The Problem: A Planetary Emergency by DIALOG’s Craig Applegath
November 8, 2021
Prince Charles has called the ongoing COP26 the “last chance saloon.” Al Gore noted the world is at a “long-awaited political tipping point.” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson resorted to a James Bond analogy, suggesting “the Doomsday device is real.”
In the run-up to COP26, the UN issued a wake-up call by releasing a report saying we are on track for a “catastrophic” 2.7 degrees Celsius of warming. In more recent days, the University of Melbourne and the International Energy Association (IEA) have released updated analyses suggesting that the latest round of pledges at COP26 will help us sneak in just below 2 degrees (1.9 degrees and 1.8 degrees respectively). But pledges are just promises, all too easily broken (Greta Thunberg just called COP26 a “PR exercise”); promises require action to become reality.
Architects, engineers, planners, builders, and developers have a huge role to play in taking the actions necessary to keep global temperatures from rising by no more than 2 degrees, and ideally 1.5 degrees. Buildings and construction are responsible for almost 40 percent of total direct and indirect CO2 emissions worldwide, according to the IEA. As a group, we are already pushing for greater building efficiency; but we need to do more, faster.
A new report by Systems Change Lab – authored by UN High-Level Climate Champions, Climate Action Tracker, ClimateWorks Foundation, Bezos Earth Fund and World Resources Institute – suggests buildings are “well off track” in meeting targets necessary to limit warming to 1.5 degrees (the report looked at 31 indicators in total, across agriculture, finance and other sectors, and none were “on track”). The report notes that the energy intensity of buildings needs to drop at a rate almost three times faster than current reductions. Even as operational carbon falls, embodied carbon is becoming a bigger percentage of the problem, particularly as emissions reductions related to the production of high-carbon-intensity cement and steel are stagnating. (There is good news on the latter: a new U.S.-EU trade arrangement on steel brokered at the recent G20 meeting will encourage trade in lower-carbon steel and will include a shared mechanism for measuring embodied carbon in steel)
That is the challenge of mitigation; but there is also the issue of adaptation — a challenge which disproportionately relates to the built environment. A new UN Environment Programme report (it seems everyone is releasing reports right now!) suggests the gap is widening between climate impacts and adaptation efforts. The report indicates that adaptation costs for low-income countries alone will hit $140-300 billion annually by 2030 and $280-500 billion by 2050. We need to start designing and retrofitting buildings to protect people from extreme weather events — today.
If we design for mitigation and adaptation, then problem solved, right? Well, not so fast. The climate crisis is part of what the Club of Rome is referring to as a “Planetary Emergency” comprising not just climate but also biodiversity loss and inequality. This broader challenge has prompted calls from leaders at the Club of Rome, United Nations Development Programme and European Green Deal to look past the current goal of net-zero towards a nature-positive future. This concept is such a rich idea, and one I believe needs to guide our design approach if we are to avert catastrophe.
What does a nature-positive design solution look like for the built environment? Read my next blog post to find out.
Written by Craig Applegath, DIALOG Partner