The AEC industry has made significant progress toward reducing the energy that buildings use and the carbon they emit. In a 2023 article for ARCHITECT, Architecture 2030 founder Ed Mazria, FAIA, examined a 2022 U.S. Energy Information Administration study and highlighted promising decarbonization trends in the built environment, including the decoupling of emissions and building sector growth.
But we can improve only what we measure, and we haven’t been measuring enough. Operating emissions, while still critically important, represent only a fraction of a building’s total carbon impact. A recent paper released by Seattle-based LMN Architects states: “Net Zero Carbon claims ... may include only a 25% or 50% reduction toward carbon neutrality when a full scope is included. Even advanced rating systems exclude important emissions sources.”
It’s time to broaden our scope and think more holistically. Architecture 2030 delegates are taking this message to the United Arab Emirates for this year’s United Nations COP28 in Dubai, an annual climate summit of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. With its influential global audience of world leaders, policy makers, NGOs, and private-sector thought leaders, COP is a ready-made platform for design practitioners hoping to redefine progress in decarbonizing the built environment.
The UNFCCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, published in full in 2022, identifies three primary strategies for meeting mitigation targets in buildings: sufficiency, efficiency, and renewables. Of these, sufficiency—which Merriam-Webster defines as “adequate to meet one’s needs” and economist Kate Raworth calls “moving from growth to thriving”—gets the least attention yet offers the most promise.
How do we help global leaders address sufficiency in the built environment? In mature markets of North America and Europe, it means starting with a simple question: Must we build new? Keeping and adapting existing buildings eliminates much of the materials-related emissions of new buildings. And we are already seeing a paradigm shift. Last year, for the first time in the 20 years that The American Institute of Architects has collected industry billings data, renovations eclipsed new construction work.
In the rapidly developing regions of Africa and Asia, sufficiency begs different questions. New buildings and infrastructure are critical to meet the needs of growing populations, close existing human development gaps, and adapt to a changing climate that disproportionately impacts lower-income communities. But if that new development perpetuates a carbon-intensive Global North model, we will quickly shoot past our carbon budget. By contrast, traditional and Indigenous building techniques and materials offer lower-carbon, culturally relevant alternatives. Scaling up these local solutions reduces emissions while growing jobs and reinforcing cultural identity. COP28 attendees include multilateral banks, donor nations, and the finance sector. These are also the entities underwriting this new development, offering architects a unique opportunity to challenge the existing bias for Global North building solutions.
While we want worldwide leaders and investors to think deeply about development, we also need them to recognize the built environment’s breadth: It impacts countless elements of life and offers multiple opportunities to meet the UN’s climate change mitigation goals. Infrastructure, landscape, and planning decisions have significant embodied carbon implications. Those emissions can be mitigated with thoughtful, upfront design decisions, such as dematerialization, materials selection, urban design choices, and heavier reliance on nature.
COP28 offers an important global stage to demonstrate solutions—examples of the future alive and thriving in the present—that give governments the knowledge to ask good questions and the confidence to increase ambition.
This article first appeared in the September 2023 issue of ARCHITECT.