Five, Just Five, Solutions to Roll Back Greenhouse Gas Emissions

a stylish couple in jeans roll green bikes down city street

Jordi Mora igual / Getty Images

I was invited to speak at the Drawdown Buildings and Cities Summit: Building our response to global warming in Toronto recently. Drawdown was founded by author and activist Paul Hawken. From Drawdown's site:

Project Drawdown has identified, researched and modeled the 100 most substantive, existing solutions to address climate change, grouped into seven sectors. Put together, they reveal a path forward that can roll back global warming by 2050.
Drawdown is broken down into six sectors: Electricity Generation, Food, Buildings and Cities, Land Use, Transport, Materials. The Toronto group narrows down the solutions to those related to buildings and cities and come up with 15: For buildings, the ten Drawdown solutions identified include building automation, green roofs, heat pumps, insulation, LED lighting (both commercial and household), net-zero buildings, retrofitting, smart glass, smart thermostats, and solar hot water. For cities, solutions modeled include: district heating, landfill methane, and water distribution.

And I thought: This is nuts. Because they are not seven sectors, they are one. You can't look at them as discrete sectors. You can't talk about cities without talking about land use or electricity or most importantly, transportation. I also thought: you can't pick things like smart thermostats and smart glass and green roofs and think they are going to solve our problems, you have to look at the bigger picture. I came up with five, just five items for my ten-minute manifesto: Radical Efficiency! (Reduce demand!) Radical Sufficiency! (Appropriate technology!) Radical Simplicity! (Keep it dumb!) Electrify Everything! Decarbonize Construction!

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How we get around determines what we build

credit: Levittown Pennsylvania via Wikipedia

Back to my reasons why I think this approach is more appropriate. In his wonderful essay "My other car is a bright green city," Alex Steffen titled a chapter "What We Build Dictates How We Get Around." I believe that he got that exactly backward; in fact, how we get around dictates what we build. You couldn't have cities like New York, London, or Tokyo without subways, streetcar suburbs without streetcars, and you couldn't have Levittown without privately owned cars and the Interstate Highway System that let people get out of town fast. And since Levittown, the vast majority of Americans have come to live in car-dependent suburbs. Transportation, land use, and urban design are inseparable.

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It all connects

credit: Rhodium Group

An example of the problem can be seen in the reaction to this graph by writers like Emily Atkin of the New Republic. In her article, "The Modern Automobile Must Die," she writes:

In fact, transportation is now the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States—and it has been for two years, according to an analysis from the Rhodium Group.

I'm sorry, but no. Fully 74 percent of electric power is used in houses and buildings, with cooling and air conditioning using the most, hot water heating next. The yellow line that is "buildings" is primarily natural gas for heating; add 74 percent of the power to that and buildings are far and away the largest producer of greenhouse gases. CO2 from power generation is down because of the conversion from coal to gas and the increase in renewables, but it is pretty meaningless in the bigger picture of what we have to do. As David Roberts of Vox noted in his look at the same graph

Within the climate community — not only activists, but analysts and journalists (I am guilty) — the focus remains disproportionately on electricity, on wind, solar, batteries, and EVs, all the sexy stuff. With so much momentum behind electricity decarbonization, foresight suggests shifting at least a little of that focus to the thorny problems of driving, flying, trucking, heating, smelting, coking, and other less sexy, more stubborn energy applications.

And I would add, buildings, where the power actually goes.

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Where is the CO2 really coming from?

credit: World Resources Institute

This is a better way to look at it, where electricity and heat are a source of energy (one where the heat runs a generator, the other where it is used directly, but they are really the same thing), going into buildings to produce 27.2 percent of the US's CO2. Road transportation, cars and trucks, produce 21.6. What are cars used for? Mostly, to move between houses and buildings and stores, purely a function of urban design. Iron, steel and cement make up another 10 percent, mostly being used to build highways, bridges, houses and buildings and stuff to fill them. It is all one sector, it all connects, and it produces the majority of CO2.

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The future we want

credit: the future we want

Some think the solution is shiny new technology; our houses will be roofed with solar shingles, with a big battery and two electric cars in the garage. Those cars will eventually be self-driving, and combined with Hyperloops and Boring tunnels, will whisk us from house to ballpark to office to spaceport in no time flat. Most of these are already listed on Paul Hawken's Drawdown list, or in the coming attractions.

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Infinite suburbia

credit: Matthew Spremulli via MIT News

Others like Alan Berger and Joel Kotkin think we can have it all; an infinite suburbia connected by autonomous cars and serviced by drones. Because as Kotkin says, “this is the reality we live in, and we have to deal with it. Most people want a detached home.” But this is a vision that is based on technology that doesn't exist. That may never exist. It is all a diversion.

That's why I say we have to keep it simple and dumb. Use things that we have now and know that work well. And we have to get started.

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Radical efficiency! Reduce demand!

credit: Simple forms, basic materials, nice proportions in Munich/ Lloyd Alter

A lot of people are big on Net Zero, where you design buildings that produce as much energy over a year as they use, often by covering their roofs with solar panels. It is a lovely idea if you own a roof. But most people in the world do not; they share it with other people. That's why I prefer hard targets like there are in the Passivhaus system, that sets a limit on how much energy you can use per unit of area per year. But going Passivhaus isn't the only way to reduce demand; going multifamily also works very well, because where a home might have five faces exposed to the air and one to the ground, an apartment usually has only one or two. It's also much cheaper to get to Passivhaus efficiencies. And when you live in that multifamily building, it also reduces demand for transportation because there is enough density to support stores and restaurants that you can walk or bike to. The housing units tend to be smaller, because you don't need as big a fridge or a kitchen when you are surrounded by stores and restaurants and places to go. So the key to reducing demand isn't just the amount of insulation; it is the amount of space you build and where you build it.

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Reduce demand in existing buildings!

credit: Energiesprong

One can never lose sight of the fact that there are millions upon millions of buildings that are existing and are not energy efficient, and that have to be renovated or replaced. Another speaker at the Drawdown session, Larry Brydon, reminded me of EnergieSprong, a European concept upgrading buildings that is slowly coming to North America. It's an industrial scale prefabrication of cladding that wraps existing buildings with foam, cladding, windows and doors to take it to Net Zero energy in a day or two. It works well for repetitive designs like rows of townhouses or apartment buildings where there is less exposed area per unit, but retrofitting single-family houses will be another story.

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Electrify everything!

credit: Edison Electric Institute

In my own house, I have a gas range and water heater. It always seemed crazy to burn gas at some power plant to boil water to turn a turbine and generator and pump electrons down a wire into an electric element- to boil water.

But as our electrical distribution system decarbonizes with increased use of renewables, using electricity makes more and more sense. And at the same time as our electricity becomes cleaner, the stuff we use it for gets better. Many find induction ranges to be as good to cook on as gas, without the health hazards; big hot water tanks can heat up when electricity is clean and cheap in the off hours, acting as a big battery. Heat pump dryers mean that you are not pushing all that hot air outside, and if the home is well insulated, a little air source heat pump or even a baseboard radiator is all you need. There are Passivhaus designs out there that are heated by towel warmers in the bathrooms.

More: 2 rallying cries for a green building revolution: Reduce Demand! and Electrify Everything!

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Decarbonize construction!

credit: Architype Architects/ My favourite low-carbon building

We need a lot of new buildings, many of which are built out of concrete and other materials that take a lot of energy to make. Consequently, even new energy efficient buildings put out a big "carbon burp" from their construction that can take years to pay back with energy savings. As we have also noted recently, the world is running out of sand and aggregate that makes up the majority of concrete. This is why we have to switch to renewable materials like wood, or in the case of the Enterprise Centre, wood and thatch and reeds and wool and wood fibre. It's Passive House too, but that was not enough for Architype:

"Life cycle carbon was one way to sum up the operational carbon and the embodied carbon. Everything was assessed with that attitude rather than just looking at how good is it for passive house. It was bringing the two together."
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Decarbonize with wood construction!

credit: Waugh Thistleton Architects/ Photo Daniel Shearing

Wood has also changed so dramatically in the last few years. Waugh Thistleton is leading the way with cross-laminated timber, building projects like Dalston Lane in London. Everything old is new again with Nail Laminated and Dowel Laminated Timber panels. Some architects are proposing that high-tech wood can used in skyscrapers, including an 80 storey tower which I thought was problematic. Wood is good, but you can have too much of a wood thing.

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Radical sufficiency! (Appropriate technology!)

credit: Stockholm archives

We talked about radical efficiency, but it isn't enough. It sometimes is even counterproductive; as cars got more efficient, people switched to SUVs and pickup trucks so total fuel efficiency of the fleet didn't go down even as the efficiency of cars went up. Switching to electric cars made out of aluminum means a huge carbon burp from aluminum production. They still all need concrete roads and still cause congestion. What about transit, bicycles and walking instead? A bike doesn't take much material to build, gets you relatively short distances as quickly as a car in today's traffic, and is pretty cheap. This is the kind of question we have to ask: what is enough? What is sufficient for our needs? For many people in many cities, a bike is sufficient. We have to ask the same question about how much space to we need to live in, how much meat do we want to consume, what is sufficient. What is appropriate.

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Radical simplicity! (Keep it dumb!)

credit: Housing in Plateau district, Montreal/ Lloyd Alter

The housing in the Plateau district of Montreal is some of the dumbest I have ever seen. Mostly simple boxes, they are usually three storeys of apartments with a scary stair in front. But they are also incredibly efficient because there is no internal space lost to corridors and stairs. The area achieves just about the highest residential density in North America because it is consistent- narrow streets, simple buildings packed together. The construction is simple too; at that height, you do not need anything fancy. It is also some of the most popular housing in Montreal; everything is close, the density is high enough to support a lively retail scene, and people just love it. If you look past the stairs (and there is a reason why they are like that) it is clever, dumb design, the kind we need a lot more of. Seattle architect Mike Eliason made a strong case for dumb boxes, noting that they are "the least expensive, the least carbon intensive, the most resilient, and have some of the lowest operational costs compared to a more varied and intensive massing.” I picked up on it in In praise of the dumb box.

UPDATE: I first learned about the concept of Radical Simplicity from engineer Nick Grant of Elemental Solutions, who has said that "Passivhaus advocates are keen to point out that Passivhaus doesn't need to be a box but we are serious about delivering Passivhaus for all, we need to think inside the box and stop apologizing for houses that look like houses."

More: Learning to live with "Value Engineering" to build better, cheaper Passivhaus buildings

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Radical simplicity! (Dumb tech)

credit: Nest

I always considered a Passivhaus building to be a dumb building. It doesn't need a lot of technology; it just stays warm or cool all on its own. There is a fan for the fresh air system and maybe a tiny bit of heating, but that is usually about it. That's why I always thought it to be a better solution that smart tech. For instance, a Nest thermostat works really well in leaky buildings where the furnace or air conditioner has to work a lot and burn a lot of energy to keep the place warm or cool. But in a really low demand building, insulated like a Passivhaus, it doesn't take a lot of energy to maintain the temperature, and it doesn't fluctuate much. In a dumb Passivhaus, a smart thermostat would be bored stupid with nothing to do.

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The Manifesto

credit: Housing in Vienna/ Lloyd Alter

In a previous slideshow of a previous lecture, I called for three of these ideas.

  1. Radical Efficiency: everything we build should use as little energy as possible.
  2. Radical Simplicity: everything we build should be as simple as possible.
  3. Radical Sufficiency: what do we actually need? What is the least that will do the job? What is enough? But I couldn't keep it to three because we need.
  4. Radical Decarbonization of our building industry and we need to
  5. Electrify Everything to decarbonize our energy sources, which takes us to five. Or is it four, with Radical Decarbonization covering both?

I will figure it out by the next slideshow.