The Solutions to Climate Change Are Already at Our Fingertips
By Diane Hoskins
This post is part of a series in which we look at the critical role that the architecture and design play in global efforts to address climate change. For more on the research behind it, take a look at our Impact by Design report.
Climate change is the environmental challenge of our time, and one of the most pressing issues facing our cities and communities today. Because every project we work on is either part of the problem or part of the solution, we have made a commitment to measure the environmental impact of our work, and publish the results annually to drive discussions with peers and partners, clients, and communities about the best ways to make progress in the future. This is the focus of our Impact by Design 2017 report, published earlier this week.
Our commitment to transparency and leading conversations around the connection between climate change and the built environment began with our first Impact Through Design report in 2016, which we published after sending a team to Paris to observe the U.N. negotiations resulting in the Paris Agreement. Gensler was one of the 1,300 businesses, governments and civil society organizations to sign the Paris Pledge for Action last year, expressing our commitment to limiting climate change to less than 2 degrees Celsius of warming. This built on our continued participation in the Architecture 2030 Commitment, an initiative focused on collective action by the architecture and design industry to reduce the carbon impact of the built environment.
In 2017, we extend these commitments as a proud sponsor of Climate Week NYC, which coincides with the opening session of this year’s U.N. General Assembly. Climate change affects every business, government, and community around the world. We take our commitment to sustainability very seriously, and we hope our Impact by Design publications can inform discussion around how the architecture and design community can make a difference, and where our efforts are making the greatest impact today.
Buildings have a huge environmental impact that can’t be ignored.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA), buildings consume nearly 48 percent of all the energy produced in the United States. The buildings sector is the largest global consumer of energy, which includes accounting for approximately half of all global electricity consumption. As of today, buildings are projected to increase their energy consumption by 1.5 percent each year between now and 2040.
To keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius of warming, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that the global buildings sector will need to decrease its total annual greenhouse gas contribution by 77 percent by 2050. The scale of this challenge is significant, but not insurmountable. Two mutually reinforcing solutions will help us move the needle: first, we need to improve the energy efficiency of our buildings to limit any increase in energy demand; second, we need to incorporate more renewable resources and clean energy strategies into our projects.
There’s a lot of work to do, but we also recognize the progress that we and the design industry as a whole have made. We are proud that the 700+ million square feet of new buildings and 260+ million square feet of new interiors Gensler designed in 2016 are estimated to save over 16 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity each year. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), this figure represents an estimated 11 million metric tons of CO2 that will not be emitted into the atmosphere every year based on sustainable improvements to the built environment. These figures are encouraging, but as we look to the future targets set by the Paris Agreement and Architecture 2030 Challenge (which seeks an overall 80 percent reduction in building energy use by 2020), we know there is still significant improvement to be made.
The design industry must continue to work closely with our peers in engineering and construction to bring the global built environment’s carbon footprint down, and pursue partnerships outside the industry to extend our influence—we cannot meet our emissions reductions goals alone. For example, improvements in battery technology, market maturation and cost reductions for renewables, and new policy innovations will be needed to create a cleaner electrical grid. Together, we can ensure that the cities of tomorrow are filled with resilient, high performance buildings that will serve as the platforms for the sustainable economy of the future.
Cities are the future of sustainability
Economic growth, urbanization, energy consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions tend to move in tandem—we have historically paid for greater prosperity and urban growth with increased carbon and greenhouse gas emissions. Decoupling these forces of growth to find solutions that accommodate future economic and urban success is our challenge, and the stage on which architects and designers can make our greatest impact. Recent data suggests cause for optimism—greenhouse gas emissions have fallen or stayed flat during the last three consecutive years of economic growth, according to the International Energy Association (IEA).
We must work to ensure this trend continues. The time to act is now, and the place for action is in the cities and urban areas which people flock to. The U.N. projects that there will be an additional 2 billion new urban residents living in our global cities by the year 2050, the continuation of the greatest period of urbanization in human history. This trend represents the continued concentration of our economic and environmental impact—cities currently account for 80 percent of global economic output and 70 percent of global CO2 emissions while representing just two percent of global landmass.
Put another way, cities are both where the problem lays and a big part of the answer, largely due to the greater energy and emissions efficiency of an urban lifestyle. The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) found that the per capita greenhouse gas emissions of city dwellers are generally smaller than national averages based on data from cities in Asia, Latin America, North America and Europe. The same study found that the average emissions attributed to residents of New York City are less than a third of the U.S. national average, while residents of Barcelona and London have a carbon footprint that is half the national average of Spain and the U.K.
Thoughtful, environmentally focused design can further the sustainable impact of urban living. Cities like Stockholm, Boston, Zurich and Vienna are filled with sustainably minded features like public transportation, bike lanes and mixed-use development that keep their resident’s per capita carbon contributions down. Innovative technologies such as eco-districts, microgrids, and net metering will also make a big difference as we seek to create the decentralized, resilient and clean energy infrastructures needed to dramatically improve sustainability at the urban scale moving forward.
With billions or even trillions of square feet needing to be built in global cities between now and 2050, the role of municipal governments and policy decisions in the shape of that future cannot be understated. Strong building codes and incentive programs implemented by city governments around the world are a significant driver of both adoption and innovation of sustainable building technologies and solutions. It will take leadership at the city level, paired with a commitment to implementing innovative new energy sharing solutions at the scale of buildings and communities, to help bring these solutions to scale.
Every project should be a step forward
If there is one thing that we hope to demonstrate in this year’s Impact by Design 2017 report, it is the sheer scale of the environmental impact one building can make. In the coming years, we will continue to build new cities and expand current ones at an unprecedented pace—but that expansion will not come wholesale. It will be realized as the result of millions of individual decisions that we and our partners in the design, construction, and real estate industries make every day as we build the cities of tomorrow.
To put the impact of individual decisions in context, we estimated the metric tons of CO2 saved by the sustainable performance of our projects. For example, The Tower at PNC Plaza in Pittsburg alone saves an estimated 7,000+ metric tons of CO2 every year based on the efficiency of its design and operations. It would take burning more than 200,000 barrels of oil to put that amount of carbon into the atmosphere according to equivalency calculations from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
But energy efficiency is just one piece of the puzzle. It is also important to understand the energy it takes to manufacture, transport and dispose of common building materials. Taken together, iron and steel production are responsible for 31 percent of industrial CO2 emissions every year. Concrete is the second most consumed substance on earth after water, and its production is responsible for 8.6 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions each year. The use and disposal of these materials makes up a building’s embodied energy footprint, and this is one of the reasons why recycling unused building materials and construction waste is so important.
The Westin Hotel & Transit Center at the Denver International Airport confronted the challenge of waste disposal head on, offsetting a massive amount of greenhouse gas emissions through diverting construction waste from landfills. 10,135 tons of diverted construction waste is estimated to save almost 18,000 metric tons of CO2 from being emitted according to the EPAs WARM model—equivalent to the annual emissions of 3,794 passenger cars.
Where do we go from here?
At Gensler, we see design as the means toward achieving a larger purpose—making the world a better place and making a positive difference for our clients, communities, and every person who experiences or is affected by the projects we design. Great design is all about coming up with elegant answers to complex problems, and delivering solutions that make a real and positive impact on people’s lives.
Climate change is a difficult challenge, but one we have the capacity to solve. We are seeing important progress being made all over the world, and this is the animating theme of the Climate Optimist campaign announced this week during Climate Week. People are faced with negative endless headlines on this issue; to act we all need to believe that we have the capacity to solve this challenge. At Gensler, we want to be a big part of the solution, and we believe that the architecture and design industry can be a driving force of positive change as we seek a more sustainable future.
We hope that the ideas and projects highlighted in our Impact by Design 2017 report will spur discussions about the role the built environment has on the long-term health of people and the planet. We will continue to seek innovative ways to understand and quantify the impact of our work on the environment, and will use that knowledge as we continue to seek even higher levels of performance from the projects we design and deliver every day.