It seems to be the time of doom scenarios again. Last month, the IPCC report on climate change was published, picturing a dramatic outlook. Climate change and the associated risks are accelerating, and a number of points of no return might come earlier than assumed so far. But it neither is a surprise, nor does it really change anything. It is clear since decades that the present economic models and their measures, mechanics and ‘success stories’ are based on exploitation of limited natural resources and of public assets for the benefit of private gains.
To me this alarm it feels like a déjà vu. In 2006 Al Gore showed us what has happened and what will happen in his Oscar-winning documentary “An inconvenient truth”. In May 2019 UK architects declared climate emergency. Many corporations did the same, and so did cities. Unknown heat waves, floods and forest fires make headlines before that and after. Climate summit after climate summit and world leader after world leader pledge more and more ambitious carbon reduction goals. We keep running around in circles of disaster and pledge. But what nobody wants to talk about is how to really change course. No politician dares to explain that the problem of climate change cannot be solved conveniently with little impact. Instead, they create the impression that a little tweaking here, a little more tax there and above all a lot of electric vehicles, photovoltaics and windmills solve the problem. They all are positive contributions to solving the climate crisis, but the changes needed are more fundamental: we need to change our entire way of economic operation and nothing more and nothing less than the way we live. This means drastic changes in short times. It will send shock waves through our societies. It will lead to the disappearance of entire industries. And it will lead to conflicts within and between countries. All of that seems clear, but none of that seems to be something our political leaders want to take on. Unsurprisingly so, since the messenger of such news will be punished in the next elections or – in case elections do not exist – will eventually lose his power in a revolution. For those people, doom reports by scientists come handy since they allow them to skip the negative and only focus on the pledges, which makes them look decisive. Following up on these pledges however happens outside the spotlights again and therefore can be skipped or watered down so that the hardships they would come with are not felt.
In this vacuum, other leaders are rising to the occasion. Greta Thunberg is one of them, and there are many others preceding her or following in her footsteps. They have the power of the media, but they do not have the political power of office. Most of us do not hold office, but we can vote and exercise pressure. To me, the question arises here what the pressure could and should be that we exercise. Of course demonstrating is a means to raise awareness and putting topics on the agenda of politics and news but when something more interesting, more urgent or more dramatic happens, the attention quickly vanishes. I think lasting success can only be achieved by working the system and changing it from the inside. We have to do this quickly since we do not have much time. As architects and urbanists we can start today, and we can do that without asking for technical revolutions and a complete change of the all processes associated. Typically, they take long and often disappoint.
But what can we do instead? And how can we do it? Learning from cycling professionals. Sir David Brailsford – the head of team Ineos – formerly known as Team Sky – introduced a method that made them win the Tour de France eight years in a row. He calls it the ‘theory of marginal gains’. His conclusion was that if you improve a lot of things a little, it is enough to have a competitive edge that makes you win the world’s most famous bike race. We could do the same. How about choosing more carbon friendly materials? Instead of the window frames made with new aluminium, we can propose those made from recycled aluminium. It looks the same but has a significantly lower carbon footprint. Take bricks: the hollow ones are a lot less carbon heavy than their solid counterparts. This list can be continued with almost any material we are currently using in construction. Replacing a higher carbon version with a lower one easily saves tenths of per cents of carbon without the need of changing the aesthetic, the construction process or the product a developer sells. All it needs is a better insight into how a product is made and where the raw materials come from. We can request this information from suppliers and base our choice of the materials on that.
Ideally not each one of us has to do this research ourselves but could be given access to this information by either the different unions of architects each country has that collect this info on our behalf. That would give them a role beyond hollow calls for more sustainable architecture that they all issue regularly. In the medium term, governments could and should mandate a carbon footprint assessment for each building material that receives approval by the different technical testing bodies. If we all base our preferences on the lower carbon versions of a building material, I am sure, suppliers will be creative and quick in adjusting their palette in such a way, that they remain competitive on the carbon front. It is our choice, and there is no excuse not to start tomorrow.
by Markus Appenzeller