Rebuilding for the climate crisis

6 July 2020

Getting the construction and planning of the built environment right would be of twofold benefit, as climate action would be taken, while a host of jobs would also be created

John Tuttle

COVID-19 has devastated communities and invaded every line of rational discourse from friendly klatsches to diplomatic debates. It has closed down economies and has cost the jobs and livelihoods of millions of people.

Notwithstanding the very real negative impact of the pandemic thus far, there have also been some positive consequences, not least for the environment. While it’s undeniable that the production and distribution of large amounts of face masks have contributed to oceanic pollution, for example, the fact can’t be neglected that air pollution has decreased around the globe, given the fall in industrial activity and travel.

NASA scientists monitoring satellite imagery have witnessed a gradual drop in nitrate levels, and carbon emissions have also declined considerably. Nature, in turn, is beginning to heal herself. Even as far back as April, The Guardian reported signs of a revitalised environment, which included cleaner waters near Venice, floundering oil ventures, and the resurgence of wildlife in deserted manmade locales from California in the US to South Africa.

While still a far cry from a celebratory matter – given the circumstances – a glint of idealism is perceived by some on the coming horizon.

While myriad threats to the environment continue, some argue that there may be some cause for cautious optimism. One such visionary is Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, who has said, “The pandemic represents a rare but narrow window of opportunity to reflect, reimagine, and reset our world.”

Now, perhaps more than ever before, progressives are calling for a reevaluation of humanity’s response to climate change in the wake of COVID-19. Activists and agencies have suggested methods for addressing the issue in light of the shutdowns that have taken place and the drastic decrease in air pollution that goes with this.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has made an important contribution through its recently published World Energy Outlook report. The special issue of this annual report provides a detailed account of several dozen pieces of proposed climate legislation that, should they be introduced, could generate an incredible 9 million jobs.

According to the report, such recovery policies would not only act to stimulate economies but, in effect, would reduce CO2 output by an anticipated 4.5 billion metric tons between 2020 and 2023. The IEA report argues that, if this series of proposals is accepted, it would be the beginning of a greener global shift that could lead to a continual diminishment of carbon emissions that could continue beyond the initial three-year period. If successful, from that point on, the prospect of climate health would only improve as subsequent years bring with them a further lowering of greenhouse gases, and as the capacity for renewable energy production and for energy saving measures only increases.

The IEA plan also offers an ambitious plan for the future of planning and development. Getting the construction and planning of the built environment right would be of twofold benefit, as climate action would be taken, while a host of jobs are also created. Built structures need to be more energy-efficient and must have capacity for solar panels, and power grid networks need to be expanded. Such measures will both increase public welfare and create opportunities for high quality employment.

With regards to architectural development, the New Zealand environmentalist and professor Alan Marshall has proposed alternate green housing templates for the near-future and has contributed to the conceptualization of environment-friendly cityscapes. The endeavor is known as the Ecotopia Project, the fruits of which were compiled in Marshall’s book Ecotopia 2121 (2016).

Marshall and his work made an appearance in the February 2018 issue of National Geographic, with the inclusion of concept art for some of his Ecotopian buildings. Marshall’s renderings used in the magazine resembled something straight out of a science fiction book, but they were, after all, depicting buildings 103 years ahead of their time.

The buildings he has dreamt up come in various forms, including treehouses in forest clearings to hobbit-like quarters in grass-covered valleys. Aesthetically, Marshall’s work covers a great range, but architectural integrity and sustainable energy remain his main priorities.

The pioneering work of  Marshall and others – such as Scott Moran and Alice Moncaster – could, at some point, serve as the blueprint for the cities of tomorrow, offering clean living and stronger, more fertile ecosystems.

Meanwhile, for all of its strengths, the IEA proposal must confront and conquer several obstacles. The acceptance and implementation of the policies by the relevant national and regional authorities is the first order of business and thus the first hurdle to overcome. One of the main obstacles is the sheer amount of investment it would require, with a price tag of a minimum of $1 trillion USD annually being required to support the IEA’s vision.

The world may look rather different in just three years let alone in 103. But what is crucial at this stage is the present – what is being done right now.

Whether the IEA plan is set in motion or ignored, it would be prudent to recall the observation of Klaus Schwab that is filled equally with hope as well as warning. His concern comes with the variable we must all account for: time. And time, like innovation, does not take breaks.