Should all professional associations in the construction industries declare a climate emergency?

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© Some professionals are taking the climate emergency seriously/ Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Architects, engineers, landscape architects and urban planners all have a role to play and should be acting now.

Hundreds of cities and towns all over the world, and more and more high levels of government have declared a "Climate Emergency". While the term isn't consistently defined, The Climate Mobilization Website has a few draft laws and the key items in this draft for cities include:

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, the City of ________ commits to a citywide just transition and climate emergency mobilization effort to reverse global warming, which, with appropriate financial and regulatory assistance from the County of ________ and State and Federal authorities, ends citywide greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible and no later than 2030, immediately initiates an effort to safely draw down carbon from the atmosphere, and accelerates adaptation and resilience strategies in preparation for intensifying climate impacts;

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, the City of ________ calls on the State of ________, the United States of America, and all governments and peoples worldwide to initiate a just transition and climate emergency mobilization effort to reverse global warming by restoring near pre-industrial global average temperatures and greenhouse gas concentrations, that immediately halts the development of all new fossil fuel infrastructure, rapidly phases out all fossil fuels and the technologies which rely upon them, ends greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible, initiates an effort to safely draw down carbon from the atmosphere, transitions to regenerative agriculture, ends the sixth mass extinction, and creates and guarantees high-quality, good-paying jobs with comprehensive benefits for those who will be impacted by this transition.

That's a pretty tall order, but that's pretty much what has to be done. According to the Architects Journal, British architects Steve Tompkins and Michael Pawlyn are demanding that the profession itself should be declaring an emergency. They ask:

So why are we as a profession not taking more radical action? Architects have often argued (with some justification) that they can’t do much to drive higher standards of environmental design if the client doesn’t want it or the planners won’t accept it.

But if cities and states and provinces and national governments are calling for it, don't the professions have an obligation? They want the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) to:

  • Declare a climate emergency, stating what the IPCC Special Report has predicted for the 1.5°C and 2°C scenarios
  • State that the RIBA requires the government to immediately reinstate zero carbon as a standard for all new buildings and major refurbishments
  • Name a target date for when the UK needs to achieve zero carbon and confirm the profession’s willingness to work towards this
  • Immediately establish a working group to identify the detailed actions that we as a profession need to take and, very importantly, who else we need to bring into the discussions (clients, funders, etc) to deliver on what is required

Looking at this, I wondered about what North American professional associations could or should do. I'm a (retired) member of the Ontario Association of Architects, which both regulates and promotes the profession. They say they are "dedicated to promoting and increasing the knowledge, skill and proficiency of its members, and administering the Architects Act, in order that the public interest may be served and protected." Surely the public interest is served most by going beyond local politics, acknowledging the crisis and taking climate action.

In the USA I understand that the regulators in each state are separate from the promoters, the American Institute of Architects. The AIA has it right there in its values statements:

Today our nation faces unprecedented challenges: the impacts of a changing climate on our communities and critical infrastructure that is deteriorating from neglect. We need policymakers to put politics aside and get to work. No more delay—it is time to act.

They have taken a stance:

Global warming and man-made hazards pose an increasing threat to the safety of the public and the vitality of our nation. Rising sea levels and devastating natural disasters result in unacceptable losses of life and property. Resilient and adaptable buildings are a community’s first line of defense against disasters and changing conditions of life and property. That is why we advocate for robust building codes and policies that make our communities more resilient.

The RIBA or AIA are not regulatory organizations and cannot compel their members to design every building to Net Zero, Passivhaus or some standard that addresses the climate crisis. But they could be publicly declaring their own climate emergencies, that include recommendations that their members dramatically reduce the carbon footprints of their buildings.

Similarly, engineers, landscape architects and urban planners could all declare emergencies, setting out guidelines and goals to reduce carbon emissions, plant more carbon-eating landscapes, and plan for fewer cars, or whatever other measures are required to address the crisis.

It's likely that not much will happen because the clients won't pay for it, and it seems the regulating governments across most of North America love their fossil fuels and SUVs, their sprawl and glassy office buildings. It would probably be no more meaningful than all those cities declaring emergencies that don't bind anyone to anything.

But it's a start.

Should all professional associations in the construction industries declare a climate emergency?
Architects, engineers, landscape architects and urban planners all have a role to play and should be acting now.

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