The theme for the World Habitat Day 2021, Accelerating Urban Action for a Carbon-free World, is a strong call on architects and all practitioners involved in the design and actualisation of the built environment and related services to be conscious of the fact that climate change is an existential threat to all living beings on Earth and is thus a fundamental design problem of our time.
It is often stated that cities are responsible for some 70 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions with transport, buildings, energy, and waste management accounting for the bulk of urban greenhouse gas emissions.[ii] The process of building, delivery and their utilisation are hugely responsible for global warming by reason of the energy needed to extract and process building materials and the energy needed to maintain habitable temperatures as well as general maintenance of the structures. The main culprits here, as you may suspect, include the emissions related to cement production and the burning of fossil fuels for energy production. In the USA, buildings consume some 40 percent of energy annually, and they are responsible for nearly half of the carbon dioxide (CO2) emission in the country.[iii] High impact building materials include concrete, steel, wood, and insulation materials.
The theme for this year’s World Habitat Day highlights carbon-neutrality. With the upcoming COP26[iv] of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the world has been regaled with a vision of a “net-zero” carbon future. While making supreme effort not to jump into the carbon-neutral or net-zero arguments at this point, it is pertinent to state that the concepts require considerable unpacking as they centre on needed climate action and are embedded in the theme of the Day.
Why Do We Need a Carbon-Free World?
The question is whether a carbon-free world is possible. If the answer is in the negative, what is the significance of considering the possibility at all? What message do we seek to convey when we prescribe the desirability of aiming for, or having a carbon-free world? A simple answer to these questions would be that we cannot have a carbon-free world but can try to end or considerably reduce the emission of carbon to a concentration level that is tolerable.
Carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have risen since the start of the industrial era from an annual average of 280 parts per million (ppm) in the late 1700s to 410 ppm in 2019.That is a hefty 46 percent increase.[v] The level that is said to be tolerable is 350 ppm. Besides carbon dioxide, other gases of concern in the atmosphere are methane and nitrous oxides. Ozone is also a greenhouse gas but is found mostly in the stratosphere and is useful in absorbing and preventing harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun from reaching the earth.
Global warming occurs due to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Heat comes from the sun in short waves, but when bounced off the earth they go up in short and long waves. Whereas the short waves pass through the atmosphere without resistance, the greenhouse gases trap some of the long waves trying to exit the atmosphere. Scientists estimate that without the greenhouse effect the earth would be as cold as minus 18 degrees Celsius. What this tells us is that we do need greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, otherwise we would freeze. The trouble is that when the concentration of the greenhouse gases gets higher than they ought to be, we set the stage to be roasted.
Nigeria is severely impacted by climate change. The impacts include floods, droughts, increased heat, and water stress. There is persistent land loss due to coastal erosion in the South and due to desertification in the North. Coastal erosion is accompanied by salinisation of freshwater systems, thereby exacerbating species loss. Deforestation is a major contributor to global warming and it impacts on food production. Unbridled flaring of associated gas poses threats to the climate, environmental/human health, and agricultural production. Oil spillages equally add to the crisis through the dumping of the highly volatile hydrocarbon products into the environment.
While desertification and water stress, including the shrinkage of Lake Chad affect at least 11 states in Northern Nigeria, gully erosion is a great menace in the Southeast and South South regions. Lake Chad has shrunk from a size of over 25,000 square kilometres in the 1960s to a mere 2,500 square kilometres, breeding the attendant social upheavals in the area.
Climate change is implicated in exposing over 33 million Africans (spread across Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Sudan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya) to food insecurity emergencies.[vi] The food situation has been compounded by the erosion of food sovereignty due to the loss of biodiversity. Violent conflicts and poverty add another dimension to the dire situation and raise the number of the vulnerable to over 52 million.
Southern Africa and some other parts of Africa warm at two times the global rate[vii] and the Southern Africa region experienced two massive cyclones in March and April 2019 and in 2021 leading to a loss of over 1000 lives and wreaking about $2billion worth of infrastructure. Having so many strong cyclones in a short space of time is a record. The intensity and upward reach of the cyclones on the Southeastern coastline also broke the records. Cyclones Idai and Kenneth impacted close to 3 million persons. Some researchers tie the cyclones to the warming of the Indian Ocean. If this is true, we can expect more cyclones as well as the devastation of marine ecosystems in the region as the IPCC report (2021) indicates that the warming here is higher than in other parts of the world.
Will the Climate Summit Turn the Tide?
In November 2021, the world will gather in Glasgow to take stock of what has happened since the Paris Agreement of 2015. The Agreement consolidated the voluntary approach to tackling climate change which was first introduced at COP15 held in Copenhagen in 2009. The key aspect of the Agreement is that nations would voluntarily suggest what amount of emissions reduction they would make as their contribution to tackling the climate crisis. This is what is known as the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Bear in mind that the Agreement also settemperature targets at 1.5 degrees Celsius or well below 2.0 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. By the latest submission of countries to the UNFCCC, an aggregation and analysis of NDCs show that global temperature would rise by up to 2.7 degrees Celsius if that is the best the nations can do.[viii] We remind ourselves that prior to COP15, industrialised nations were required to adhere to legally binding emissions reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol. That requirement was based on the foundational justice principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR). Today, rather than mandatory emissions reduction, what is expected is legally binding reporting requirements. What a parody.
The voluntary emissions reduction regime is already pointing at catastrophic global warming considering the freak weather events being experienced at the present 1.1 degrees Celsius level. Moreover, as earlier noted, parts of Africa warm at double the global average, meaning that if the global temperature lurches upward to a 2.7C scenario, Africa will be literally uninhabitable.
An important part of the Paris Agreement is the Article 6 which seeks to establish a policy foundation for a carbon emissions trading system, that allows polluters to buy the license to continue polluting from less polluting nations. The fossil fuels industry and partner nations love this article because it would require nothing but a monetary exchange for their climate sins. The point is this: the polluters have the cash, and the vulnerable nations need the cash, but the Planet will suffer. Science informs that the world cannot afford to open new fossil fuel mines or fields. This sector is responsible for 80 percent of all carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution. Rather than halt the extraction of the climate harming fuels, the industry is set to invest more funds for new oil and gas projects.[ix]
Net Zero Is Not Zero
Now, let us look at carbon neutrality, net zero and their kind. A statement issued by Oilwatch Latin America offers a good analysis of the idea behind the Net Zero concept that has become so popular across the world. Countries, regions, and corporations are offering to achieve Net Zero by 2050. Two things should be of concern here. First is that net-zero does not mean zero emissions. Secondly, 2050 may seem to be a distant date, but even if the proposed action were to be a true solution, the world cannot wait for 2050 considering current catastrophic floods, fires, cyclones, and hurricanes.
The extraction, burning and industrial use of fossil fuels constitute the main cause of the climate crisis. Since 1830, and at an exponential rate of increase during the last two decades, the planet has warmed due to greenhouse gas emissions. Just 100 energy corporations are responsible for 71% of the emissions generated since 1988. Policies focused on monitoring and counting carbon dioxide (CO2) molecules are part of the problem, insofar as they are used to divert attention from the central issue: the continuing exploitation of coal, oil and gas under an energy-hungry, petro-dependent economic model.
Carbon accounting – the basis of most official climate policies – is all about moving molecules around, creating false equivalences, erasing emissions with a “click”, and hiding responsibilities, to carry on business as usual while covering up the roots of the climate crisis. The focus is on inventorying emissions and percentages to be reduced (or rather, to be permitted) and using the numbers to claim that transfers of CO2 into the atmosphere can be “compensated for” by supposed future transfers out of it.
Quantifying CO2 emissions is the smokescreen that allows the governments of the global North to continue to finance the fossil industry to the tune of trillions of dollars, even after the signing of the 2015 Paris Agreement. Pretending that addressing climate change is a matter of measuring and managing CO2 molecules is a way of privileging the market and subjecting traditional communities to violations of the rights of humans and nature, while at the same time making global warming worse.
Examples of this farce include proposals for “carbon neutrality” or “net zero emissions”, which, by assuming falsely that emissions generated in the fossil extraction chain can be offset by the carbon fixed by natural processes or geoengineering, will only exacerbate global warming. Other examples include the Clean Development Mechanism, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation Plus (REDD+), Nature-Based Solutions, “climate-smart” agriculture and livestock-raising, and Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS). Although such proposals are usually presented as conservation programs, they are in fact part of a speculative business model that that has nothing to do with constructive responses to climate crisis.[x]
What Can Architects Do?
Architects and related designers have huge roles to play in climate-proofing our planet. Climate change does not merely threaten the planet. It threatens living beings who inhabit the planet – humans and millions of others beings. The problem is that the crisis is triggered by human beings and systems designed and built by us. These systems include socio-political, economic, and other systems. It is important that architects understand these systems in order to design and deliver the built environment differently.
So, what can we do as architects? Sea level rise is already on track to continue, and this places most of Southern Nigeria at risk of going under water due to the region’s low-lying nature and the fact that the geographic Niger Delta is a naturally subsiding zone. The immediate response here must include the use of flexible construction materials and designs that are ecologically conscious. Architects must pay more attention to the immediate and larger urban landscape in which their creations sit.
As architects we are often deeply concerned about form and efficient spatiality. We work to consciously ensure that our built spaces consume as little cooling, lighting, ventilation, and maintenance costs as necessary. As good as these are, considering the threat of climate change, we should also be concerned about what is called the embodied energy or the sum of energy required to produce goods and services. Embodied energy includes the energy utilised in mining the needed raw materials. In the building sector this also includes the construction and replacement/demolition of our buildings- quarrying, cement production, smelting steel, baking of the bricks, transportation of materials to site and their installation, dismantling and carting away. Did we say carting away? Let’s say suitably disposing of the materials.
Hoping that this conversation will continue beyond the symposium, let us share some issues to ponder on.
- Raise awareness on the risks associated with current levels of overconsumption that is pushing beyond planetary limits leading to dramatic biodiversity loss and climate change.
- We must re-examine our romance with certain climate harming building materials such as concrete and steel.
- Reduce wasteful use of materials.
- Work with other professionals to promote the greening of our urban areas, set aside spaces for urban farming and avoid the cementification of spaces.
- Get involved in design for mass transit and other modes that encourage rapid transition from dependence on fossil fuels
- Integrate designs that are self-sufficient in terms of energy needs such as by using solar power, etc.
- Design for circular use of resources and promote the recycling of wastes.
- Design and build multi-use spaces that are flexible and durable at the same time. Encourage upgrading of existing buildings and retrofit for energy efficiency.
- Encourage vehicular free zones in our urban areas and encourage open meeting spaces rather that exclusive boxed up spaces.
- Take a closer look at our traditional architecture in terms of design, materials, craftsmanship and theory and encourage more organic approaches.
- In terms of theory, we should see buildings as living things who have birth, midlife, and terminal points.
- Be environmentally friendly with regards to materials and energy demands.
- Avoid the aping of postcard architecture and design respectful and culturally sensitive spaces.
By Way of Conclusion
You have heard the saying that we first shape our buildings and then the buildings shape us. This perspective should encourage and challenge architects to generate designs that not only respond to current climate challenges but lay the pathways to provoke continued robust imaginaries and actions for upcoming generations.
Permit me to pause with a quote that urges us to consciously ensure that our narratives capture the story of our lives told by us and dipped in our experiences:
“…If there is any hope for the world at all, it does not live in climate change conference rooms or in cities with tall buildings. It lives low to the ground, with its arms around the people who go to battle every day to protect their forests, their mountains and their rivers because they know that the forests, the mountains and the rivers protect them. The first step toward re-imagining a world gone terribly wrong would be to stop the annihilation of those who have a different imagination – an imagination that is outside capitalism as well as communism. An imagination which has an altogether different understanding of what constitutes happiness and fulfilment.”[xi]
[iii] Ned Cramer (2017). The Climate is Changing. So Must Architecture. https://www.architectmagazine.com/design/editorial/the-climate-is-changing-so-must-architecture_o
[iv] 26th meeting of the Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC
[v] EPA. Climate Change Indicators: Atmospheric Concentrations of Greenhouse Gases. https://www.epa.gov/climate-indicators/climate-change-indicators-atmospheric-concentrations-greenhouse-gases
[vii] IPCC. Impacts of 1.5°C of Global Warming on Natural and Human Systems. https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/2/2019/06/SR15_Chapter3_Low_Res.pdf
[viii] UNFCCC. (2021). Full NDC Synthesis Report: Some Progress, but Still a Big Concern. https://unfccc.int/news/full-ndc-synthesis-report-some-progress-but-still-a-big-concern
[ix] Nnimmo Bassey (2016). Ambition, Selfishness and Climate Action in Oil Politics- Echoes of Ecological Wars, Daraja Press.
[x] Oilwatch Latin America. (October 2021). The Climate Debate is not About CO2 Molecules. https://www.oilwatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Statement_OWLA.CO2_EN.pdf
A paper by Arc Nnimmo Bassey[i], FNIA, MFR, at the World Habitat Day celebration of the Nigerian Institute of Architects (NIA), Akwa Ibom State chapter on 4 October 2021.