Three Big Ideas for Tackling the Global Carbon Conundrum

Three Big Ideas for Tackling the Global Carbon Conundrum


The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sent shockwaves around the world, clearly communicating a sobering point — we’re running out of time to stave off the fatal effects of global warming.

While many greenhouse gases and pollutants drive up temperatures threatening the earth and its inhabitants, the August 9th report confirmed that the main driver of climate change is the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. Fortunately, experts behind the research believe humans still have the ability to influence what happens next.

“Stabilizing the climate will require strong, rapid, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and reaching net zero CO2 emissions,” according to a statement by Panmao Zhai, co-chair of the IPCC working group that wrote the report.

The crucial role design can play in reaching a net zero future is not lost on many in our industry.

“You would be hard-pressed to find an architect who hasn’t heard that buildings are responsible for nearly 40 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions,” said HKS’ Director of Building Engineering Physics, Dr. Tommy Zakrzewski. “This is our chance to respond to the crisis.”

This is our chance to respond to the crisis.

During HKS’ recent “Carbon Crackdown” virtual panel, Zakrzewski and three building industry professionals discussed the many ways operational and embodied carbon are generated through design and construction activities. As part of our ESG in Design Celebration, a two-week long event series to raise awareness among our employees about important environmental, social and governance topics, the panel outlined strategies that can drastically lessen carbon production and emissions.

Spanning large to small scale changes, these experts revealed three key insights for how everyone who contributes to the built environment — including governments, developers, manufacturers and designers — can tackle the global carbon conundrum.

1 – If We Don’t Create High-Performing Buildings, We Will Lose Out

As climate change brings about massive ecological and social shifts, governments and policy makers have been noticeably slow to adapt building codes and impose emissions regulations. According to Cliff Majersik, Senior Advisor of Policy and Programs at the Institute for Market Transformation (IMT), there has been an uptick in climate-responsive energy codes across the United States, but not nearly enough to limit the major impact buildings have on the environment.

“We cannot think that just because we’re designing buildings to the latest energy codes that we’re doing the right thing,” he said, encouraging designers to consider existing codes a bare minimum.

With a mission to “catalyze widespread and sustained demand for high-performing buildings,” IMT conducts market research and advises on policy. Majersik has been responsible for shaping legislation related to green buildings and energy efficiency in sizeable jurisdictions including the District of Columbia and the State of California. On the horizon, he sees a groundswell of local governments adopting stronger policies and regulations for sustainable design.

“There are a number of cities and states that have either pending building performance standards or ones that are before legislators,” he said, noting that if architects design to these incoming standards now, they can cut back on carbon impacts and present strong financial incentives for clients.

Broad policy movements are coinciding with a substantial turn toward high-performance design among corporate developers. Recent market research IMT conducted on a private global building portfolio showed that green buildings had up to 17% lower operating costs and 28% higher net operating income. Majersik noted that such studies prove the business case for high-performance design is evident and that developers, owners and operators are taking that knowledge to heart.

“It’s not just that they’re paying lower utility bills or that their buildings are more comfortable and healthier for occupants. Employees and investors are increasingly holding them accountable for greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.

As policies progress, building owners and operators could be subject to significant fines for not meeting performance standards, Majersik said. He believes that architects are the “most empowered profession” at the table in the building industries because return on investment for sustainable solutions is higher during the design phase than any other period in a building’s lifecycle.

“You need to be part of the climate solution, you need to go back to your projects, see how they’re doing and what you can learn. You need to educate your clients that this is right for the role and right for their bottom lines,” he said.

2 – Cooling Down the Planet with More Sustainable Design Doesn’t Mean Sacrificing Our Comfort

As the earth’s temperature continues to rise, we constantly see natural disasters drastically impact communities around the world. Keeping the warming level close to the IPCC’s targeted 1.5-degree Celsius limit is going to be a major challenge for all industries, including architecture, engineering and construction.

“There are different paths in the future and this [current] path can bring us up to 8 degrees Celsius. That would be a disaster,” said Tommaso Bitossi, Associate Director of German firm Transsolar, which creates high-performing, site-specific buildings and produces educational materials about sustainable design.

Increasing the efficiency of mechanical systems, optimizing building envelopes and capitalizing on renewable resources through items like photovoltaic arrays are design choices Transsolar routinely makes to limit the amount of carbon their buildings use and emit. Environmentally responsible building design, however high-tech, can only be successful when it’s conceived with mindfulness of locality and community, Bistossi said.

“Every building is different because of the local identity. And local identity and climate are connected,” he said.

Bitossi believes that making efforts to reduce global warming through the built environment doesn’t necessarily mean we have to give up the comforts we’re used to. Moving away from buildings that are essentially overly air-conditioned machines and back to incorporating passive strategies for air flow and thermal comfort, he says, will be key climate change solutions.

“There is no carbon reduction without thermal comfort. We still want to be able to move, travel and be comfortable in our buildings. We need to reach the point of carbon neutrality keeping our standards where they are,” he said.

There is no carbon reduction without thermal comfort.

High-performing buildings are only one piece of the puzzle — limiting global warming will depend on a variety of industries and organizations to work together. To reduce both embodied carbon and operational carbon emissions, Bitossi recommends integrated cross-sector solutions that consider local power sources, materials manufacturing and carbon sequestration.

Across all industries, wide-sweeping and immediate changes to reduce carbon worldwide are necessary, the IPCC report stipulates. Bitossi believes that designers and their collaborators have to make these changes a priority moving forward.  “As building professionals, we must advocate for low-carbon buildings for the future of our planet,” he said.

3 – We Should Flip the Script on Carbon and Materials

Having even a basic understanding of the damage carbon dioxide does to the atmosphere — whether it comes from building emissions or the burning of fossil fuels — is enough to cause fear and panic. But it doesn’t have to, according to Lisa Conway, Vice President of Sustainability, Americas for the global flooring company Interface.

“Carbon inherently is not a bad thing,” Conway said. “We’re all made of carbon. We have just taken too much of it and put it in the wrong place.”

Carbon inherently is not a bad thing.

To reach a carbon neutral future, Conway believes we need to “change our relationship with carbon” and focus not just on limiting the amount that goes into the atmosphere, but also drawing down the massive amount already there and repurposing it. In addition to promoting this shift in mindset, Interface’s Climate Take Back mission seeks to transform the building materials industry to be “a force for climate progress.” Interface is leading by example with a commitment to be a carbon negative enterprise by 2040 and has even developed carbon negative carpet tiles.

Materials like flooring represent a significant portion of the embodied carbon in a building project. For architects, interior designers and contractors, who all have a hand in specifying and installing materials, understanding embodied carbon and how to limit it is a crucial step they can all take in the fight against climate change. Conway recommends starting small by learning how to read and understand environmental product declarations (EPDs) and making thoughtful healthy material selections, one step at a time.

“You don’t need to know everything all at once. Become an expert on one material and then share the love of that knowledge,” she said. Conway added that she believes over time, as the building industries become more environmentally conscious, carbon negative materials that positively impact the planet will become more prevalent.

“When we can get to materials that we’re familiar with that can be carbon negative, I think it really bodes well for the industry of materials in general,” she said. “The real moonshot here is not about how much less bad we can do, but actually how we can make buildings part of the solution to reversing global warming.”