Climate advocate and founder of Architecture 2030 Edward Mazria, recipient of the AIA's 2021 Gold Medal, explains why he is hopeful following the 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in November. This piece first appeared in Common Edge.
Most of the news coming out of the recently completed climate summit in Glasgow was disappointing. Previous summits had ended in similarly dispiriting ways, and COP26 was no exception. It acknowledged the severity of the problem and the urgency of the moment—the need to keep warming to under 1.5 degrees Celsius (some scientists believe it’s already too late to prevent this)—but put off making the hard commitments necessary to actually solve the problem. At the same time, this summit did feel different. There was a sense of urgency in the Glasgow streets, and the world’s attention was undeniably focussed on climate change. How this focus eventually translates into action on the political front remains an open question.
But architect Edward Mazria, executive director of Architecture 2030, believes that despite the immense obstacles facing climate activists, the building sector is on the cusp of helping change the course of the planet. He sees genuine reasons for hope and renewed effort. In the wake of the seemingly grim news out of Glasgow, I spoke with him last week about the way forward, how we’ve reached an important inflection point, why energy use tied to buildings has begun to decline globally, and the steps required to fully decarbonize the built environment.
Martin C. Pedersen So my first question after the climate summit is: Why shouldn’t I despair? Because I felt discouraged. I expected to feel discouraged, because every one of these has ended with no concrete action. Talk me off the ledge.
Edward Mazria: I think COP26 both failed and succeeded. Obviously, the commitments needed to phase out carbon emissions by a certain date did not meet the target of keeping 1.5 degrees C alive, which was the goal of the conference. That was a disappointment. But there were many positive developments coming out of the COP. For the first time, the world was focused on the issue of climate change for an extended period of time. Every major news organization reported before, during, and after the COP, every day, for a full month. So having global attention focused on climate change for an extended period was critically important.
MCP: Still, the only way to significantly rein in emissions is a mutually agreed upon carbon cap. And that just doesn’t seem within the world’s political grasp right now.
EM: We know what the 1.5 degrees C carbon budget is. The IPCC report, released just before COP26, established the carbon budgets for keeping 1.5 degrees C alive. The critical part of meeting the budget is reducing emissions globally by about half between now and 2030. That must be our primary focus, because if we get on that track, then the momentum to phase out all CO2 emissions is established. And if we meet that 50% target, I believe we will phase out all emissions by 2040.
But to get to that reduction, many transformative actions must be put in place in the power sector, the built environment, and in how we produce and select construction materials. That’s beginning to take place. I believe we’ll now move forward quickly to reduce emissions in our sector. The good news coming out of COP26 is that they kept the 1.5 degrees C goal alive. And the better news is that countries agreed to come back every year, update their emissions targets, and establish more ambitious goals.
MCP: But none of this is binding, is it?
EM: Correct, it’s not binding, but the fact that you now have the world focused on the issue will apply political pressure to keep the countries moving forward. The negative impacts of climate change are now being felt worldwide, in all countries. The Pacific Northwest is flooding, as we speak. When the G20 met in Rome, Sicily was flooding. People can now see and feel the disastrous effects of climate change; that will put tremendous pressure on countries to meet their commitments.
MCP: Now their commitments aren’t there yet?
EM: Right, they’re not where we need them to be—yet.
MCP: Including, and especially, the U.S.
EM: Yes. The four big emitters—U.S., China, India, and the EU—are responsible for almost 60% of all global emissions. In the U.S., the current administration acknowledges that climate change is happening and we must act; that 1.5 degrees C is important; that the U.N. process and the Paris agreement are critical. The U.S. has pushed countries to increase their emissions reduction ambitions at the COP so that the world moves closer to meeting the 1.5 target.
But if we narrow our focus, we’ve noticed something interesting happening in our sector. In the U.S. today, building sector operations emissions are down 30% below 2005 levels. That’s huge. And they’ve been going down since 2005. We’ve seen a steady drop and a decoupling of emissions from increasing floor area. We’ve added buildings, but our energy consumption has flattened out, and emissions have dropped dramatically.
MCP: But at the end of the day, the number that really matters is CO2 emissions. However and wherever they’re produced?
EM: That’s right.
MCP: And those haven’t been going down.
EM: In the building sector they have. What I talk about now is, what more can we do? In our sector, building operations emissions have dropped dramatically. In the U.S., emissions dropped because we have not increased building energy consumption and began cleaning up the grid. If the administration makes good on its proposal of a zero-carbon grid by 2035, that would be huge. More than 70% of all the electricity produced in the U.S. goes just to operate buildings. So cleaning up the grid, cleans up a huge portion of our sector’s emissions. We must also focus on eliminating onsite fossil fuels in both new and existing buildings.
If you look at global building sector CO2 emissions in the last year and a half, it has dropped dramatically, even though floor area and building energy use didn’t go down. Suddenly, emissions looked like they dropped off a cliff. So what happened? Energy supply is getting cleaned up. In 2020, renewable power was the only energy source for which demand increased, while consumption of all other fuels declined. That illustrates that the decoupling that’s occurred in the U.S. is now beginning to happen globally, and that’s good news.
MCP: I think it’s a sure bet that we’re going to transition to renewables. It’s like a 100% chance that that’s going to happen. The question isn’t if we do it, but if we do it fast enough?
EM: That is absolutely the question. But I believe this is what will happen. The building sector for the first time had a large presence at the COP. It was the first time you had the AIA, RIBA, ASHRAE, the International Union of Architects, the Australian Institute of Architects, the American Planning Association, the code folks, the International Federation of Landscape Architects, the cities, all there aligned on sector emissions reduction targets, actions, and strategies. All setting the same targets to meet the 1.5 and achieve a 50–65% emissions reduction by 2030, and with the plans to do that. This is the first time that’s happened.
So why am I optimistic we’ll meet the 1.5 degrees C carbon budget? Because when you look at how change takes place, it tends to start out small, slowly gain momentum over time, then suddenly you have an inflection point, and dramatic exponential growth takes place over a very short period of time. I believe in the built environment, we’re at that inflection point. The administration is pushing for a clean grid by 2035. Architects are designing zero- and near-zero-carbon buildings and carbon-sequestering sites. Cities are banning on-site fossil fuels and mandating emissions reductions in building operations and embodied carbon, and we’re beginning to see advances in manufacturing low carbon concrete and steel, the incorporation of biomaterials, and bringing agriculture into urban environments. I expect the U.S. building sector will be way below a 50% emissions reduction by 2030, pulling the other sectors with it. All of this is happening now.
MCP: And now are you pro-nuclear power, as at least a bridge to going fully renewable?
EM: Today, nuclear power is very expensive to build. Last year, renewable energy, wind and solar, became the cheapest energy source on the planet, and it’s getting cheaper every year. As countries, regions, and cities switch to inexpensive renewable energy to meet their emissions reduction targets by 2030, they’re unlikely to revert back to fossil fuels or to more expensive energy sources in the future.
MCP: Including coal.
EM: Yes, renewables are now less expensive than all fossil fuels. That gives me hope.
MCP: And what are our next next steps?
EM: We have an international zero code. European Union countries have developed zero-carbon code standards. China developed one. Zero-carbon code standards must be adopted worldwide, because when new buildings and renovations are designed zero carbon with renewables as their power source, fossil fuels are replaced. That will move our sector to zero carbon quickly.
We will also need all firms—especially those architects designing highly visible buildings that set standards and influence others—designing to zero carbon as well. Most major international firms have signed on to the 1.5 degrees C Communiqué. The’’re all working conscientiously towards designing new buildings and portfolios to zero carbon, or as close as they can get to zero carbon. All the major professional organizations signed on to the communiqué and are putting in place roadmaps for their members to do the same.
Second, we must address embodied carbon. There are just two materials responsible for almost 50% of all industrial emissions worldwide: concrete and steel. And most of those emissions occur because concrete and steel are used extensively for construction. The good news is there’s now competition for market share coming from mass timber harvested from sustainably managed forests in the global north, and we’re beginning to see a very nascent movement involving glue-laminated and cross-laminated bamboo in the global south. This competition is driving concrete and steel to reduce their emissions. So addressing embodied carbon is the second piece of the carbon puzzle.
MCP: What’s the third piece?
EM: Addressing emissions from our existing building stock. Building operations are responsible for a little more than a quarter of all global emissions. Existing buildings can be renovated and electrified by removing onsite fossil fuels and incorporating onsite and/or procuring off-site renewable energy. Another option gaining traction in the building community is repurposing existing buildings, not tearing them down. There is an old saying: “The greenest building, development, or neighborhood, is the one that is already built.” So addressing these three elements are going to be critical to decarbonize the built environment.
MCP: Any closing thoughts?
EM: Honestly, I’m even more optimistic now because of the COP26. It kept climate change on the front burner of discourse around the world, and that was huge. With climatic impacts taking place worldwide today, this problem is not going away until we adequately address it.
MCP: The one thing that I’m frustrated by is, I don’t know if we can depend on the “market” to create solutions to a problem essentially created by the market. It’s a vicious cycle, a weird loop.
EM: The world now clearly understands the issue; climate denial is a thing of the past. We know how to design zero-carbon and carbon positive built environments. And we’re beginning to see carbon regulation and policy take shape, both at the national and subnational level. Ithaca, New York, for example, announced that their entire building sector will go to zero carbon by 2030. In California, more than 50 cities and counties have adopted policies to require all-electric new construction and limit or ban the use of on-site fossil fuels. The AIA has prioritized actions to decarbonize the built environment, as well as the Australians, the Canadians, and architecture and industry organizations all over the world. So we’re beginning to see an entire mindset shift within our community. When that happens, you know big changes are in the air.
MCP: Your mouth to God’s ears.