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Our Moral Imperative

We must do whatever we can to reduce the carbon footprints of buildings.


By Charles Linn, FAIA

Anthropologist Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, describes in great detail the trajectories of several different societies that prospered admirably for hundreds of years, only to disappear. Some of the populations he chronicles died off entirely; those that survived endured drastically lowered standards of living. Several were the victims of severe climate change. It is Diamond’s thorough examination of the advance and collapse of Easter Island’s civilization, however, that is the most disturbing. Archaeological evidence shows that the islanders had a sophisticated social hierarchy, practiced agriculture and deep-sea fishing, and, of course, made giant statues of their ancestors. But over time their lifestyle consumed nearly all the natural resources on which their quality of life depended. Diamond calls the 63-square-mile island’s deforestation “among the most extreme in the world: the whole forest [is] gone, and all of its tree species extinct.” During the course of six centuries, the island’s fragile ecosystem was gradually destroyed, its population numbers plummeted, and the sophisticated technologies and social structure that supported its people went with them.

Photo courtesy Corbis Corporation
Author Jared Diamond calls the deforestation of Easter Island “among the most extreme in the world”(top). In 2004, coal-fired plants owned by the 100 largest U.S. utilities generated 17 billion megawatt-hours of electricity and, on average, 2,220 lbs of CO2 for each megawatt hour (bottom).
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It is not a simple matter to draw analogies between the fate of Easter Island and what could be the future of the societies that occupy Planet Earth. One difference is that the islanders didn’t create much in the way of global pollution in the process of powering their activities. We do, according to Ceres, a coalition of environmentally responsive investors and public-interest groups: In 2004 the coal-fired plants owned by the 100 largest U.S. utility companies generated 17 billion megawatt-hours of electricity, and for each megawatt-hour an average of 2,220 pounds of CO2 was produced. Carbon dioxide is, of course, the greenhouse gas that contributes more to the causes of global warming than any other. One hundred and thirty new coal-fired power plants have been proposed for the United States. How much coal does it take to run a power plant? John McPhee, writing in the New Yorker last year, can help us visualize it: Coming and going, loaded and empty, “thirty-five dedicated unit coal trains are in almost perpetual motion between the Powder River Basin [in Wyoming] and Georgia’s Plant Scherer.… [It is,] in terms of megawatts produced, the largest coal-fired power plant in the Western Hemisphere.” It takes “thirteen hundred coal trains per year—two thousand miles of coal cars, twelve million tons of the bedrock of Wyoming,” to keep it stoked.

It is said that 70 percent of the electricity generated in the U.S. is consumed by the operation of buildings. The good news is that the United States’ level square footage of existing building stock, which is two-thirds residential, is increasing very slowly at present. Early this year, McGraw-Hill Construction estimated that it has only increased by 10 percent since 2000. The bad news is that the total building inventory stands at about 223 billion square feet. These numbers are based on calculations, assumed demolition rates, and many other data sources; so while they’re not the result of a census of actual buildings, they do give one an idea about where all that power is going. No matter how much the energy consumption of the existing building stock is reduced, it seems it cannot be done fast enough.

Much of the responsibility for reducing our society’s carbon output rests on the companies that make power, the entities that regulate them, and those who own them. Investors own most utility companies, and large institutional investors in particular have the influence and the responsibility to force them to develop and adopt carbon-absorbing and -reducing technologies. Another strategy is to build nuclear power plants, but unless they get built faster than Wal-Marts, any serious solution has to focus largely on reducing demand.

The design community is in a position to reduce demand just by changing our design and specifying habits. The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system gives designers a method that almost anyone can use to engage with the societal impacts of creating or remodeling a building, operating it, and dismantling it at the end of its life. Whether or not we register and certify every building is beside the point. At least we should take the training, understand how LEED works, and commit to using its many beneficial ideas so we can make a difference. The AIA has also proposed the ambitious goal of reducing fossil fuel consumption in buildings 50 percent by 2010, and up to 90 percent by 2030, using building performance standards, governmental mandates, and incentive-based regulations to get greenhouse-gas emissions reduced.

Jared Diamond wonders what the person who cut down the last tree on Easter Island said to the others as he readied his ax. Was it, “Never fear, we will find a substitute for trees”? Or, “We don’t know that there aren’t more trees somewhere else”? Or was it, “Your proposed ban on logging is premature and driven by fear-mongering”? Although we are not speaking literally about trees here, the axes rest in our collective hands. Climate change is real, and that makes doing green design a moral imperative for us. We have an obligation to use our substantial influence to help determine what becomes of the rest of our forest.

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This article appeared in the June 2006 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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