Via Archinet : Last weekend in the outskirts of Paris, the rap of a green-tipped gavel announced an historically-unprecedented international climate agreement. A sense of accomplishment suffused the crowds gathered locally and the official statements broadcast globally – President Obama called the deal “a turning point for the world” – but it followed some real moments of tension, as years worth of planning for the COP21 nearly came undone in the face of disputed verbiage and policy.
Now, with the details announced, debate continues over the merits of the “Paris Agreement.” But first it should be noted that it won’t be official until at least 55 of the 195 pledge countries have ratified it, with the 55 ratifiers in turn accounting for at least 55% of global emissions. This pretty much necessitates ratification by the US government, whose Congress is currently run by the Republican party, a majority of whom refute mainstream scientific consensus and deny the existence of anthropogenic climate change.
Still, there’s reason to
athope that the deal can be ratified by executive order alone, without going through the legislative branch at all, and many pundits consider the official ratification of the climate agreement largely a formality. But the distances between handshakes in Paris and the nitty-gritty of national politics back home – primarily for those countries with sizable anti-science or jingoist constituencies – will likely determine the success or failure of the climate plan in the future.
More to the agreement itself, while its contextualization made clear that the global ambition is to keep global temperatures “well-below” a 2-degree increase, the actual pledges will probably produce around a 2.7-3 degree rise. That may seem a paltry difference, but it’s not. A 2.7 degree rise in global temperatures means entire nations will be submerged beneath rising seas, species will continue to disappear at ever-increasing rates, extreme weather events will become more and more common, climate-driven conflicts will grow – in short, conditions that will test even the most rigorous and inventive architectural thinking. And while the agreement legally binds countries to increasing their ambitions every five years, and to financing the transition to clean energy, it has no mechanism to force countries to meet their pledges. The United States, for example, will not face sanctions if a Republican successor dismantles Obama’s climate change initiatives.
This means that crisis is far from averted – and, for architects, the deal does not really diminish the importance or urgency of planning for the worst. A status quo, business-as-usual temperature rise would mean absolute calamity (and it’s not really off the table yet). Despite the implications of architectural disaster porn, this scenario is not actually a ready-context for architecture – good luck finding work, or building materials, after the collapse of governments. On the other hand, the future that the COP21 suggests – even in a best case scenario of a 1.5 degree rise, but especially if closer to 2.7 – will still require vast landscape and infrastructure projects, as well as dealing with other architectural issues including housing shortages and an increase in natural disasters. So, essentially, if you already spend a good deal of time concerned with such issues then carry on; if you haven’t, don’t take the COP21 agreement as an excuse to return to unsustainable design practices. Nothing has really been solved, per se.
Nonetheless, with one issue in particular, COP21 moves further in the right direction: a $100 billion fund be created and paid for by the developed world in order to provide assistance to developing countries struggling with the effects of climate change, as well as to incentivize development using renewable energy (it should be noted that this fund is described only in the “Paris decision,” a less legally binding text that is part of the agreement). This concession – while still likely far from adequate, materially-speaking, and difficult to produce – is an important step for practical and ethical reasons, and one that will do a lot to prevent a possible deterioration of talks like has happened in the past. Climate change must be acknowledged as a product of Western industrialization, capitalism, and colonialism not only to appease the legitimate grievances of developing countries (as voiced in Paris by the Indian Prime Minister Modi in particular), but also in order to accurately appraise the modalities of both its production and materialization – in short, to not repeat the mistakes of the past.
While none of this is definite, it’s relatively easy to imagine some of the ways the fund – and its larger context – will affect architecture practices. On the one hand, practices in the U.S. and Europe that haven’t fully committed to sustainable building will probably become economically unfeasible, particularly if pressure increases to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies. More to the point, as Western practices turn more and more to Asian markets for work, they will likely have to implement improved building standards, particularly in China, which has recently had a marked shift in attention towards environmental issues. And local architects, as well as those from the developed world able to work outside the standard model, should put their efforts behind developing the best use of these funds to preemptively prepare for the worst case scenarios. Attention must also be paid to generating more capital, as the $100 billion fund will likely not go very far.
But all of this, of course, remains speculative: funding and acknowledgments only go so far in the facing of rising oceans. There’s a lot of words in the agreement, but few concrete or binding elements. The realization of its ambitions will require both dedicated capital and inventive thinking, including through design. In other words, as important as a global agreement is, a translation to the local remains vital. And the local of architecture, so to speak, has perhaps more room, and responsibility, than other fields to take on the mandate implicit in the agreement. In fact, December 3rd was named “Buildings Day,” as a kickoff for the climate talks and to focus attention on the impact of architecture and the place of the urban within the context of global warming.
“More than 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are buildings-related, and emissions could double by 2050 if we carry on business as usual,” states the “Buildings Day” page on the UNEP website. At the same time, there is hope to be had: buildings are “longterm ventures,” and what is built today will be the cities of tomorrow; many low-cost adaptive solutions are available that can be easily incorporated into existing building practices; adaptive reuse and new construction can provide economic stimulus in the form of jobs.
The American Institute of Architects released a statement following the conference, quoting President Russell Davidson: “The COP-21 agreement presents a major opportunity for architects around the globe to provide leadership in designing buildings and communities that help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Its call for capacity building for adaptation and mitigation of climate change represents exactly what the architecture profession excels at providing.”
Noting both the good (better design has saved the US approximately $560 billion in energy costs since 2005) and the bad (residential and commercial buildings are responsible for about 40% of energy consumption and CO2 emissions in the States) of American architecture today, Davidson repeated a commitment to work toward a carbon neutral built environment by 2030. In fact, carbon neutral and, better yet, carbon negative technologies are some of our best hopes for bringing down the current rate of temperature rise.
The stakes, it has been widely noted, have never been higher. After some 23 years of largely-failed attempts (caveats granted) to create an international consensus, not just on the facts of climate change but also the means of adaptation, architects, and the species at large, have been left with a frighteningly short period to change course. The emissions we produce now will have effects decades down the road. The infrastructure and networks we establish today will be the ones to carry us into tomorrow. If these talks had failed, the world would be effectively abandoned to the benevolence of an unchecked fossil fuels industry. The tepid success of the talks is ground for celebration, but only as a preface to ever more robust policy changes and, if these are short in coming, possibly more radical action.