Something to Believe In

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Projects like The Ridge, which is set to become the nation’s largest Passive House, could become more common as the world’s architects move toward net-zero construction.
COURTESY ONION FLATS

At its recent World Congress in Durban, South Africa, the International Union of Architects (UIA) set a critical goal for the global design and construction industries. They adopted something called the 2050 Imperative, “setting the global building sector on a path to phase out CO2 emissions by 2050.”

UIA represents 1.3 million architects from 124 countries, so it’s no offhand declaration. It’s also not the first such mission statement. Architecture 2030 issued the 2030 challenge to radically green the building sector in 2006. The American Institute of Architects quickly took up that charge, as did the U.S. Green Building Council, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and the Congress for the New Urbanism, among others.

Now as the supporting organization for UIA’s imperative, Architecture 2030 is joining the world’s architectural professional societies to “send a strong message” to the parties of the United Nations, who will meet in Paris next year to set a roadmap for reducing emissions. This is an important and necessary step, as the very name of the “imperative” implies—buildings consume 75 percent of all the electricity produced in the U.S. and are responsible for about half of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. But the design community has to hold itself accountable.

A leaked copy of the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says “severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts” are likely if swift action is not taken to curb the emission of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, chiefly carbon dioxide. But “strong messages,” however admirable and well-meaning, have not produced meaningful action in at least 20 years of international negotiations on the subject. Since the U.N. climate convention first recognized the urgency of the problem on an international scale in 1992, greenhouse gas emissions have risen 57 percent.

We’re not even slowing down. In fact, we’re accelerating. Emissions grew more quickly between 2000 and 2010 than in each of the three previous decades. Much of that is due to industrialization in Asia, and urbanization is not slowing down. Over the next twenty years, it’s projected that an area roughly equal to 60 percent of today’s building stock will be built and rebuilt in the world’s urban areas. In other words, even if every one of the buildings built in the next two decades were twice as efficient as today’s average building, we’d still see a huge increase in building-related emissions.

That’s not to say the building sector has been idle. The UIA’s imperative opens by recalling the 1993 Declaration of Interdependence for a Sustainable Future, made here in Chicago, which committed to “place environmental and social sustainability at the core of our practice and professional responsibilities.” Code improvements, energy benchmarking, and a healthy debate over sustainable design metrics (which AN explored in our June feature) are just some of the ways the field is making progress.

And the UIA’s imperative includes broader initiatives like planning carbon-neutral cities, which is critical in developing nations where today’s building booms could either lock in catastrophic levels of carbon pollution or lay the groundwork for a climate recovery.

But architects can’t do it alone. The upcoming IPCC report affirms something author and activist Bill McKibben once called “global warming’s terrifying new math”: fossil fuel companies and governments have found oil and gas reserves several times larger than the amount that scientists say we can burn without throwing the climate out of control. That’s a transformational challenge that transcends design and construction, as important as those industries are.

Something about the UIA’s 2050 “imperative” itself encapsulates the angst of following the growing climate crisis today: it’s both affirming and frustrating to read. With no attempt to hide its toothlessness, it tacitly acknowledges the dizzying scope of the problem (made significantly wider by political dithering and dysfunction). And yet it’s a critical part of the solution. Time to build the rest is running out.

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