist, and the responses we need to put in place are tried and tested, such as meaningful and effective consultation, robust business case development, technical acuity, including a plurality of opinions, and meaningful and instructive options evaluation.
"What’s needed is for the myriad professions that make up
the modern employment landscape to bring their skills to
bear in the ways they know best, but now they must apply
them to a different problem: that of climate change."
Question: What are some of the hurdles you face in achieving the goals you're trying to reach?
The biggest hurdle is the increasing complexity of the problem. There are many different considerations brought to bear on how we tackle climate change. For example, equity outcomes, economic impacts, air quality impacts, human health impacts, job and employment changes, service level impacts, and so on. Because climate change is so fundamental to our existence as individuals, as families, as societies, and as countries, it is a complex landscape that requires complex solutions—greenhouse gas emissions are not the only metric to be considered. If we look at the scale of the transition we’re trying to make we must bring in many other considerations. The complexity is daunting, but that’s what makes climate change a challenging and appealing problem to work on: how do we develop and implement, in a timely fashion, the blueprint for a decarbonized world?
Question: What are the next big things you foresee happening in climate action?
I see three aspects starting to move the climate change conversation, particularly as it comes to emissions mitigation. The first is to do with equity; making sure that public policy and emissions reductions technologies are deployed for the benefit of all of society and focusing on those people who are least able to adapt to climate change or are most severely affected, not just the most affluent. There is no long-term benefit, nor is it morally justifiable, to bring parts of society along and leave others behind as we put climate solutions in place.
Second, we need to be a lot more sophisticated in our consideration of embedded emissions and emissions that happen outside organizational and city boundaries. We need to focus on how our consumer patterns drive emissions outside cities, and how what we build and what we use drives emissions elsewhere. As a society, our consumption habits are still forcing emissions to take place elsewhere, even if our local emissions are falling. So, we need to look at the supply chain and the consumer behaviour of individuals and businesses to fundamentally tackle the drivers of climate change. Local action can no longer be considered enough.
Third, natural assets and the role of natural capital within emissions mitigation planning is growing in prominence. This comes from two main drivers. The first is a recognition of the difficulty of reducing emissions, which means looking to natural systems to absorb carbon if we cannot completely eliminate our emissions of carbon dioxide. And the second is the work of the IPCC making clear that without rapid emissions reductions there will be, in the future, the need to find “negative emissions,” which means that the planet will need to absorb more carbon than we emit. All of this is driving an increase in the natural and nature-based approaches to carbon capture and sequestration, and away from engineered solutions.
Question: What advice do you have for students interested in working in sustainability, climate policy and climate action?
A few things come to mind. Sustainability and climate change are often not seen as technical fields in which soft skills are considered more paramount. I wouldn’t disagree that we get things done through relationships, getting interdisciplinary teams working together, and by deploying other soft skills that are fundamental to many different types of work. But, the soft skills we need to develop shouldn’t be at the expense of the hard skills. As a society we have in place tried and tested hard skills based approaches available to solving complex problems. As a practitioner in climate change you still need to be able to develop a scope of work, develop a budget, track your budget, use the software and tools available to you, understand what it is to develop the economic base for public policy, and understand business fundamentals. Don’t discount the need to develop hard practical business skills and be able to apply them in the field. Fundamentally, you need the skills, jobs, and approaches that already exist, but you also need to be able to apply them in a new paradigm—that of the climate professional.
Second, be inquisitive! Climate change impacts so many aspects of our personal and professional lives. The things you read, or see might not be immediately relevant to your job, but as you build up a repertoire of knowledge and insight you’ll have a broad understanding of the challenges and barriers and be better placed to find solutions and build on opportunities within a field that is intrinsically very interdependent.
Thirdly, be empathetic! Climate change is hugely disruptive. Unless you work in the field it’s all too easy to not take for granted that climate change is a very real threat, or in many cases a very real opportunity. Many people may not understand their role in climate change and that’s not their fault. They may abide by climate change, but have more immediate concerns such as having to support a family, which may mean they work in the oil and gas industry, or drive a fuel inefficient truck. Meet them “where they’re at”; don’t write them off because they don’t “get it” the way (you think) you do. This even extends towards being empathetic toward people who deny climate change. Many will have reasons for why it’s so difficult for them to take climate change into their lives, but given that we need to move the whole of society towards a better understanding of what climate change means in real terms, some sound emotional intelligence will serve you well. Really, we need to be finding common solutions so everyone can be successful in making the transitions we need to see.