Forging a Climate Agreement May Have Just Gotten Easier

Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations speaks during a press conference at the UN-City Building in Copenhagen o
Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations speaks during a press conference at the UN-City Building in Copenhagen on 23, October 2013 at the international Conference on Climate Change Global Green Growth Forum. AFP PHOTO / SCANPIX DENMARK / MADS NISSEN DENMARK OUT (Photo credit should read Mads Nissen/AFP/Getty Images)

President Obama and other global leaders want a meaningful climate agreement to cut their fossil fuel emissions in time to prevent irreversible planetary warming. Ban Ki Moon has invited leaders to come to the United Nations Climate Summit in New York on September 23rd to begin discussions about an international agreement that could be struck late next year in Paris.

A little over a month ago, a group of international architects issued an announcement that could make reaching such an agreement in Paris more possible.

The International Union of Architects (UIA), representing 1.3 million architects and planners in 124 countries - who are responsible for designing cities, towns, urban developments, and buildings worldwide - unanimously adopted and committed to what they call the 2050 Imperative, which sets 2050 as the date for phasing out all fossil fuel CO2 emissions from the built environment.

Regional architecture councils in Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Africa also endorsed and adopted the declaration.

This is a big deal. The UIA is as hidebound and fractious a professional organization as any other global association. To have so confidently announced this global consensus, with a commitment to put in place the framework to meet this target date, is startling.

Guidelines that formed the foundation of the 2050 Imperative declaration - Roadmap to Zero Emissions - were also recently presented to the United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), as well as to the 34 countries of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Governments are rapidly becoming acquainted with the details of this approach and many are advocating that climate negotiators take note of them in New York and in the run up to the Paris climate conference in December 2015.

American policymakers, like most of the rest of us, may not realize that the U.S. has already made great progress toward, and is currently exceeding, the targets set in Roadmap 2050 for reaching zero emissions in the built environment.

For example, in the U.S. building sector:

• National building energy code standards, calling for a 50% energy consumption reduction below regional building averages, are currently being adopted by local governments;

• Building energy consumption projections made annually by the U.S. Energy Information Administration for the year 2030 have declined each year since 2005;

• As a result, Americans are projected to spend $4.6 trillion less on energy between 2013 and 2030 than was originally projected in 2005, strengthening the U.S. economy by giving consumers more discretionary income; and

• Consumer savings are projected to top $6.4 trillion between 2013 and 2030 if the U.S. embraces the most efficient building technologies available.

All this is happening through improved efficiencies in lighting, heating, cooling and other building equipment technologies, combined with a steady transformation in the way American architects, developers and policymakers now approach planning, designing, and constructing cities, neighborhoods, homes, offices and public buildings.

In the U.S., federal agencies, many states, counties, and cities, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, National Association of Counties, American Institute of Architects, U.S. Green Building Council, most professional organizations and top architecture/engineering firms have all adopted high-performance building standards that will reach carbon neutral by 2030.

Carbon neutral or net-zero energy buildings - high performance buildings that generate or import at least as much renewable energy as they consume over the course of a year - have quickly gone from university-backed experiments to mainstream projects across the country. California for example, has mandated that by 2020 all new residential buildings will follow a net-zero energy standard, and that by 2030 all new commercial buildings will do the same. A growing number of jurisdictions are following California's lead.

Getting to carbon neutral in the urban built environment is a two-step process. The first step is to employ low-cost or no-cost design and planning approaches that can achieve a 70-80% reduction in energy use by 2050 - by using relatively straightforward strategies for building design, including building shape, color and orientation, window shading, daylighting, passive heating, cooling and ventilation. The second step is to provide clean electricity and hot water, ideally from onsite renewable energy systems (solar, wind, geothermal, biomass), or by accessing renewable energy that is produced elsewhere through the electric grid.

For more than two decades, largely under the radar, pockets of the building community including architects, developers, planners, and related policymakers have been methodically working on sustainable building design and development. The impact of this work can already be seen in the declining projections of building energy use by the Energy Information Administration cited above.

It's fair to conclude that the private sector is out ahead of much of the policymaking community on these approaches to decarbonizing building design. Leadership groups like the U.S. Green Building Council and Architecture 2030 have methodically worked to encourage the building sector to adopt these approaches. The recent announcement by the Union of International Architects and its regional affiliates is the logical conclusion of several decades of hard work and education. Given the urgency of rapid climate change, now would be a good time for international policymakers to take note.

Global GHG emissions must peak this decade and be close to zero by 2050. With urban areas responsible for over 70% of all global CO2 emissions, world governments can make a major contribution to keeping planetary warming manageable by supporting implementation of the targets set out in the UIA 2050 Imperative.

There is dramatic urgency and time is short. We know that world leaders are going to have to throw everything they can at this problem to successfully combat catastrophic global warming and climate change. Architects and planners, almost out of the blue for most of us, have offered up an important handhold. Their approach is practical and empirically based and broadly supported. The results also appear to be massively economically beneficial. Among the many strategies we must pursue globally, this one also appears to deserve serious attention. It may even be one of the most important and politically practical ways forward.

In other words, there appears to be a practical path forward to achieving deep emissions reductions in the building sector that improves economic performance that already has the buy in from the relevant professional associations and experts in the global architecture and planning community around the world.

National governments and their leaders by committing to ambitious carbon reduction goals in the built environment can unleash the policies, incentives, finance, and creativity necessary to systematically decarbonize the building sector between now and 2050. As they do so it looks like they can dramatically improve the chances of avoiding planetary catastrophe.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and not of his employer.