Paul Hawken, executive director, Project Drawdown
Courtesy Project Drawdown Paul Hawken, executive director, Project Drawdown

This summer, Paul Hawkenauthor, environmentalist, and executive director of nonprofit research group Project Drawdowntalked with the AIA Committee on the Environment (AIA COTE). (Present at the discussion were advisory group member Gunnar Hubbard, FAIA, LEED Fellow, and a principal/sustainability practice leader at Thornton Tomasetti; and communications ambassador Kira Gould, Allied AIA, LEED AP; and principal at Kira Gould Connect.) They covered Project Drawdown’s research, its book Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming (Penguin, 2017), and what the “most gnarly challenge of our time,” as Hawken describes it, will require of architects and humans.

Until Project Drawdown, there had been no serious attempt to consider solutions (across sectors) and, using consistent methodologies and peer-reviewed studies, quantify their impacts if implemented at scale. Hawken’s aim, as he tells it, is to change the language and get us all—architects and humans everywhereto move from fear-based hope to meaningful action toward achievable scenarios.

AIA COTE: Drawdown could be seen as a vast, impressive compendium of ways to save our lives on this planet. How do you hope people will read and use this book?
Paul Hawken: We created a book that engages people because it is about possibility. The vast majority of climate communication is about the probability of negative impacts to land, water, food, economies, people, and oceans. At Drawdown, we have profound respect for the science, but the communication of the science leaves people a bit numb, if not totally disengaged. When there is talk of solution, we have been asked to believe that we can solve climate change with clean energy, including electric cars. The implication is that if we get those right, we get a hall pass to the 22nd century, and that’s just not true: Those are critical solutions, but they are not sufficient to reverse global warming—they just slow it down some. Because these solutions require massive amounts of capital and engineering, people hear about them and hope they happen, but they are somewhat disenfranchised.

We need to be more rigorous and look at both the problem and the solutions systemically. A sociopolitical economic system created the challenge—only a system can heal it.

Drawdown is having an impact: Its principles are being adopted by regions, states, and universities. But architectural solutions seem not to rank highly on the list. How should we interpret the fact that most of the building-related solutions—such as energy efficiency in buildings—did not appear in the Top 10?
That is a result of the methodology. We organized the solutions by sector. Many of the solutions that involve the built environment are scattered within other sectors. However, if you aggregate all the solutions that involve the built environment, the impact of building and city design is significant.

Nevertheless, the surprises in the rankings are part of the message here. Everyone expected renewable energy to be the number one solution. We have been told that for 20 years. But when you break it down by specific solution, it is not. There is a rule of thumb that the built environment and cities represent 40 to 45 percent of emissions. That is probably true, but it’s a very complex source of emissions and addressing those sources and causes involves transport, energy, materials, forests, water, and food.

The AEC industry has evolved, but progress still seems slow. are you seeing enough innovation from the architecture profession?
There may be no other profession better positioned to leverage innovation toward this challenge. We are looking at 80 percent of people in cities by 2050. The city and its buildings will need to not just contribute fewer emissions but be designed to absorb them. We are talking about a “carbon architecture” of the type that Bruce King has described, something that is addressing global warming on building construction and operations.

I want to expand the notion of what regeneration is about. People usually think about it as related to farming, forests, and land use in general—how we “interact” with nature. But I want to focus our thinking about regeneration in the urban and built environment. We can transform cities into carbon sinks … such that they are not just generating emissions but sequestering them. This is about designing cities to have the same or greater levels of ecosystem services than the natural systems they displace. It comes down to this question: Can we build cities that are equal to forests in their biological impact? I think we can.

In the book, you describe ‘plausible’’ and ‘‘optimum’’ scenarios. How optimistic are you today, given the political landscape and the pace of progress in various industries, about getting to optimum?
It’s important to recognize that none of the ‘‘optimum scenarios’’ in the book included what we call the ‘‘coming attractions’’—strategies that cannot be measured and modeled because there is, as yet, insufficient data. There are 20 in the book, and we have 200 more in our database. It’s astonishing the number and diversity of global warming solutions coming to us soon.

For example, take land use and agriculture. There is wide divergence in rates of carbon emissions and carbon sequestration for different types of agriculture and animal management practices. We are beginning to see enormous innovation in regenerative agriculture—sequestration at the rate of six tons per hectare, for example. Expert scientists, 10 years ago, said such results were not possible.

The same is true with the built environment: We started with “Can we make our buildings 30 percent more efficient?” and then on to 50 percent, and now net zero. Can we do carbon positive? Of course we can. We can do Living Buildings, too.

At the New England AIA COTE Leadership Summit in 2016, I heard an architect say “We won’t accept clients who do not want to build net-zero homes. It’s not good for our reputation.” Ten years ago, that was unthinkable. And this was in New England.

Progress is happening, but the challenges are big. Advancing our thinking on existing building stock—getting those to net positive and sequestration—is an urgent matter. There are a vast number of existing buildings, some with certifications, that are like the Volkswagens that cheated on the emissions test—most rating systems don’t address climate change at all. Cars don’t last that long. Buildings last 30 to 50 years and more, and their destructive emissions are built in.

To the extent that Drawdown is a call to action for architects, what do you think its most important messages are?
If the architectural profession is not committed to reversing global warming, what is it committed to? Slowing it down? Exceeding planetary boundaries in 2050, or 2085? Becoming hothouse earth in 2070 at which point extreme heating is locked in? Is that what architects want to use their design thinking to help us do? I don’t think so. But that is what the current ratings systems do.

This is the most pressing issue for architects, the architecture profession, and for every company and city. Today, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is 492 ppm when you take into account all greenhouse gases in their CO2 equivalency. This is the highest level in 20 million years, yet we are still using words like “curb” and “mitigate” climate change, the greatest threat humanity has ever and may ever face. The verbs are not commensurate with the problem. I don’t want to rhetorically catastrophize the problem, but we must begin emphasizing that the only goal that makes sense for civilization is to reverse global warming.

You can’t mitigate or curb a tsunami. Climate change is a nonlinear system with innate positive feedback loops that can cause warming to greatly accelerate. We have the science before us and the threat is at hand. Repeating the definition and scope of the problem does not solve the problem. Diagnosis is not prognosis. We need to focus on solutions. And be brilliant.

Our next book, which will be out in 2020, is called Regeneration: How to Create One Billion Jobs. This is about systems, process and economic complexity. We know (from the work of Ricardo Hausmann—the director of Harvard's Center for International Development—and others) that the more complex an economy is, the better the outcomes (in terms of health, jobs, income equality, prosperity, and so on). Lack of economic complexity creates bad outcomes.

What we are saying in Regeneration is that implementing global warming solutions is a process, and that implementing these solutions creates economic complexity. Global warming solutions are all about meeting current human needs. The Paris Agreement is about not exceeding global warming of 2 degrees Celsius in 2050. For sure, but how helpful is that as a goal? We are in a world where most people need dignified, family-wage jobs that provide them with sense of self-worth and meaning. They need better housing, schools, sanitation, mobility, and nutrition. Two degrees Celsius in 2050 is conceptually vacuous to almost everyone. Virtually no one in the world is thinking about what will happen 32 years from now. Humans focus on what we need in the short term, and the poorer we are, the shorter the time frame. Addressing global warming addresses current human needs, and that is what we have to make clear, emphasize, publicize, and enact.

Too much of climate communication is based on guilt, shame, and fear. The problem statement created by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is extraordinary, however science communication that constantly emphasizes threat is inept if it is meant to motivate people. Every problem is a solution in disguise, and the most gnarly problem ever faced by humanity contains the most transformative possibilities imaginable.

This is the design opportunity before us. Architects must explore how to design in alignment with life and living systems. Never has there been a better time to be an architect.