Solutions summit: How to decarbonize now

solutions summit board
CC BY 2.0 Patricia at Playthink/ Photo Lloyd Alter

More on why less is more.

I was invited to speak at the Solutions Summit for Drawdown Toronto, a group trying to implement the ideas listed by experts in Paul Hawken's book Drawdown. (The minutes of the whole day are above in the fabulous drawing by Patricia of Playthink.) They only gave me ten minutes, which ensures that one must really have their thoughts in order. I failed, and was only half way through when I got the two-minute warning, so had to concentrate my thoughts even further. I spoke a Drawdown meeting last year (slideshow here), but my thinking has evolved a bit.

Development stages© World Green Building Council
The most important evolution is the realization that Upfront Carbon Emissions (UCE), the carbon released in the making of stuff, is as important as the operating emissions. The World Green Building Council, in their recent document Bringing Embodied Carbon Upfront, has recognized this, that making anything has an impact. Their first principle is to Prevent, to "question the need to use materials at all, considering alternative strategies for delivering the desired function, such as increasing utilisation of existing assets through renovation or reuse." That's what we have been calling Sufficiency: What do we actually need? What is the least that will do the job? What is enough?

Principle 2 is to Reduce and Optimize, to "apply design approaches that minimise the quantity of new material required to deliver the desired function." This is what we have been calling Radical Simplicity: Everything we build should be as simple as possible.

The key point is that these principles apply to everything, not just buildings. The two important questions are, 'Do we really need this?' and 'How do we achieve this end with as little means as possible?'

Less is more© Gen Less

They are getting this in New Zealand, where the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) is running a campaign to encourage people to use less. Striving for efficiency is no longer enough, but we have to push for sufficiency.

Dalston Lanes© Waugh Thistleton Architects/ Photo Daniel Shearing

For architecture, the first thing we have to do is use less steel and concrete, replacing it with materials that put out fewer upfront carbon emissions when they are made. That's where new wood technologies, like cross, nail or dowel laminated timbers come into play, or engineered wood framing for lower buildings.

Materials paletteA bunch of materials with low upfront carbon emissions / Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

It's not just the structure, but every part of a building; the insulation, the cladding, etc. all have to be rethought in terms of UCE.

Dalston Lane brick© Waugh Thistleton

It also changes the building form. Everyone is trying to build the tallest wood tower, but it doesn't always make sense to build tall. You can get high residential densities in lower buildings, as Waugh Thistleton has in Dalston Lanes.

courtyard with gardenCourtyard in Seestadt Aspern/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Or all over Vienna, where they build wonderful residential buildings at six to eight storeys and house a lot of people.

making a car© Getty Images

It's not just buildings. We have to apply the principles of upfront carbon to everything. After another speaker, the terrific Tomislav Svoboda, suggested that we had to change all of our cars to electric, I did a quick calculation. The Union of Concerned Scientists has shown that over the life of an electric car, there are dramatic reductions in total CO2 emissions, including Upfront Emissions. But the UCE of a Tesla Model 3 is still 27 tons of CO2. Replacing all 24 million vehicles in Canada would generate 648 million tons of CO2. Given that a regular gasoline powered car puts out 4.6 tons of CO2 per year, the CO2 burp from replacing the gas cars is equivalent to the output of 141 million cars driving around. There is simply not enough steel, aluminum, lithium and whatever else goes into cars to even think of this, and certainly not in the kind of timeframe that we have to do it in.

StockhomStockholm archives/Public Domain

That's why I keep going on about walking and bicycles and transit and housing density. The only way to really draw down our carbon emissions is to switch to transit, bikes and micromobility options like e-bikes and e-scooters.

The only way to make bikes and micromobility work is to build our housing at the kind of densities that can support retail and transit, so that people don't have to drive private cars to get everywhere. What we build determines how we get around. Or as Jarrett Walker points out, land use and transportation are the same thing described in different languages.

seestadt bike laneLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Of course, building at these kinds of densities means you are using a lot less material, as the famous architectural theorist Paul Simon noted in "one man's ceiling is another man's floor." We just cannot afford the UCE from building the roads, the infrastructure and the actual dwellings that we get with sprawl.

Detail of Vancouver House Vancouver house by Bjarke Ingels/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

We can't afford Bjarke! and designs that have three times as much surface area as a box.

drawdown listDrawdown/CC BY 2.0

The original drawdown list that I was asked to address just nips at the corners of what needs to be done in our buildings and cities. I failed at addressing it in ten minutes, but looking back now, I think I could do it in three minutes, riffing on three points:

Build Less. Remember radical sufficiency: What do we really need? and Radical Simplicity: What is the most efficient way to design it using the least material?

Decarbonize. That means the lowest Upfront Carbon Emissions possible, the lowest operating energy possible, and no fossil fuels, period.

Get a bike. Or some other form of micromobility. Our dependence on cars, whatever is powering them, is going to be the end of us.

Solutions summit: How to decarbonize now
More on why less is more.

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