Saturday, December 3, 2011

COPing it in Debben 2011

Summer, Durban, 2011. Its hot, muggy and very much not Cape Town, which seems to be struggling out of winter as though mired in treacle. The worlds climate negotiators have descended on the International Convention Centre with their entourages and the host of professionals, NGOs, corporates, government representatives and other climate trough-feeders in tow. The night before the conference, storms ravaged Durban with a number of casualties a tragic (although timely) reminder of how our changing climate will change urban life, especially for the poor.

My reason for being here is the annual architectural side event organised by the South African Institute for Architects (SAIA) and the International Union of Architects (UIA) Sustainability by Design: built environment strategies in response to climate change. I was one of the panelist for the interactive event attended by some 200 architects, providing some engineering perspectives on our urban response to climate change.

The broad context at this Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), appears to be one of slow movement on global climate funding, amid threats of Canadian withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol (to join their North American neighbours in the dirty energy business). This amid a widening trust-gap between major players, developed and developing nations and even within negotiating blocs. My expectations for the global negotiations are low I dont foresee binding agreements soon, but I do have hopes for individual sectors, cities and other governance forums for substantial action in the absence of global agreement. Going into COP17, it was imagined that this round of negotiations would see the worlds premier cities rising to the challenge to address climate change and Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. I still have hopes of that.

So then, what role for the built environment - a sector which is responsible for at least 40% and perhaps as much as 60% of global GHG emissions?

Let me first frame the conference In contrast with previous built environment conferences, this was not talking heads experts lecturing an audience on their latest project or opinion - this conference was a conversation. This was primarily an architectural audience interacting with an inter-disciplinary panel, exploring climate scenarios in the built environment (with expertise ranging from food security to urban design to integral coaching a full list of panelists can be sourced here:

Short inputs of 4 minutes each from this panel were interspersed with discussions in a 'fishbowl' format (where vacant seats on the panel are temporarily filled by audience members to explore ideas). Day one of the conference was an introduction to COP, followed by an exercise in scenarios relating to the rate of climate change and peak oil. It was an exploration of the capacity we have in the built environment to address climate and energy scenarios. The scenarios explored were those presented by Permaculture co-founder David Holmgren ( in the face of 'energy descent' (as cheap, high intensity energy sources peak and plateau). It was an eye-opening exercise in trying to describe what a low-energy future might look like, and especially so in the face of climate uncertainty.

My journey through the conference started with speaking in the 'green tech' scenario session (one of Holmgren's scenarios, consisting of relatively benign climate change and slow energy descent). This is probably what most sustainability professionals consider the likely scenario. What I learned from trying to visualise a true energy descent scenario, was the impact on current decision-making in terms of function. Buildings that are able to function without active mechanical or electrical systems will be at an advantage in any energy descent scenario. Similarly, any urban system which does not build in resilience to a low-energy world runs a significant risk of redundancy within its lifetime. The time-scale of Holmgren's scenarios are 5-7 years for 'fast descent' and in the order of 35 years for 'slow descent'. The economic life of built environment systems is longer than both these periods, so low-energy design should become a primary decision-making point for current projects, as energy descent is a credible scenario for major systemic change within building life-spans.

The other scenarios ('brown tech', 'earth steward' and 'lifeboats') explored a range of possible futures, from primitivism through to mega-cities, each with their compelling and terrifying aspects. The strength of exploring these scenarios was not in their predictive capacity, but rather in the way they opened one's thinking to consider alternatives to the dominant story around energy availability. I think most delegates and panelists left the first day feeling deeply unsettled, questioning the potential within our industry to function in a low-energy and climatically unstable world.

The second day consisted of a series of workshops to explore our capacity within the built environment to respond to these scenarios at local, national and global levels; as well as understanding the gaps in our capacity to play a meaningful role in humanity's response to climate change. Afterwards, panelists and delegates engaged with the global, national and city-scale debates; framed a range of priorities; and brainstormed actions to move the built environment forward. There were elements of heated debate on the role of cities, and mega-cities in particular.

In contrast to day one, day two was more empowering - the full audience was engaged to explore potential responses, and here credit must be given to the facilitators. A group of nearly two hundred people combined through three workshop sessions to explore what climate change and energy descent would mean for  our industry, and what immediate steps we can take. Initial discussions identified 'elephants in the room' and brought out some key options, which were in turn whittled down through a vote to four strategies for action. The final session provided for the exploration of these core themes in terms of actions.

One of the real eye-openers for me was the use of 'back-casting' to explore potential solutions - starting from a future point of having successfully negotiated climate change, and then exploring what steps would have been critical in arriving there. 'Back-casting' is a tool I'm excited about exploring in design workshops in the future. The outcomes of these workshops were four focus areas on which the industry could take immediate action:
  • Developing a strategic plan for the built environment in the face of climate change;
  • Building trans-disciplinary capacity for engagement with national government on climate policy;
  • Telling a compelling story relating to climate change in the built environment; and
  • Fostering professional ties with education facilities to build climate sensitivity into built environment training.

I threw myself into the strategic response workshop, but found the discussion difficult, with many disparate perspectives struggling to hold a cohesive conversation around responses. High levels engagement, some of it passionate - but what emerged for me was incredibly fragmented. Despite this, the outcomes could be useful in the local context, with some potential actions from which to build urban resilience. 

In summary, the key points of the strategy are:

  • Establishing urban design standards for resilience;
  • Shifting our financial mindset to life-cycle costing;
  • Supporting an inter-disciplinary forum for climate-related issues;
  • Focusing on affordable and appropriate technology;
  • Devising tax or rates incentives for addressing climate change on projects;
  • Matching adaptation and mitigation action with real development needs;
  • Decentralising urban infrastructure; and
  • Retrofitting the urban environment.

Immediate actions relating to this strategy are:
  • Taking a report from the conference to all built environment institutes and convene a discussion between them (architectural, engineering, quantity surveying, urban design and building institutes) to address climate resilience.
  • Making a bold call to the built environment to include adaptation and mitigation actions in their standards.
  • Specifically approaching the Urban Design Institute of South Africa to prioritise climate change resilience in the urban design standards.
  • SAIA requesting the assistance of the Institute for Quantity Surveyors in developing life-cycle costing standards and guidelines.

Actions from the other workshops included the drafting of a charter for addressing climate change through design in our built environment; and a wide range of education options for incorporating climate change awareness into training (including apprenticeships, professional development programs and leadership training). To me the charter is one of the most critical, and the one with potential to spark a global impact, however there is a long road ahead to gain wider support.

These actions appear credible to me, and the level of engagement was impressive for a conference where many delegates probably weren't expecting to work so hard. And for these reasons, the conference was a tremendous success. However, I left the final session with a deep sense of unease over the potential of the built environment to provide a sufficiently concise view of climate action that would be be useful in global negotiations. 'Fragmented' is the word that springs to mind again and again, and that within a gathering of people largely from within a single profession!

An element of real concern for me was the lack of an international perspective on climate action - as if the challenges at a national level were already too much to address suitably. In a previous post I have already explored the difficulty of looking at the built environment through just a mitigation lens, due to its complexity. This conference served to reinforce my view. We are dealing with such incredibly complex beasts in our urban spaces, that tell so many concurrent stories, that it might just not be possible to condense them into a single narrative and strategy.

I also believe that focusing on resilience and adaptation holds the most potential... and this can be addressed outside of any coherent international framework.

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