Robert Socolow is a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and the co-director of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative at Princeton University. Originally a theoretical physicist, he now devotes his time to studying global carbon management and fossil-carbon sequestration. Socolow recently spoke with contributing editor Charles Linn, FAIA, about his influential stabilization wedge idea and the role architects can play in decreasing carbon emissions.
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GreenSource: What inspired you to study the viability of reducing carbon emissions on a global scale?
Robert Socolow: We have a long-term challenge, which I call fitting on the planet. There are many of us, and we want to live well but we don’t fit. Even after we stabilize the world population, we will be pressing against global limits in the atmosphere, absorptive capacity for carbon dioxide, fossil-fuel resources, water, and land. We live on a single planet; everybody’s carbon emissions get stirred together to give you a single rising number.
GS: Can you explain the main concepts from your paper entitled “Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies”?
RS: When Stephen Pacala and I developed this idea in 2004, the world was putting 25 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year (right now it’s 30 billion). At this rate, we estimated that the number would rise to 50 billion tons per year by 2055. We sought to understand how the world could keep this from happening, so we decided to cut the problem into wedges. Each wedge corresponds to an environmental strategy that would stop the world from emitting 4 billion tons of carbon dioxide on a yearly basis. For example, building one million 2 mW windmills instead of coal plants between now and 2055 would reduce global emissions by 4 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. You need about eight of these wedges to get the job done, and this aggregate of solutions has the potential to take care of our planetary problems.
GS: How does architecture fit into the wedge theory?
RS: If electricity use in buildings is reduced by one-fourth using advanced lighting, improved air conditioning and appliances, and cogeneration systems that integrate heat and electricity in building structures, you would have a wedge. If the energy efficiency in buildings isn’t measured, it isn’t going to happen. We must start with the goal of improved performance and the expectation that we don’t exactly know how to do it. If we spend the time and money researching and learning, then we will see much deeper reductions in energy use in buildings. I started this initiative in the 1970s, and there is still not as much progress as I would have hoped.
GS: In your view, what can architects do in order to mitigate the effect of carbon on the environment?
RS: Most architects consider my stance a performance-oriented view of building design. Another view of architecture focuses on what the building looks like, its historical references, and how people use it, but not the resources that go into it. Every building is a resource-consuming machine, and many architects put that issue into a subordinate category. Energy efficiency is the most benign way to address climate change; the alternative is to generate more energy, but every energy source has its dark side. Architects can work with policy-makers to create strong incentives to achieve energy efficiency. The world will be well served if the next generation of architects creatively addresses these environmental challenges.
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