Is It Too Late for Sustainability? Not if We Follow This Prescription

©. Tim Crocker via RIBA/ Passivhaus townhouses in Goldsmith Street

Peter Rickaby says he has "never been more optimistic about the possibility of change," but it will require some radical action.

A lot of people (including me) talk about the IPCC target, how we have ten years to cut our greenhouse gas output almost in half if we are going have a chance at holding the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. But I am not sure it is the best way to look at it:

What we have is a carbon budget – 420 gigatonnes when the IPCC did the calculation in 2018, and now down to 332 gigatonnes, according to the Mercator Research Institute Carbon Clock as I write. Every kilogram we emit right now comes off that budget right now, not in 2030.

George Monbiot gets this, and notes in a recent post that targets are counterproductive; we wrote about this recently: "It’s not just the target that’s wrong, but the very notion of setting targets in an emergency."

Four steps

Slide 1 in my lecture at Ryerson University last week/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

This is a theme that I have been discussing in my teaching at Ryerson University, where I stress that designers in particular have to be dealing with this right now. It's why in my first lecture, on Radical Efficiency, I concluded that Passivhaus or Passive House was the minimum standard of energy efficiency that anyone should accept – hard limits that get verified right now. It's why I have no time for architects who sign up for Architects Declare and then design giant glass, steel and concrete towers now that will just be completed in 2030. That's why I get more pessimistic with each passing day.

Young child in a yellow rain slicker staring at camera
Public Domain. Wikimedia

Wikimedia/Public Domain

Consultant Peter Rickaby says he is optimistic in Passivehouse Plus magazine. He writes that "the global campaign of young people led by Greta Thunberg, the response to David Attenborough’s documentaries, and popular support for Extinction Rebellion are encouraging and inspiring." In particular, he is impressed by the take-up (in Europe, anyway) of the Passivhaus standard, suggesting that it's "evidence that building and housing professionals are taking sustainability seriously."

But then he continues with his to-do list:

The change required is so far-reaching that it is hard to grasp and can only be sketched out here. We must stop expanding airports. We must stop building city-centre office blocks with huge journey-to-work footprints in the transport sector, and instead re-think working practices using the internet. We must stop building shopping centres surrounded by carparks and continue to re-think retailing around online shopping and efficient delivery.

I might argue that we should re-think retailing around restoring our main or high streets, but OK, Rickaby continues noting that we need to "co-locate homes and workplaces, schools and recreation within walking distances of each other and on public transport routes." We have to make our buildings healthier and more energy efficient (which is why we promote Passivhaus) and eliminate dependence on fossil fuels (which is why we call for Radical Decarbonization and electrifying everything).

Here I would add that we have to stop building single family houses; we need the kinds of densities that can support businesses that you can walk or bike to, that can support transit, and where kids can walk to school. And here is my favorite:

We must stop using concrete, bricks, steel and excessive amounts of glass because they are the most energy intensive building materials imaginable. We must turn most buildings into exporters of energy, to compensate for the protected buildings whose energy demand will be difficult to eliminate without damaging our architectural heritage. We must adopt a whole-life approach to energy use and emissions. We must re-use old buildings or recycle the materials and products from which they are made, and we must design new buildings for easy re-use and/or recycling.

One could write a whole essay just about this paragraph, about the idea that new buildings compensate for older, existing buildings. This is an idea that I have not heard before but makes a lot of sense.

Reading all of this, I do find it hard to believe that Rickaby is truly an optimist, concluding that "we may already have left it too late, but I suspect that if we fail to rise to the challenge this time our children will not forgive us."

Actually, Peter Rickaby has issued a wakeup call, to which I say again that we have a clock ticking down to when our carbon bucket is full, and that we have to start all of the above right now. Which is why I remain a pessimist.