We are surrounded by recommendations. Everywhere we turn we find grand solutions to the grand problem of climate change. Many of the visionaries around us insist on broad policy moves, like a carbon tax, which has little chance of implementation when numerous politicians choose not to accept the simple facts of climate change. Others have focused their resources on battling signature projects like the Keystone pipeline- a battle that might be incredibly important but is largely symbolic. So we do not lack for big pronouncements. What we lack are nuts-and-bolts solutions that we can, each of us, deploy today, while the larger political and geopolitical battles are waged. In this context, it was with great expectations that I picked up Two Degrees, a remarkably practical book by a stellar team at Arup including Fiona Cousins, Alisdair McGregor and Cole Roberts, and 10 additional contributors. Fiona Cousins is on the USGBC Board of Directors and an Urban Green Board Member Emeritus.
It seems likely that Two Degrees will become a definitive resource on the role of the built environment in producing, mitigating and adapting to our changing climate. The book is divided into three broad sections; Fundamentals, Mitigation and Adaptation. Since Sandy, everyone has been talking about resilience and adaptation but as this book was started roughly four years ago the strong emphasis on those subjects has to be counted as relatively prescient.
The Fundamentals section includes a review of the science of climate change and new findings since the most recent IPCC Report in 2007. (And the source of the book’s title.) It’s a strong summary, but for me, this focus on the science tends to obscure the singular content of the book- which are strategies for the built environment- and might even play into the hands of climate change deniers with the inherent assumption that the science needs to be reiterated or bolstered in some way. (And if you’re reading the book, you probably aren’t among those that need convincing about the now fantastically obvious science of climate change.) These early chapters also outline the role of the built environment in greenhouse gas emissions, the major policy prescriptions being pursued at different scales and the basic synergy between mitigation and adaptation. The content of this opening section is first rate, but I’m not sure it’s necessary. I couldn’t help wishing the authors had spent time further deepening the exemplary solutions featured later in the book rather than review and update science that is dealt with in so many other places.
I say this partially because the solutions portion of the book is excellent. To date, most of the work in this field has been approached from two distinct perspectives. On the one hand you have the pied pipers, like Al Gore in the film An Inconvenient Truth and Ed Mazria with Architecture 2030, who have focused almost entirely on challenges at the expense of solutions. This can be pretty frustrating and has left a lot of folks on the sidelines- folks that might have engaged in the fight if they’d been handed some tools. On the other hand, among those who have focused on overcoming those challenges. the overwhelming emphasis has been on individual technical widgets that can be plugged into any given project. From solar panels to high efficiency equipment, there is a huge amount of marketing and salesmanship driving what I cannot help but call green Band-Aids.
Two Degrees avoids these pitfalls by largely focusing on the design/decision making process- and then providing a few key examples of successful outcomes from that process. How you approach lowering the impact of a building or community- the actual steps you take, the questions you ask, the tools you use to answer them, and the stakeholders you involve- has a remarkable effect on the results of any project. This focus on the process of decision making (there is even a chapter on how humans make choices, and how irrational we are about them) is commendable and much needed. Following the critical path thinking outlined in various ways throughout this book should improve any project, regardless of scale. They describe, for instance, the importance of 1) reducing loads (both internal and external), 2) developing passive strategies (like natural ventilation or thermal mass) to the extent feasible, prior to 3) developing active strategies to condition the environment and counter the much reduced loads that remain. Only then do they recommend the introduction of renewable energy and offsets. Such a process will allow most teams to optimize buildings as whole systems rather than discrete parts, and understand the multiplied savings that ensue when you pay for one system to solve multiple problems (or, to put it another way, to produce multiple efficiencies.) One of the primary examples the authors offered in support of this process, the subject of an entire chapter, are the efforts over the last decade by Walmart to dramatically reduce its environmental impact. The systems and thinking deployed in this effort are described in great detail, from passive building strategies like daylighting to active systems like a cogeneration plant. Perhaps most notably they don’t shy away from the various challenges the project faced, including commissioning complicated systems, lower-than-expected performance of some equipment, and the prohibitive cost of deploying some of the most successful upgrades, like solar PV panels, across their entire portfolio.
The authors address both the design of buildings and communities, and quite sensibly devote a separate chapter to the particular challenges of existing buildings. (There is a nice case study of a UC San Francisco project in which simple monitoring of airflow rates produced savings in fan power, heating and cooling energy.) Although I wish the community design chapter in the mitigation portion of the book was more granular, the authors do an admirable job of describing the different challenges faced by inland and coastal communities in adapting to climate change. The book excels at describing solutions that address both mitigation and adaptation and they boldly address the cost and economy of climate-positive solutions (a topic most design and engineering professionals avoid.) They also outline the risks for communities in hotter, drier climates as opposed to warmer, wetter climates. These chapters break strategies down in to items that must be done now, like increasing professional capacity and selecting the right places to build, and things like the Thames Barrier in London that must be done in certain long-term timeframes of 25, 100 and 200 years. I will be surprised if these chapters do not become required reading for everyone, including policy makers, looking at adapting to anticipated changes to regional climates.
I have a few quibbles with the book. There are some strong visuals but some of the graphics leave the reader guessing as to the message being conveyed, and some images are not particularly educational or are given a prominence at odds with their importance. There is a fair amount of overly technical language that will limit the book’s appeal to lay people (including chapter titles like Low Carbon and Climate Positive Communities which I had to think about for a second to gather what they were talking about.)
Today, most project teams understand that sustainability is something that they must address in some way. But many still leap from ill-defined green goals to a list of technological widgets that have been incorporated into projects that are not otherwise impacted by green thinking. For those looking to dislodge projects from this typical track, Two Degrees will be an incredibly valuable resource. It goes a long way to helping those folks to, as Amory Lovins says in the introduction, “. . . create abundance by design, through practical transformation, in a spirit of applied hope.”