Humanity has been on a carbon binge since the 1950s.

Source: Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CD|AC), Global Carbon Project (GCP). Note: “Statistical differences” notes the discrepancy between estimated global emissions and the sum of all national and international emissions.

Burning fossil fuels for energy releases CO₂ into the atmosphere, trapping heat, raising the temperature of the planet, and causing massive changes to the climate and ecosystems. The process began with industrialization in Europe, and increased profoundly after World War II.

We now exert a dominant influence on the climate and environment. If we don’t quit burning fossil fuels, the effects will be catastrophic.

“Climate-related natural disasters are becoming more frequent, more deadly, more destructive, with growing human and financial costs,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said last month. The 2015 Paris Agreement’s long-term temperature goal is to keep the global average increase well below 2 degrees C above preindustrial levels, and to pursue 1.5 C, as this would substantially reduce the risks and impacts of climate change. We can only release about another 340 gigatons of CO₂ into the atmosphere—that’s the limit of our “carbon budget”—and still have a 67% chance of limiting warming to 1.5 C.

What Warming May Bring*

Preindustrial average global temperature, circa 1750.

We are here. Half of the world’s coral reefs and vertebrate animals have died in the past few decades due to a combination of local factors and global warming.

The Paris Agreement lower limit goal. Flood damage increases by 160%–240%. Up to 350 million more city dwellers than today are vulnerable to extreme drought.

The Paris Agreement upper limit goal. The Mediterranean basin experiences widespread desertification, coral reefs mostly disappear, and the ice sheets begin to collapse.

The Amazon rainforest turns into savanna. Hundreds of millions of refugees flee deadly heat waves and drought in equatorial regions.

Economic damages from climate change total $551 trillion­—twice as much wealth as exists in the world today.

Sea level rise submerges land currently home to 470–760 million people globally.

The World Meteorological Organization’s outer projection for global average temperature by 2100. Global grain prices double.

The oceans emit poisonous hydrogen sulphide gas.

In the tropics, exposure to the outdoors becomes deadly as heat dissipation becomes impossible.

The world’s current grain-producing regions are no longer able to produce food efficiently.

Buildings are responsible for about 40% of global CO₂ emissions.

Source: 2018 Global ABC Report, IEA

Just three materials, mostly used in buildings and infrastructure, are responsible for over half of industrial CO₂ emissions.

To stave off a climate catastrophe, we must act quickly—peak CO₂ emissions now, reduce them by 65% in the next ten years, and reach zero emissions by 2040.

Source: Architecture 2030, Adapted from, "How Much CO2 Your Country Can Still Emit, in Three Simple Steps," and IPCC SR15, Table 2.2

≈340 GtCO₂
(The scenario shown above in red: 1.5 C, 67% Chance)
Capping total future emissions at ≈340 GtCO₂ will give humanity a 67% chance (a “high probability,” as the scientific literature says) of keeping global temperature rise to 1.5 C. To make that scenario a reality, we have to stop increasing global emissions now, reduce them by 65% by 2030, and reach zero by 2040.

500 GtCO₂
(The scenario shown above in pink: 1.5 C, 50% Chance)
Reaching zero in 2050 is only slightly less ambitious than the 2040 goal. But taking the extra decade means total global emissions will rise to 500 GtCO₂, which leaves only a 50-50 chance of staying below the 1.5 C threshold.

Meanwhile, global building stock is projected to double between now and 2060. This is a huge design, planning, and construction opportunity!

Population growth and economic development will drive demand for new urban construction, particularly in the emerging markets of India and Africa.

Source: Architecture 2030: Global ABC, Global Status Report 2017 (areas are approximate)

So here's what needs to happen:

Immediately, we must ...

  • Ban the construction of new fossil-fuel power plants, and transition to renewable energy.
  • Ban on-site fossil fuel use in new buildings.
  • Adopt a ZERO Code—all new buildings designed zero-net-carbon.
  • Begin electrifying existing buildings and reducing the embodied carbon of steel, concrete, and other building materials.

By 2030, we must ...

  • Phase out all coal power plants.
  • Reduce the embodied carbon of steel and concrete to zero.
  • Electrify 50% of existing buildings.

By 2040, we must ...

  • Phase out all remaining fossil fuel power plants.
  • Phase out the embodied carbon of all construction and building materials.
  • Electrify all remaining existing buildings.

The U.S. building sector has made great strides in energy efficiency and the reduction of emissions from day-to-day building operations, even while adding over 30 billion square feet of building stock since 2005.

Source: Architecture 2030, U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Outlook 2018

It’s now possible for every new building to have zero-net-carbon operations.

To ensure zero-net-carbon new construction, Architecture 2030 developed the ZERO Code, a national and international standard for commercial, institutional, and mid- to high-rise residential buildings that pairs existing energy efficiency codes with electrification and on-site and/or off-site renewable energy.

Source: Architecture 2030, U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Outlook 2018

We must also dramatically reduce embodied carbon in infrastructure, buildings, and materials—in the next 10 years.

Business as Usual, Global Scenario, Source: ©2019 2030, Inc. / Architecture 2030. All Rights Reserved. Data Sources: UN Environment Global Status Report 2017, EIA International Energy Outlook 2017 | Source: Architecture 2030, Adapted from EIA AEO 2017 and Global ABC, Global Status Report 2017

Quickly reducing the embodied carbon in building materials and construction over the next 10 years is critical. For all of the buildings built between now and 2030, embodied carbon will be responsible for 72% of their CO₂ emissions and operational carbon 28%.

It’s not an impossible task: Modern architecture changed the world in just 27 years—from the Bauhaus to Lever House—and without the materials, equipment, and design and communication tools available today.

1925 Bauhaus, Walter Gropius

Credit: hal_pand_108

1927 First transatlantic call
1932 International Style exhibit
1935 First commercial airport in the U.S., Newark, N.J.
1939 Johnson Wax Building, Frank Lloyd Wright

1945 Unité d’Habitation, Le Corbusier

Credit: Alexander Rentsch/Flickr via Creative Commons license

1949 Glass House, Phillip Johnson

Credit: Blaine Brownell

1952 Lever House, SOM

Credit: J. Alex Langley/Esto

Adapted from the opening and closing keynotes given by Edward Mazria, FAIA, at the CarbonPositive’19 Summit in Chicago. For more from Mazria on how the building sector can meet critical carbon reduction targets now, and over the next 20 years, attend the CarbonPositive’20 Conference and Expo, March 2–4 in Los Angeles.

Scroll down to learn more.

Sources (bottom to top): D. Battisti & R. Naylor, “Historical Warnings of Future Food Insecurity with Unprecedented Seasonal Heat,” Science, 2009; S. Sherwood & M. Huber, “An Adaptability Limit to Climate Change Due to Heat Stress,” PNAS, 2010; J.-F. Lamarque, J.T. Kiehl & J.J. Orlando, “Role of Hydrogen Sulfide in a Permian-Triassic Boundary Ozone Collapse,” Geophysical Research Letters, 2007; “Without Action, WMO Chief Sees Temperatures Rising 3–5C This Century,” Reuters, Nov. 26, 2019; “Climate Stabilization Targets: Emissions, Concentrations, and Impacts Over Decades to Millennia,” National Research Council, 2010; “Mapping Choices: Carbon, Climate, and Rising Seas—Our Global Legacy,” Climate Central, 2015; “Risks Associated With Global Warming of 1.5 or 2C,” Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, 2018; H. Fischer et al., “Palaeoclimate Constraints on the Impact of 2°C Anthropogenic Warming and Beyond,” Nature Geoscience, 2018; E. Byers et al., “Global Exposure and Vulnerability to Multi-Sector Development and Climate Change Hotspots,” Environmental Research Letters, 2018; C. Giannakopoulos et al., “Climate Change Impacts in the Mediterranean Resulting From a 2°C Global Temperature Rise,” WWF, 2005; “Global Warming of 1.5ºC,” IPCC, 2018; G.R Grant & T. Naish, “Here’s Why Scientists Are Working So Hard to Keep Warming Below 2 Degrees Celsius,” ScienceAlert, Oct. 5, 2019; F. Dottori et al., “Increased Human and Economic Losses From River Flooding With Anthropogenic Warming,” Nature Climate Change, 2018; “Global Warming of 1.5ºC,” IPCC, 2018; “Climate Change Threatens the Survival of Coral Reefs: Only 12 years to Avoid the Worst Damage,” International Society for Reef Studies, 2018; “Living Planet Report 2018,” World Wildlife Fund, 2018.