Image generated using Ideogram from the prompt 'Taming the Unruly Climate Beast.'
Image generated using Ideogram from the prompt 'Taming the Unruly Climate Beast.'

The relentless drumbeat of climate disasters in the headlines—scorching heat waves, raging wildfires, historic floods, and crippling droughts—are no longer a series of anomalies. As a grim new reality across much of the globe, these extreme weather events, driven by human-induced climate change, are becoming more frequent and severe. In short, they are clearly symptomatic of a broader and more pervasive environmental crisis.

Such calamities place an enormous strain on our built environment. Outdated infrastructure is overwhelmed under the pressure of severe weather, while buildings and equipment, not originally designed to withstand such extremes, are endangering lives by failing more often.

Yet there are reasons for optimism. The built environment, rather than being merely a victim of climate change, is playing a critical role in adapting to and mitigating its most devastating impacts. Several exciting developments illustrate that a sustainable, resilient future is within reach.

Carbon Plummets

Consider the U.S. building sector's remarkable achievement: by 2023, CO2 emissions had plummeted by an impressive 31% from 2005 levels, surpassing the significant emissions drop witnessed in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This reduction is a powerful testament to the effectiveness of planning and designing low- and zero-carbon buildings, implementing passive and nature-based design solutions, scaling up renovation, equipment upgrades, and building electrification, improved energy codes, and the adoption of renewable energy sources.

Even more remarkable, retrofitting, renovating, reusing, and adapting existing buildings now account for nearly half of all U.S. architecture billings. This growing trend of upgrading our existing building stock rather than tearing down and building new offers numerous advantages, including increased building resilience, strengthened community identity, lower construction costs, reduced waste, and lower embodied and operational carbon emissions.

2023 Renovation, AIA COTE Top 10 Award, Photo: ©Corey GafferRIDC Mill 19: Buildings A & B Renovation / MSR Design with R3A Architecture
2023 Renovation, AIA COTE Top 10 Award, Photo: ©Corey Gaffer
RIDC Mill 19: Buildings A & B Renovation / MSR Design with R3A Architecture

Transformation Underway

The building sector is a massive consumer of electricity, accounting for a significant portion of global demand. In the U.S., a staggering 74% of all electricity goes to operate buildings, while globally, this figure stands at 50%. This demand becomes even greater when considering the electricity consumed in constructing buildings and infrastructure, and manufacturing building materials. This reality highlights a crucial need: decarbonizing the electricity sector is essential as we continue electrifying the built environment.

Fortunately, an important transformation is underway. While fossil fuels dominated electricity generation in 2010, comprising two-thirds of both U.S. and global production, the landscape has shifted dramatically. In March 2024, 47% of U.S. electricity came from non-CO2 emitting sources. This achievement is fueled by a surge in renewables contributing 28%, and nuclear power, providing 19%.

Globally, the progress is even more impressive. About 55% of electricity is now generated from non-CO2 emitting sources, with renewables accounting for 38% and nuclear power contributing 17%.

U.S. & World Electricity GenerationSource: Architecture 2030; International Energy Agency, Electricity Information; U.S. Energy Information Administration
U.S. & World Electricity Generation
Source: Architecture 2030; International Energy Agency, Electricity Information; U.S. Energy Information Administration

This development signifies an impressive leap towards cleaner electricity generation, particularly within the built environment, and highlights the important advancement made in reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.

Follow the Money

And, for the second year in a row, global investment in solar photovoltaics (PV) is projected to surpass spending on all other electricity generation technologies combined. This milestone, highlighted in the International Energy Agency's (IEA) latest World Energy Investment report, marks a pivotal moment in the transition towards a sustainable energy future.

According to the report, solar PV investment is expected to surge to an unprecedented $500 billion in 2024, driven by declining module prices and the increasing global demand for clean energy. This financial investment represents a societal shift towards prioritizing sustainable practices, reducing carbon emissions, and combating climate change. This sends a powerful message to markets and investors about the long-term viability and profitability of renewable energy technologies.

The People Want Action

And finally, a new survey reveals overwhelming global support for increased government action on climate change. The Peoples’ Climate Vote 2024, the largest standalone public opinion poll on the issue, found that a staggering 80% of people worldwide want their governments to take stronger action to address the climate crisis.

Source: United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
Source: United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

This striking consensus transcends borders and cultures. The survey encompasses over 73,000 respondents across 77 countries, representing 87% of the global population. Even more significantly, 86% of those surveyed believe countries should prioritize climate collaboration over geopolitical differences, highlighting the need for collective action in the face of rising global challenges.

In the U.S., according to the latest Yale Program on Climate Change Communication survey, a majority of Americans (72%) believe that climate change is occurring, with 58% attributing it primarily to human activities. The same survey indicates that 62% of the population favors a political candidate who advocates for climate action, and 37% consider themselves pro-climate voters. Additionally, a recent national survey conducted by the Pew Research Center reveals that nearly three-quarters of individuals perceive that climate change is adversely affecting people.

Opportunity Knocks

Taming the climate beast may seem daunting, but a paradigm shift in our approach to design, planning, and construction is underway. The statistics are clear: progress is being made, and public demand for action is rising.

As architects, engineers, designers, and urban planners, we are at the forefront of this shift, creating built environments that are not only resilient and adaptable, but also carbon neutral. Our obligation to help reshape the future has never been more pressing. The time for bold action is now.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine.

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Note: all statistical figures are rounded numbers. This is done for clarity and readability.