On climate change, it’s time to lead
Devastating wildfires and brutal heat waves. Expanding drought. Disastrous storms and deadly flooding. Billions of dollars of damage and heartbreaking stories of lost lives and destroyed businesses and homes. Climate change is upon us, and the impacts we are witnessing and experiencing this year are but a harbinger of what’s to come in the years ahead if we collectively fail to act.
Despite the very real and present impacts of climate change, far too many world leaders continue to effectively sit on the sidelines. Collectively, at a moment when bold action is needed, global leaders have yet to mount a response commensurate with the challenge even as the window for action closes.
Buildings are the largest source of the world’s carbon emissions globally, accounting for approximately 40 percent of total emissions due to the energy used for heating, cooling, lighting, appliances and building construction. When you add the embodied carbon of building interiors, systems and associated infrastructure, that percentage is substantially higher.
The building industry has a critical role to play in solving the climate crisis, and fortunately for all of us, they are leading the way. For example, today, the entire U.S. building sector’s CO2 emissions are 30 percent below 2005 levels even though over 50 billion square feet was added to its building stock over that same period.
And now, more than 60 of the largest and most influential international architecture, landscape architecture, engineering, planning and construction firms, collectively responsible for over $300 billion in annual construction, along with two dozen organizations that represent more than one million building industry professionals worldwide, announced a shared commitment to dramatically reduce carbon emissions, and they have challenged sovereign governments to do the same.
The firms and organizations are signatories to the 1.5oC COP26 Communiqué — an open letter to sovereign governments calling on them to commit to reducing carbon emissions to meet the Paris Agreement’s 1.5oC carbon budget — which scientists have determined is necessary for a good probability to avoid the worst impacts of climate change — a 50 percent to 65 percent reduction by 2030 and fully decarbonize all sectors by 2040.
The timing for this announcement is deliberate: In a few weeks, government leaders from around the world will convene for climate negotiations at the United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP 26) taking place Oct. 31 — Nov. 12 in Glasgow, Scotland. These negotiations have been going on for years, and for those of us watching and hoping for true leadership, progress has been heartbreakingly slow.
The window for action is closing. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to 1.5oC will be beyond reach.
To put that in context, the extreme weather we’re experiencing this year — the record-breaking floods, wildfires, drought and storms — is what we get with 1.02oC of warming. Additional warming means even more extreme impacts. Warming beyond 1.5oC means a litany of catastrophic impacts for billions of people that will make many of the places we now call home uninhabitable.
Many nations are still operating under insufficient emissions-reduction targets that put the planet in danger of exceeding 1.5oC warming. Recent analyses from the United Nations and Climate Action Tracker found that none of the world’s major economies — including the G20 — have a climate plan that would meet their obligations under the Paris Agreement.
At the COP 26 in Scotland, will our government leaders finally step up and lead? Will they chart a collective path to dramatically reduce emissions? Will they follow the building industry and make clear and aggressive commitments? Or will they continue to say the right things, but kick the proverbial can down the road, burdening future generations with an inhospitable planet?
On behalf of all of us, and especially our children and grandchildren, we can only hope the era of inaction is over, and our government leaders are ready to step up and lead.
Edward Mazria, FAIA, is founder and CEO of the nonprofit Architecture 2030 and an internationally recognized architect, author, researcher, and educator. He was awarded the 2021 AIA Gold Medal for his “unwavering voice and leadership” in the fight against climate change, among others. Peter Exley, FAIA, is the 2021 President of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the co-founder of Architecture Is Fun, a Chicago-based architecture, design, and consulting firm, which is dedicated to helping the next generation of architects. Peter has also been an adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) for more than 25 years.
1.5oC COP26 Communiqué Signatories (among others):
- ● Over sixty of the world’s largest international design firms, collectively responsible for more than $300 billion in annual global construction spending
- ● Union Internationale des Architectes (UIA), comprised of professional architecture organizations from 124 countries and territories, representing over one million architects worldwide
- ● American Institute of Architects (AIA) representing over 95,000 licensed architects in more than 200 chapters across the worldwide
- ● International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA) representing over 70,000 landscape architects from 77 nations across the world
- ● American Planning Association representing 40,000 members from 90 countries
- ● AIA Large Firm Roundtable representing the 60 largest AIA member firms
- ● Royal Institute of British Architects representing 44,000 architects worldwide
- ● China Engineering and Construction Association – Architecture Branch (CECAAB)
representing more than 30 of China’s largest Local Design Institutes (LDIs) responsible
for the majority of construction in China
- ● American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers
representing 57,000 members in 132 countries
- ● U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) with 200,000 professional members in the US, Canada, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and Asia
- ● German Sustainable Building Council (DGNB), Europe’s largest sustainable building network with over 1,300 members
- ● Australian Institute of Architects (AIA) representing over 11,500 professional members
- ● Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) representing approximately 5,000 members
- ● Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) representing 2,600 members