Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Adaptation: a path to reduced carbon emissions

The two key themes for the COP negotiations (of which number 17 is soon to commence in South Africa) are securing international agreement and commitment on the mitigation of climate change through reduced GHG emissions and adaptation to the inevitable effects of the currently locked-in temperature rise.

To date much of the focus within the built environment has been for the mitigation potential of green buildings. It has formed the basis of the NABERS rating system in Australia and is the rack on which Green Star largely hangs its hat. However the complex nature of the built environment does not match the certainty of emissions reduction required by current international and national policy instruments such as the clean develoment mechanism (CDM). The complexity of the built environment is largely why CDM has not been widely adopted in financing energy efficiency in the built environment.

It is important here to note that complex systems are different from complicated systems. Complex systems display a degree of chaotic behaviour, where the multiple cross-linked relationships mean that small changes can produce large and unexpected effects. Complicated, but simple systems often have many interconnected steps, but the relationship of input and output is well understood and predictable (such as the accelerator on a motor car).

One of the requirements for rewarding mitigation actions is that the potential emissions reduction must be verified before finance can be made available. This direct link of investment to predicted emissions reduction works well for straightforward (simple) industrial processes and renewable energy generation, but has proved a poor fit for investment in alternative urban systems. It is also clear that industrial and RE processes are primarily related to energy production/consumption (which is core to broad emissions reduction globally), but not to less tangible effects like place-making, livability, social cohesion or relationships which should be priorities in our built environment.

With advanced modelling systems, we have developed our ability to design buildings for a pre-determined level of energy consumption, given certain restrictions on tenant behaviour. This has driven a wave of lobbying to provide climate finance to the built environment for mitigation. However this call has largely been unsuccessful. The design solutions we are coming up with are seldom a step change from the status quo, and our predicted emissions reductions are still too reliant unreliable factors. These advanced tools have allowed us to deal with some of the complexities of climate, but not of human behavior and not to the degree required by international mitigation agreements.

That being said, there is broad agreement that the built environment has a large role to play in driving emissions reduction. The key challenge is how to provide incentives for more climate-effective design in the face on complex urban systems.

One option is to recognise that the design responses to climate change adaptation have potential to reward initiatives for their resilience. Resilience is a characteristic of complex systems and thus does not have tightly defined parameters in the sense that mitigation does. The emerging thinking on decentralised systems is also pointing towards resilience as having a large mitigation potential, as well as allowing our cities to adapt to a changing cimate.

When considering adaptation, it is far less important to verify emissions reduction than to demonstrate system resilience under a range of potential scenarios. Designing for adaptation will necessarily take a wide range of factors into account; energy security, water scarcity, food security, waste stream utilisation, social fabric, civil society and ecological system health among others. It shouldn't surprise us that in addressing adaptation, we start to look to the very systems that are emerging at the cutting edge of broad sustainability.

Furthermore, through current funding instruments such as the Least Developed Nations Fund, Climate Adaptation Fund and much of the bilateral funding available to African nations, we may have a direct source of international preferential finance for broad sustainability on the basis of adaptation.

The secret to successful mitigation action in the developing world built environment, as well as a renewed focus on much broader sustainability might well require the prioritising of design for adaptation to climate change. And a renewed focus on adaptation may well be the secret to unlocking climate finance in the built environment.

In light of this opportunity, I believe there are some key questions which need consideration, and I would welcome input from any readers:

  What are the characteristics of resilient systems in the built environment?
  What are the key urban systems at risk due to climate change?
  Which urban systems are intrinsic to adaptation, but also have mitigation potential?
  What are the key weak points of current city morphology in terms of climate resilience?

1 comment:

  1. Love the comparison of complicated vs complex. Very true. I wrote a similar post about the work I'm doing for the fifth estate - Http://