The first lockdown brought most of the world to a standstill, and many were quick to point out the silver lining: the significant drop in carbon emissions. However, this pollution reduction was short-lived, and past crises indicate that we might be standing at a crossroads when it comes to our climate goals. What has this unprecedented year meant for the efforts to curb climate change and protect the environment?
As most economic activities have slowed down this year, especially in spring, a significant drop in greenhouse gases was expected. After several months of lockdown, severely reduced air traffic and closed construction sites carbon emissions this year have only gone down 5.5% from 2019 (according to the latest data). This not only illustrates how the pandemic’s impact on climate change was overstated, but it paints an entirely new picture of the scale and effort required to shift the needle in terms of carbon emissions. As the pandemic unfolded, climate disruption continued apace. 2020 is on track to be one of the three warmest years on record, completing a streak of six consecutive years each one hotter than the other. The year was also marked by extreme weather events, from the devastating bushfires in Australia, floods in Asia and the USA, to severe droughts in South America, all consequences of the climate change.
The pandemic has created a surge in plastic waste, adding to the already dire pollution problem. Naturally, this year’s main priority has been mitigating the virus spread by implementing collaborative protective measures. The latter, however, generated large quantities of waste, from disposable masks and other PPE to increased use of acrylic screens, together with other single-use plastic items. For now, the technology for recycling acrylic screens is expensive and may generate harmful by-products and the PPE used in medical facilities in largely non-recyclable. 2020 has therefore meant a setback in the fight against plastic pollution, with negative consequences for wildlife.
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Challenging times usually spearhead structural changes, and that was the case with the 70s’ oil crises, which marked a decrease in oil reliance, and a shift towards natural gas, resulting in a drop in carbon emissions (natural gas emits 50 to 60% less carbon dioxide than coal or oil). However, the 2008 financial crisis has failed to shift the global economy towards a carbon emission decrease. On the contrary, with countries struggling to recover, emissions increased, especially in emerging economies, reaching an all-time high in 2010. As governments around the world are currently rolling out bailout policies attempting to save jobs, sustainability agendas might be easily (and understandably) side-tracked. Moreover, leading oil and gas companies around the world are taking advantage of the situation to demand government bailouts and the ease of environmental regulations, setting back the fight against climate change.
Many scholars and environmental scientists see this pandemic as an opportunity to redirect our industries. The aviation sector is already taking steps towards a more sustainable future, with Airbus announcing its plan to have a hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft in service by 2035. However, transportation accounts for 14% of global emissions. In comparison, the AEC industry is responsible for a staggering 39% of global greenhouse gases; hence, the later must make great strides in years to come and act with a sense of urgency. The production of steel and concrete, the two most common construction materials, generates 10% of the world’s annual greenhouse gases; therefore, there is a strong imperative to shift towards sustainable alternatives. Also, adaptive re-use, material recycling and design for disassembly need to become standard practices, as is essential for architecture and the construction sector to embrace innovation quickly and programmatically.
As of now, the current pandemic has mostly prompted architects to question spatial typologies. Still, it should also have put the industry’s relationship with the environment into sharper focus. This year, the profession continued its attempts to fully commit to a standard set of principles and goals regarding climate change. However, as well-intended professional initiatives like Architects Declare might be, they are only as strong as the members’ commitment. In this very case, the project’s scope might be hindered by the recent withdrawal the two largest members of the network, Zaha Hadid Architects and Foster+Partners due to differences regarding specific architectural programs, problematic to the fight against climate change. It goes to show that for effective change to happen, the profession needs policies and building codes mandating sustainable design principles.
The AEC industry can bring a significant contribution to curbing climate change in the following years. As scientists point to growing evidence that the same activities that contribute to climate change, enable the emergence of new diseases, is time for the industry to consider sustainable design not as the right thing to do, but as the only option.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: 2020 In Review. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our monthly topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.