Greenbuild 2013

I just got back from Greenbuild in Philadelphia. Greenbuild, the annual conference sponsored by the US Green Building Council, is the world’s biggest gathering of people involved in green design and construction.  Like, 25,000 people. The USGBC is the oldest, most significant, largest, and most credible organization doing this work, though there are others. If you’ve ever heard a building described as “LEED certified,” and there are a lot of them these days, USGBC is the group responsible for creating, managing, and constantly improving that certification system.

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Even better: I totally won this trip. I can’t think of anything significant I’ve ever won before. This was a great place to start.  My architecture firm has a green building committee, and they held a contest for anyone from our 6 offices willing to go and bring back some information. Out of 200 employees, a bunch of people were interested, a respectable number talked about entering, a very small handful of us actually followed through and entered, and I won.

Philadelphia’s great, y’all.  There may be parts of the city which aren’t lovely and human-scaled and walkable.  I didn’t see them.  It’s a city designed for pedestrians, with a really lovely rhythm of short blocks, charming alleys, and historic architecture with a modern-city feel. I saw the Poe House, the Liberty Bell, the UPenn campus, and I’m pretty sure I passed Edward Norton on the escalator. We were moving in opposite directions.  (Clearly the biggest obstacle to our love.) The gingko trees were fiery yellow, and the weather was mild and sunny for four whole days.  I had drinks with grad school friends.  I had a fancy dinner out with some local product reps and ate a grasshopper taco. I drank a lot, I mean a lot, of coffee.

There were plenty of VIPs there besides Edward Norton (seriously, I think it was him, really I do.) I heard Hillary Clinton talk about international progress in the sustainability movement, and I heard Nate Silver talk about applied statistics and how we, as humans, process and filter the unimaginably large amounts of information shouted at us each day. He’s also really funny and talked about his poker playing habit. (If there’s anyone in the world with whom I would NOT play poker, it is probably the world’s most famous statistician.) I heard Sheryl WuDunn, the author of Half the Sky, talk about the status of women around the world and how educating the world’s women can have exponential effects on sustainability and economic growth in developing countries.  I heard Bon Jovi, which had nothing whatsoever to do with sustainability, but it was a pretty good party.

I learned about green marketing, using visual stories to change minds, and net zero energy buildings.  Net Zero Energy! That’s when you reduce a building’s energy consumption by, say, 80%, through technologies which we already know how to implement, and then generate the other 20% of the building’s energy needs through PVs and such. Carbon neutral.  Think it sounds crazy?  California, which if it were it’s own country would be the world’s 8th largest GDP, is requiring all new homes to be carbon-neutral by 2020, and commercial buildings to be carbon-neutral by 2030.  It’s actually not even that hard.  Harder than what we’re doing? Yes. But it doesn’t require, like, walk-on-the-moon technology. We already know how to do this.

The speaker which sort of shook the foundations of my thinking, not for the first time, was Edward Mazria of Architecture 2030. Here’s his premise: buildings are responsible for close to half of all carbon emissions.  By 2030, the world is expected to generate new buildings totaling 3 1/2 times the entire current US building stock.  By 2030, nearly 75% of all buildings will be new or renovated in some way.  If we can fix buildings, we can fix the problem.

That problem?

  • The safe limit for carbon in the atmosphere is 350 ppm.  We are currently at 392 ppm.  Think typhoons, droughts, sea level rise, winter superstorms, Hurricane Sandy.
  • The crisis point, the point of no return, for climate change is 2 degrees celsius. 2 degrees above the temperature the earth has known for the last 11,000 years.  We’re at 8/10 of a degree above that level now, and the current steep trajectory has us crossing the 2 degree mark alarmingly soon.
  • Once we’ve hit 2 degrees, it’s a crisis beyond our ability to reverse it.  Past 2 degrees, we’ve set off a chain reaction after which the earth will continue to warm, no matter what we do. Scientists have run all sorts of scenarios about the steepness of the trajectories and the rapidity of the warming, depending on how fast we can reduce our carbon emissions.
  • If we, as a global population, can keep climate change below 2 degrees celsius, we have a chance to reverse, then start to repair this trend, fall below 350 ppm again, and gradually cool the earth.
  • With all current emissions projections, we can stay under the 2 degrees celsius mark, if and only if global carbon emissions peak by the year 2020, and then begin to fall. 2020 is six years away.
  • If we fail, the effects will be near-term effects, not just far term effects.  Near-term, as in the small people I love right now are in danger of facing much, much bigger risks from climate change than we do.  By the time they’re my age, my niece and nephews and three small godchildren will be fighting battles I do not want them to have to fight.

So, yeah. I haven’t slept well this week.

Good news? There is plenty, plenty of good news.

  • The emissions curve is flattening, some.  Cheney, the puppemaster of the Axis of Evil, told us a few years back that America would need 1,900 new power plants to keep up with our expanding energy needs, and he tried to get them built.  Since then, we’ve actually decommissioned over 300 US power plants. We don’t need them.
  • Since Architecture 2030 was founded in 2006, the word has spread worldwide about the issues we face and how to fix them. Has everyone bought in? No. But we’ve managed to reduce our carbon emissions anyway, significantly.  Municipalities and states are buying in and incorporating these principles into their building codes. That’s right. It’s law, in a lot of places.
  • Since Architecture 2030 was founded in 2006, the year I started grad school, the percentage of green commercial projects has shown a 3,900 % increase in this market sector, through the worst global recession of our time. There are very few legal endeavors, anywhere, that have seen a 3,900% growth, in an era in which we are struggling for like 7 or 8% economic growth everywhere else.
  • Don’t care about climate change? How about this: the amount of energy saved by consumers since 2006 is in the trillions of dollars across the US.  That’s trillions of dollars employers can spend to hire new people and give Christmas bonuses to their employees; trillions of dollars individuals have for ballet lessons and vacations; trillions of dollars schools have for textbooks, trillions of dollars governments have for public initiatives.

I’m about to get off of my soap box, really I am.  But the reason I’m fired up right now is because there are people, including people I know and love, who don’t believe in any of this.  There are people in positions of power who’ve wasted a whole bunch of time denying the science.  Nobody wants it to be true, but damnation, if you’re a member of the Flat Earth society and you don’t believe dinosaurs ever existed and you don’t think climate change is real, fine, but get the hell out of the way while the people who have the tools to save the world for you are busy doing it.

Hillary Clinton and Nate Silver both talked about the problem of “default equality” in the news media.  In the interest of generating a story, stirring up controversy, making waves and generating clicks, the media gives equal time to the 95% of scientists who agree on climate change, and the 5% of crackpots and conservative-funded lobbyists who disagree. By default, it looks like both theories are equally credible.  They are not. The most conservative, slow-moving branches of scientists came around to the facts years ago.  Some of the original climate change deniers re-examined the science, and recanted before Congress.  That didn’t make much of a ripple in the news. It’s not as interesting a story.

Anyway, I’m fired up.  Woe be unto anyone who has to sit next to me at Thanksgiving dinner, or gets stuck next to me at a holiday cocktail party.  I may have typed most of it out.  I may still be insufferable, spouting numbers and sideways-pointing and saying AND ANOTHER THING. I do this acknowledging that I can do better; we can all do better, but the biggest impacts aren’t going to come from things like walking to work and using CFLs.  They’re going to come from huge, systemic shifts in how we build things, from houses to cities. It’s all totally possible, doing things we already know how to do.  We just have to stop arguing and start moving forward.

Let’s get to work.

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