The coffee tasted bad. Acrid and with a sweet, sickly smell. The sort of coffee that results from overfilling the filter machine and then leaving the brew to stew on the hot plate for several hours. The sort of coffee I would drink continually during the day to keep whatever gears left in my head turning.
Odours are powerfully connected to memories. And so it’s the smell of that bad coffee which has become entwined with the memory of my sudden realisation that we are facing utter ruin.
It was the spring of 2011, and I had managed to corner a very senior member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) during a coffee break at a workshop. The IPCC was established in 1988 as a response to increasing concern that the observed changes in the Earth’s climate are being largely caused by humans.
The IPCC reviews the vast amounts of science being generated around climate change and produces assessment reports every four years. Given the impact the IPPC’s findings can have on policy and industry, great care is made to carefully present and communicate its scientific findings. So I wasn’t expecting much when I straight out asked him how much warming he thought we were going to achieve before we manage to make the required cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.
“Oh, I think we’re heading towards 3°C at least,” he said.
“Ah, yes, but heading towards,” I countered: “We won’t get to 3°C, will we?” (Because whatever you think of the 2°C threshold that separates “safe” from “dangerous” climate change, 3°C is well beyond what much of the world could bear.)
“Not so,” he replied.
That wasn’t his hedge, but his best assessment of where, after all the political, economic, and social wrangling we will end up.
“But what about the many millions of people directly threatened,” I went on. “Those living in low-lying nations, the farmers affected by abrupt changes in weather, kids exposed to new diseases?”
He gave a sigh, paused for a few seconds, and a sad, resigned smile crept over his face. He then simply said: “They will die.”
This article is part of Conversation Insights
The Conversation’s Insights team generates long-form journalism derived from interdisciplinary research. The team is working with academics from different backgrounds who have been engaged in projects aimed at tackling societal and scientific challenges. In generating these narratives we hope to bring areas of interdisciplinary research to a wider audience.
That episode marked a clear boundary between two stages of my academic career. At the time, I was a new lecturer in the area of complex systems and Earth system science. Previously, I had worked as a research scientist on an international astrobiology project based in Germany.
In many ways, that had been my dream job. As a young boy, I had lain on the grass on clear summer evenings and looked up at one of the dots in the night sky and wondered if around that star a planet orbited with beings that could look up from the surface of their world and similarly wonder about the chances of life being found within the unremarkable solar system we call home in the universe. Years later, my research involves thinking about how surface life can affect the atmosphere, oceans and even rocks of the planet it lives on.
That’s certainly the case with life on Earth. At a global scale, the air we all breathe contains oxygen largely as a result of photosynthetic life, while an important part of the UK’s national identity for some – the white cliffs of Dover – are comprised of countless numbers of tiny marine organisms that lived more than 70m years ago.
So it wasn’t a very large step from thinking about how life has radically altered the Earth over billions of years to my new research that considers how a particular species has wrought major changes within the most recent few centuries. Whatever other attributes Homo sapiens may have – and much is made of our opposable thumbs, upright walking and big brains – our capacity to impact the environment far and wide is perhaps unprecedented in all of life’s history. If nothing else, we humans can make an almighty mess.
Change within a lifetime
I was born in the early 1970s. This means in my lifetime the number of people on Earth has doubled, while the size of wild animal populations has been reduced by 60%. Humanity has swung a wrecking ball through the biosphere. We have chopped down over half of the world’s rainforests and by the middle of this century there may not be much more than a quarter left. This has been accompanied by a massive loss in biodiversity, such that the biosphere may be entering one of the great mass extinction events in the history of life on Earth.
What makes this even more disturbing, is that these impacts are as yet largely unaffected by climate change. Climate change is the ghosts of impacts future. It has the potential to ratchet up whatever humans have done to even higher levels. Credible assessments conclude that one in six species are threatened with extinction if climate change continues.
The scientific community has been sounding the alarm over climate change for decades. The political and economic response has been at best sluggish. We know that in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we need to rapidly reduce emissions now.
The sudden increase in media coverage of climate change as a result of the actions of Extinction Rebellion and school strike for climate pioneer Greta Thunburg, demonstrates that wider society is waking up to the need for urgent action. Why has it taken the occupation of Parliament Square in London or children across the world walking out of school to get this message heard?
There is another way of looking at how we have been responding to climate change and other environmental challenges. It’s both exhilarating and terrifying. Exhilarating because it offers a new perspective that could cut through inaction. Terrifying as it could, if we are not careful, lead to resignation and paralysis.
Because one explanation for our collective failure on climate change is that such collective action is perhaps impossible. It’s not that we don’t want to change, but that we can’t. We are locked into a planetary-scale system that while built by humans, is largely beyond our control. This system is called the technosphere.
Coined by US geoscientist Peter Haff in 2014, the technosphere is the system that consists of individual humans, human societies – and stuff. In terms of stuff, humans have produced an extraordinary 30 trillion metric tons of things. From skyscrapers to CDs, fountains to fondue sets. A good deal of this is infrastructure, such as roads and railways, which links humanity together.
Along with the physical transport of humans and the goods they consume is the transfer of information between humans and their machines. First through the spoken word, then parchment and paper-based documents, then radio waves converted to sound and pictures, and subsequently digital information sent via the internet. These networks facilitate human communities. From roving bands of hunter-gatherers and small farming tribes, right up to the inhabitants of a megacity that teams with over 10m inhabitants, Homo sapiens is a fundamentally social species.
Just as important, but much less tangible, is society and culture. The realm of ideas and beliefs, of habits and norms. Humans do a great many different things because in important ways they see the world in different ways. These differences are often held to be the root cause of our inability to take effective global action. There is no global government, for a start.
But as different as we all are, the vast majority of humanity is now behaving in fundamentally similar ways. Yes, there are still some nomads who roam tropical rainforests, still some roving sea gypsies. But more than half of the global population now lives in urban environments and nearly all are in some way connected to industrialised activities. Most of humanity is tightly enmeshed into a globalised, industrialised complex system – that of the technosphere.
Importantly, the size, scale and power of the technosphere has dramatically grown since World War II. This tremendous increase in the number of humans, their energy and material consumption, food production and environmental impact has been dubbed the Great Acceleration.
The tyranny of growth
It seems sensible to assume that the reason products and services are made is so that they can be bought and sold and so the makers can turn a profit. So the drive for innovation – for faster, smaller phones, for example – is driven by being able to make more money by selling more phones. In line with this, the environmental writer George Monbiot argued that the root cause of climate change and other environmental calamities is capitalism and consequently any attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will ultimately fail if we allow capitalism to continue.
But zooming out from the toil of individual manufacturers, and even humanity, allows us to take a fundamentally different perspective, one that transcends critiques of capitalism and other forms of government.
Humans consume. In the first instance, we must eat and drink in order to maintain our metabolism, to stay alive. Beyond that, we need shelter and protection from physical elements.
There are also the things we need to perform our different jobs and activities and to travel to and from our jobs and activities. And beyond that is more discretional consumption: TVs, games consoles, jewellery, fashion.
The purpose of humans in this context is to consume products and services. The more we consume, the more materials will be extracted from the Earth, and the more energy resources consumed, the more factories and infrastructure built. And ultimately, the more the technosphere will grow.
The emergence and development of capitalism obviously lead to the growth of the technosphere: the application of markets and legal systems allows increased consumption and so growth. But other political systems may serve the same purpose, with varying degrees of success. Recall the industrial output and environmental pollution of the former Soviet Union. In the modern world, all that matters is growth.
The idea that growth is ultimately behind our unsustainable civilisation is not a new concept. Thomas Malthus famously argued there were limits to human population growth, while the Club of Rome’s 1972 book, Limits to Growth, presented simulation results that pointed to a collapse in global civilisation.
Today, alternative narratives to the growth agenda are, perhaps, getting political traction with an All Party Parliamentary Group convening meetings and activities that seriously consider de-growth policies. And curbing growth within environmental limits is central to the idea of a Green New Deal, which is now being discussed seriously in the US, UK, and other nations.
If growth is the problem, then we just have to work at that, right? This won’t be easy, as growth is baked into every aspect of politics and economics. But we can at least imagine what a de-growth economy would look like.
My fear, however, is that we will not be able to slow down the growth of the technosphere even if we tried – because we are not actually in control.
Limits to freedom
It may seem nonsense that humans are unable to make important changes to the system they have built. But just how free are we? Rather than being masters of our own destiny, we may be very constrained in how we can act.
Like individual blood cells coursing through capillaries, humans are part of a global-scale system that provides for all their needs and so has led them to rely on it entirely.
If you jump in your car to get to a particular destination, you can’t travel in a straight line “as the crow flies”. You will use roads that in some instances are older than your car, you, or even your nation. A significant fraction of human effort and endeavour is devoted to maintaining this fabric of the technosphere: fixing roads, railways, and buildings, for example.
In that respect, any change must be incremental because it must use what current and previous generations have built. The channelling of people via road networks seems a trivial way to demonstrate that what happened far in the past can constrain the present, but humanity’s path to decarbonisation isn’t going to be direct. It has to start from here and at least in the beginning use existing routes of development.
This isn’t meant to excuse policymakers for their failure of ambition, or lack of bravery. But it indicates that there may be deeper reasons why carbon emissions are not decreasing even when there appears to be increasingly good news about alternatives to fossil fuels.
Think about it: at the global scale, we have witnessed a phenomenal rate of deployment of solar, wind, and other sources of renewable energy generation. But global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. This is because renewables promote growth – they simply represent another method of extracting energy, rather than replacing an existing one.
The relationship between the size of the global economy and carbon emissions is so robust that US physicist Tim Garret has proposed a very simple formula that links the two with startling accuracy. Using this method, an atmospheric scientist can predict the size of the global economy for the past 60 years with tremendous precision.
But correlation does not necessarily mean causation. That there has been a tight link between economic growth and carbon emissions does not mean that has to continue indefinitely. The tantalisingly simple explanation for this link is that the technosphere can be viewed like an engine: one that works to make cars, roads, clothes, and stuff – even people – using available energy.
The technosphere still has access to abundant supplies of high energy density fossil fuels. And so the absolute decoupling of global carbon emissions from economic growth will not happen until they either run out or the technosphere eventually transitions to alternative energy generation. That may be well beyond the danger zone for humans.
A repugnant conclusion
We have just come to appreciate that our impacts on the Earth system are so large that we have possibly ushered in a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. The Earth’s rocks will bear witness to humans’ impacts long after we disappear. The technosphere can be seen as the engine of the Anthropocene. But that does not mean we are driving it. We may have created this system, but it is not built for our communal benefit. This runs completely counter to how we view our relationship with the Earth system.
Take the planetary boundaries concept, which has generated much interest scientifically, economically, and politically. This idea frames human development as impacting on nine planetary boundaries, including climate change, biodiversity loss, and ocean acidification. If we push past these boundaries, then the Earth system will change in ways that will make human civilisation very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. The value of, say, the biosphere here is that it provides goods and services to us. This represents what we can literally get from the system.
This very human-centric approach should lead to more sustainable development. It should constrain growth. But the technological world system we have built is clever at getting around such constraints. It uses the ingenuity of humans to build new technologies – such as geoengineering – to reduce surface temperatures. That would not halt ocean acidification and so would lead to the potential collapse of ocean ecosystems. No matter. The climate constraint would have been avoided and the technosphere could then get to work overcoming any side effects of biodiversity loss. Fish stocks collapse? Shift to farmed fish or intensively grown algae.
As defined so far, there appears nothing to stop the technosphere liquidating most of the Earth’s biosphere to satisfy its growth. Just as long as goods and services are consumed, the technosphere can continue to grow.
After all, a much smaller and much richer population of the order of hundreds of millions could consume more than the current population of 7.6 billion or the projected population of nine billion by the middle of this century. While there would be widespread disruption, the technosphere may be able to weather climate change beyond 3°C. It does not care, cannot care, that billions of people would have died.
And at some point in the future, the technosphere could even function without humans. We worry about robots taking over human’s jobs. Perhaps we should be more concerned with them taking over our role as apex consumers.
The situation, then, may all seem rather hopeless. Whether or not my argument is an accurate representation of our civilisation, there is the risk it produces a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because if we believe we can’t slow down the growth of the technosphere, then why bother?
This goes beyond the question of “what difference could I make?” to “what difference can anyone make?” While flying less, cutting down on eating meat and dairy and cycling to work are all commendable steps to take, they do not constitute living outside the technosphere.
It’s not just that we give tacit consent to the technosphere by using its roads, computers, or intensively farmed food. It’s that by being a productive member of society, by earning and spending, above all by consuming, we further the technosphere’s growth.
Perhaps the way out from fatalism and disaster is an acceptance that humans may not actually be in control of our planet. This would be the vital first step that could lead to a broader outlook that encompasses more than humans.
For example, the mainstream economic attitude about trees, frogs, mountains, and lakes is that these things only have value if they provide something to us. This mindset sets them up as nothing more than resources to exploit and sinks for waste.
What if we thought of them as components or even our companions in the complex Earth system? Questions about sustainable development then become questions about how growth in the technosphere can be accommodated with their concerns, interests, and welfare as well as ours.
This may produce questions that seem absurd. What are the concerns or interests of a mountain? Of a flea? But if we continue to frame the situation in terms of “us against them”, of human well-being trumping everything else in the Earth system, then we may be effectively hacking away the best form of protection against a dangerously rampant technosphere.
And so the most effective guard against climate breakdown may not be technological solutions, but a more fundamental reimagining of what constitutes a good life on this particular planet. We may be critically constrained in our abilities to change and rework the technosphere, but we should be free to envisage alternative futures. So far our response to the challenge of climate change exposes a fundamental failure of our collective imagination.
To understand you are in a prison, you must first be able to see the bars. That this prison was created by humans over many generations doesn’t change the conclusion that we are currently tightly bound up within a system that could, if we do not act, lead to the impoverishment, and even death of billions of people.
Eight years ago, I woke up to the real possibility that humanity is facing disaster. I can still smell that bad coffee, I can still recall the memory of scrabbling to make sense of the words I was hearing. Embracing the reality of the technosphere doesn’t mean giving up, of meekly returning to our cells. It means grabbing a vital new piece of the map and planning our escape.
The release of a major report looking at the state
of nature presents a grim forecast for the future of humanity and the planet.
Gitika Bhardwaj speaks to Sandra Diaz, co-chair of the report, about what’s
driving this biodiversity crisis and how we can stop it before it’s too late.
Elks gallop in Nanchang, Jiangxi, China. Elks have
been released into the wild to improve biodiversity and protect the ecosystem
of China’s largest freshwater lake. Photo: Getty Images.
Last week, 150
experts from 50 countries released a major report demonstrating that nature is declining globally
at rates unprecedented, with up to 1
million species threatened with extinction, more than at any other
time in human history. What is driving this global loss of biodiversity and how
is it different from previous waves of extinctions experienced on Earth?
believed that the Earth has experienced five mass extinctions in its history
but the crucial difference is that this time the threat is being caused by
over the past 50 years have been the cause of record losses in species – tens
to hundreds of times faster than the natural rate of extinction over the past
10 million years. Since 1970 alone, vertebrate populations have fallen by 40
per cent for land-based species, 84 per cent for freshwater species and 35 per
cent for marine species.
happening due to a number of human activities: accelerating land-use change
such as through farming and logging, overusing our seas and oceans such as
through fishing, polluting our air, soil and water systems, hunting and also –
voluntarily or involuntarily – transporting invasive species across distant
regions. And this is happening on an unprecedented, worldwide scale.
Human activities have significantly altered around three-quarters of all land and two-thirds of all oceans on the planet according to the report. From insect pollination that provides us with food to mangrove swamps that shield us from storms, how much do humans depend on nature and how much will it impact us if it continues to degrade at the current rate?
One of the
things the report highlights is the deep dependence of all humans on nature. We
depend on nature to have a fulfilling life no matter where we live – often
without realizing it. We depend on nature for our physical sustenance, cultural
continuity and sense of identity.
nature also regulates a number of processes that we don’t even notice that are
the basis of our economies and well-being such as clean water, protection from
environmental hazards, the pollination of crops and the regulation of the
climate. So we cannot live life as we know it, and as we enjoy it, without
In the report, we take stock of the different kinds of nature’s contributions to people and we conclude that, with the exception of the production of food, energy and raw materials, all of the other contributions nature gives to people – about 14 out 18 kinds – are declining globally.
analysed a number of scenarios, and in all of them, there is a sharp decrease
in nature and its capacity to regulate all of the Earth’s natural processes.
climate change is increasingly interacting with all of the other human-induced
drivers of biodiversity loss in complex ways, so the future looks extremely
grim for most people around the world, and much worse for some more than
others in just the next 30-40 years.
definitely. The IPCC has traditionally gotten much more attention but that is
because the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and
Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is much younger. This is the first global
biodiversity assessment since 2005 to present the state of biodiversity and
ecosystem services and what it means for humanity.
In contrast, the IPCC has decades of history, so we are following in their steps, inspired by them in the way we organize ourselves, and as a result, I think people are starting to listen.
We have been
pleasantly surprised at the amount of public attention we received when the
report was released last week. There are environmental movements that have been
focused on climate change that now – only one week after the release of the
report – have already announced that they will fight for nature as well as the climate
because they have realized you cannot fight for one without fighting for the
The report sheds
light on how the issues of sustainable development, climate change and
biodiversity are interrelated. How much, then, does tackling these issues
require an integrated approach, for example, through international agreements
including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Paris Agreement on
climate change and the Aichi Targets on biodiversity? Do these instruments need
to be reformed in any way?
dependent on an integrated approach. In the report, we go to great lengths to
show how trying to fix human well-being for all, climate change and
biodiversity in isolation is not going to work – you actually risk making the
other two problems worse if you only try to fix one without considering the
instruments you mention need to consider all three pillars – a good quality of
life for all, the climate and biodiversity – in a far more integrated way than
has ever been done before. These instruments need to talk to each other and
make sure they consider each other when devising targets and implementing
in our assessment of the SDGs, we found that many of them do not explicitly
mention biodiversity which is surprising given that you cannot achieve
them without nature – the fabric of life.
What’s more, we need to focus much more on actions rather than on somewhat nebulous targets. There is a lot of synergy to be achieved in the three agreements and I think the people driving them are now much more prepared to listen than ever before.
The report has been
approved by 132 governments, with France announcing that it now aims to make
protecting biodiversity as important a priority as climate change, while
the G7 countries – in addition to Chile, Fiji, Gabon, Mexico,
Niger and Norway – have all announced their commitment to protecting
biodiversity in response to the report too. What action would you like to see
other governments take?
nutshell, I would like to see governments put their money where their words
are, so to speak. They all have expressed their concern about biodiversity loss
– and most of the governments, if not all, have praised the findings in our
report – but we now need action.
There are a
number of fixes that can be done easily and quickly such as creating more
protected areas, improving waste treatment systems, banning plastics, improving
fishing gear and recycling more. This can all help enormously but only if done
together because on their own it’s won’t be enough.
In order to
have a chance of containing the destruction of our natural world, we need to do
all of the above, in addition to tackling the root causes. That means
addressing the activities driving land-use change and changes in our seas and
oceans, climate change, pollution and the spread of invasive species.
these root causes are all related to our lifestyles. That’s why we say,
although the biodiversity crisis looks biological, the causes and solutions are
So governments need to integrate biodiversity considerations across all sectors – not just better environmental policies but also better policies related to agriculture, infrastructure and trade. Biodiversity is not just a concern for respective ministers of the environment – it’s a concern for all ministers since it’s a concern for all sectors.
It’s all about putting nature and the public good first rather than the narrow, economic interests of a minority. It’s as simple – and as difficult – as that.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has declared that skyscrapers made of glass and steel “have no place in our city or our Earth anymore”. He argued that their energy inefficient design contributes to global warming and insisted that his administration would restrict glassy high-rise developments in the city.
Glass has always been an unlikely material for large buildings, because of how difficult it becomes to control temperature and glare indoors. In fact, the use of fully glazed exteriors only became possible with advances in air conditioning technology and access to cheap and abundant energy, which came about in the mid-20th century. And studies suggest that on average, carbon emissions from air-conditioned offices are 60% higher than those from offices with natural or mechanical ventilation.
As part of my research into sustainable architecture, I have examined the use of glass in buildings throughout history. Above all, one thing is clear: if architects had paid more attention to the difficulties of building with glass, the great environmental damage wrought by modern glass skyscrapers could have been avoided.
Heat and glare
The United Nations Secretariat in New York, constructed between 1947 and 1952, was the earliest example of a fully air-conditioned tower with a glass curtain wall – followed shortly afterwards by Lever House on Park Avenue. Air conditioning enabled the classic glass skyscraper to become a model for high rise office developments in cities across the world – even hot places such as Dubai and Sydney.
Yet as far back as the 19th century, horticulturists in Europe intimately understood how difficult it is to keep the temperature stable inside glass structures – the massive hothouses they built to host their collections. They wanted to maintain the hot environment needed to sustain exotic plants and devised a large repertoire of technical solutions to do so.
Early central heating systems, which made use of steam or hot water, helped to keep the indoor atmosphere hot and humid. Glass was covered with insulation overnight to keep the warmth in, or used only on the south side together with better insulated walls, to take in and hold heat from the midday sun.
The Crystal Palace
When glass structures were transformed into spaces for human habitation, the new challenge was to keep the interior sufficiently cool. Preventing overheating in glass buildings has proven enormously difficult – even in Britain’s temperate climate. The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park – a temporary pavilion built to house the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in 1851 – was a case in point.
The Crystal Palace was the first large-scale example of a glass structure designed specifically for use by people. It was designed by Joseph Paxton, chief gardener at the Duke of Devonshire’s Chatsworth Estate, drawing on his experience constructing timber-framed glasshouses.
Though recognised as a risky idea at the time, organisers decided to host the exhibition inside a giant glasshouse in the absence of a more practical alternative. Because of its modular construction and prefabricated parts, the Crystal Palace could be put together in under ten months – perfect for the organisers’ tight deadline.
To address concerns about overheating and exposing the exhibits to too much sunlight, Paxton adopted some of the few cooling methods available at the time: shading, natural ventilation and eventually removing some sections of glass altogether. Several hundred large louvres were positioned inside the wall of the building, which had to be adjusted manually by attendants several times a day.
Despite these precautions, overheating became a major issue over the summer of 1851, and was the subject of frequent commentaries in the daily newspapers. An analysis of data recorded inside the Crystal Palace between May and October 1851 shows that the indoor temperature was extremely unstable. The building accentuated – rather than reduced – peak summer temperatures.
These challenges forced the organisers to temporarily remove large sections of glazing. This procedure was repeated several times before parts of the glazing were permanently replaced with canvas curtains, which could be opened and closed depending on how hot the sun was. When the Crystal Palace was re-erected as a popular leisure park on the outskirts of London, these issues persisted – despite changes to the design which were intended to improve ventilation.
These difficulties did not perturb developers in Chicago from building the first generation of highly glazed office buildings during the 1880s and 1890s. Famous developments by influential architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, such as the Crown Hall (1950-56) or the Lakeshore Drive Apartments (1949), were also designed without air conditioning. Instead, these structures relied mainly on natural ventilation and shading to moderate indoor temperatures in summer.
In the Crown Hall, each bay of the glass wall is equipped with iron flaps, which students and staff of the IIT School of Architecture had to manually adjust to create cross-ventilation. Blinds could also be drawn to prevent glare and reduce heat gains. Yet these methods could not achieve modern standards of comfort. This building, and many others with similar features were eventually retrofitted with air conditioning.
Yet it’s worth noting that early examples of glass architecture were not intended to provide airtight, climate controlled spaces. Architects had to accept that the indoor temperature would change according to the weather outside, and the people who used the buildings were careful to dress appropriately for the season. In some ways, these environments had more in common with the covered arcades and markets of the Victorian era, than the glass skyscrapers of the 21st century.
Becoming climate conscious
The reality is that the obvious shortcomings of glass buildings rarely received the attention they warranted. Some early critics raised objections. Perhaps the most outspoken was Swiss architect Le Corbusier, who in the late 1940s launched an attack on the design of the UN Secretariat, arguing that its large and unprotected glass surfaces were unsuitable for the climate of New York.
But all too often, historians and architects have focused on the aesthetic qualities of glass architecture. The Crystal Palace, in particular, was portrayed as a pristine icon of an emerging architecture of glass and iron. Yet in reality, much of the glass was covered with canvas to block out intense sunlight and heat. Similarly, the smooth glass facades of Chicago’s early glass towers were broken by opened windows and blinds.
There’s an urgent need to take a fresh look at urban architecture, with a sense of environmental realism. If de Blasio’s plea for a more climate conscious architecture is to materialise, future architects and engineers must be equipped with an intimate knowledge of materials – especially glass – no less developed than that held by 19th century gardeners.
The world’s fourth largest cement company pledged on Monday to bring its emission reduction targets in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement, in a first for the industry.
HeidelbergCement, which employs some 58,000 people in 60 countries, committed to slash direct emissions by 15% per tonne of its products by 2030 from 2016 levels.
The construction behemoth also committed to cut indirect emissions, for example from its electricity supply, by 65% a tonne within the same time-frame.
“The commitment, which is part of the company’s wider vision to realise CO2-neutral concrete by 2050 at the latest, is a powerful signal that the built environment is transitioning towards a zero-carbon future,” said Jennifer Gerholdt, corporate engagement director at We Mean Business, a coalition of companies promoting climate action.
“It’s also vital for the decarbonization of entire economies, given concrete is the most widely used man-made substance on earth, one of the hardest to decarbonize and in growing demand due to rising population and urbanization.”
The move comes as the number of new buildings is tipped to grow in the coming years, in particular in Africa and Asia. This rapid expansion will test a 30% energy intensity improvement in buildings by 2030, required to put the industry on track to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Change Agreement, according to the IEA and UN Environment.
Solar geoengineering (also known as solar radiation management) is a technology in its infancy – and it is controversial. It has the potential to reverse or mitigate some of the global warming caused by greenhouse gases by either releasing cooling particles (for instance sulphur) into the stratosphere, or by modifying clouds over the oceans so that they reflect more heat back into space.
But there are major concerns about how politics could influence research and development, and the deployment of solar geoengineering on a global scale. Last year’s special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Global Warming of 1.5 ºC struck a cautionary note: ‘Although some [solar radiation modification] measures may be theoretically effective […], they face large uncertainties and knowledge gaps as well as substantial risks and institutional and social constraints to deployment related to governance, ethics, and impacts on sustainable development.’ One of these risks could be conflict, should a country use geoengineering without global agreement – an action that cause harm to others.
Here we use game theory to better understand these concerns and find out what could happen if countries were able to move the earth’s thermostat in either direction – by using geoengineering technologies to reduce the temperature and counter-geoengineering to turn it back up again.
Solar geoengineering technologies could be cheap. This creates a problem economists call the ‘free-driver effect’. If the cost is not prohibitive, a single nation (or even a single billionaire) could pay to press the button on a geoengineering action that affects the whole planet.
On first impressions it might sound good for a potential global warming fix to be inexpensive and accessible. But a country with an especially strong incentive to cool the planet – one that is suffering badly due to climate change – could go ahead and deploy a technology that will affect us all, effectively taking a unilateral decision on the optimal temperature for the Earth.
Some like it hot(ter)
One idea to counter this ‘free-driving’ effect is to develop counter-geoengineering. While solar geoengineering would cool temperatures, counter-geoengineering might use similar technology to heat the earth up – for example, by injecting short-lived heat-trapping aerosols into the atmosphere, or using a chemical to counteract a sulphate injection.
The possibility of being able to turn the temperature back up might act as a deterrent to free-drivers. Who would want to risk causing an escalation of opposing climate interventions that would only waste resources? The prospect of counter-geoengineering might reintroduce a willingness to collaborate. We tested this possibility using game theory.
The rules of the game
We set up a two-player game. Each player represents a country (or a bloc of countries) and each has a – potentially different – temperature preference for the planet.
It is a two round game. Round 1 is treaty-making. The players can choose to opt into a treaty and collaborate, or they can opt out. There are two treaty options available: the first is a deployment treaty, where countries jointly decide on the climate intervention that maximises the coalition’s overall payoff. The second treaty option is a moratorium treaty, under which the countries commit to abstain from any climate intervention. Whichever decision they make, they will only enter into a treaty if it is in their best interests – all the players are ‘selfish actors’.
Round 2 is deployment, i.e. modifying the global temperature with a climate intervention that is relatively cheap. If the countries entered into a treaty in Round 1, then they either abstain from a climate intervention (opting for the moratorium treaty) or undertake the intervention cooperatively. If no treaty was formed, the players choose their climate intervention levels non-cooperatively.
We played two versions of the game. In one version only solar geoengineering technology was available to the countries – so they could cool the global temperature but not increase it. In the second version they also had access to counter-geoengineering, so they could also turn the temperature up. Comparing the two versions then sheds light on how counter-geoengineering changes the strategic interaction surrounding climate interventions.
The results: arms race or abstinence
The results of the game reveal the importance of the level of agreement over what countries consider the ‘best’ temperature for the planet.
If countries have similar preferred temperatures but do not choose to enter into a treaty, there is a free-rider outcome – countries would benefit from the temperature reduction caused by another country’s geoengineering actions without themselves contributing much to the cost of deployment.
Where countries differ greatly in their preferred temperature, and if counter-geoengineering is not available (which could be because it has not yet been developed), the result is a free-driver outcome, as predicted. The country with the strongest preference for cooling (the free-driver) turns the temperature right down – even if the other prefers it warmer.
In both of these cases, incentives to cooperate are weak.
However, with counter-geoengineering technology on the table the strategic interaction changes, with two outcomes. A country that views the free-driver’s deployment of cooling as excessive now has a tool to counteract it – and will use it. Without the opportunity to cooperate, this results in a ‘climate clash’, an escalation of cooling by geoengineering and warming by counter-geoengineering that has no winners and is very harmful.
However, if cooperation is an option, this bleak outlook may be enough to encourage countries to work together. In particular, the free-driver may be ready to compromise on the amount of climate intervention it makes.
Cooperation is not guaranteed, though, and the outcome might still be a destructive climate clash. Even if countries do cooperate, they may take the moratorium route – and this could be worse than the free-driver outcome if it means the world misses the opportunity to potentially reduce the damage from climate change by using solar geoengineering.
How solar geoengineering and counter-measures could and should be used to adjust the planet’s temperature is subject to widely differing opinions and intense debate. Certainly our study emphasises the crucial need to focus on how any geoengineering interventions could be governed, with the welfare of the majority a central goal. Cooperative decisions including a broad set of actors typically are welcome, but our results also point to the importance of getting the content of a treaty right.
Of course, there are limitations to our analysis, not least the fact that the paper’s main analysis was undertaken in a two-player game, when in reality we could face complex negotiations between many countries. Countries may also want to modify aspects of the climate beyond temperature – especially rainfall patterns. And geoengineering could affect human and ecosystem health, by causing acid rain or ozone depletion – further effects that could cause tensions if one country forged ahead at the expense of others.
Daniel Heyen is a postdoctoral researcher at ETH Zurich. He is an applied theorist working at the interface of decision theory and environmental economics. Daniel’s main research interest is in societal decision-making under uncertainty and learning. Key topics of his work are the description of scientific uncertainty, the design of decision rules, and the analysis of active learning and the value of information. Prior to his position at ETH Zurich, Daniel was a postdoctoral researcher at the Grantham Research Institute, funded through a Fellowship from the German Research Foundation. Daniel completed his PhD in economics at Heidelberg University. His background is in Mathematics and Physics.
Joshua Horton is research director of geoengineering at the Keith Group. Josh conducts research on geoengineering policy and governance issues, including the regulation of research, liability and compensation, and geopolitics. Josh previously worked as a clean energy consultant for a global energy consulting firm. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from Johns Hopkins University.
Juan Moreno-Cruz is an associate professor at the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development and the Canada research chair in energy transitions at the University of Waterloo. He is also a CESifo research affiliate. He has a Ph.D. (2010) from the University of Calgary and a B.A. and M.S. in electrical engineering from the Universidad de Los Andes. Previously, he was an associate professor in the School of Economics at the Georgia Institute of Technology (2011-2017), were he remains as an adjunct professor. He is a visiting researcher in the department of global ecology of the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University, an advisor for Carnegie Energy Innovation, and a research associate of Harvard University’s solar geoengineering research programme.
“If I can generalise and group the buildings into three categories, the overwhelming majority aim to maximise area with very low construction cost and no allowance for design,” he added. “So the buildings end up bulky, repetitive and lacking character.
“Some attempt to give a local flavour and the successful ones are commendable. However, if the traditional elements are applied incorrectly, such as outside of their intended scale, function and context, then they tend to appear pastiche and ‘decorative’. Other buildings are contemporary, with a few good and forward-thinking examples, such as the Four Seasons in Bahrain Bay and the Bahrain National Theatre.”
Omari added that, particularly in Bahrain, traditional buildings demonstrate the country’s strong cultural routes and its rich history as a pearling harbour. Built from mud and coral and featuring distinct vernacular architecture, many of these examples are preserved in Muharraq, the country’s old capital, he said.
OAOA’s design for Big Box, a new office project to be constructed in Bahrain by 2021
The comments came as part of a larger conversation regarding OAOA’s new office project in Bahrain, Big Box, which is located within a wider masterplan designed for high density high-rises, while still underdeveloped and exposed to a busy main highway intersection. His client’s commercial desire to have a building that “stood out” from other buildings in the area presented a creative challenge for OAOA.
Big Box consists of four stacked cubes with similar proportions. While retail spaces and a lobby activate the pedestrian level, parking is placed in the aluminium louver-cladded podium box. Office spaces are designated to the three upper boxes, which are visually separated by the lower box, as they are cladded with a ceramic fritted curtain wall.
“It all depends on the context,” Omari said. “Here, there were no existing buildings of historical importance that we would overshadow, and we weren’t disrespectful to any neighbours, so it felt suitable and, if the architecture is well thought-out and serves a purpose, good design adds value.”
Big Box is expected to be completed by 2021, and an in-depth review of the project will be featured in Middle East Architect’s May issue.