International Code Council focuses on energy efficiency

International Code Council focuses on energy efficiency

Construction Global Dominic Ellis informs that the International Code Council focuses on energy efficiency to mitigate the built environment’s inherent high carbon emission. It is fundamentally evident to everyone that the Environmental Impact of the Global Built Environment is no more a debatable topic. It is about Reducing the environmental impact of the global built environment sector.

New International Code Council framework will drive energy efficiencies but climate change demands quicker implementation.

The International Code Council has released a new framework to assist governments and building industry stakeholders in meeting energy efficiency and greenhouse gas reduction goals.  

The Code Council Board of Directors, which consists of 18 government code officials who were elected by their peers, adopted the framework, Leading the Way to Energy Efficiency: A Path Forward on Energy and Sustainability to Confront a Changing Climate

This framework includes using the Code Council’s American National Standards Institute (ANSI) approved standards process to update the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC).  

Future editions of the IECC will build on prior successes including an increase of efficiency requirements by about 40%, or an average of 8% a cycle from 2006 to 2021, allowing the IECC to remain a strong avenue for communities to reach their energy efficiency and sustainability goals globally. 

With the base 2021 IECC efficiency requirements just 10% away from net zero for residential buildings, under the new framework future editions of the IECC will increase base efficiency using a balancing test proposed in bipartisan legislation that has cleared the US House and Senate and has been supported by energy efficiency advocates and the building industry

The IECC will be developed under a revised scope and be part of a portfolio of greenhouse gas reduction solutions that could address electric vehicles, electrification and decarbonization, integration of renewable energy and energy storage, existing buildings performance standards and more. 

The Code Council’s new framework will also provide optional requirements aimed at achieving net zero energy buildings presently and by 2030. Using a tiered approach, the framework offers adopting jurisdictions a menu of options, from a set of minimum requirements to pathways to net zero energy and additional greenhouse gas reduction policies.   

The Code Council has also announced the establishment of an Energy and Carbon Advisory Council which will consist of governmental and industry leaders to inform the Code Council’s efforts. 

The Energy and Carbon Advisory Council will advise on which additional greenhouse gas reduction policies the IECC should integrate, the pace that the IECC’s baseline efficiency requirements should advance, plus needs and gaps that the Code Council should work to address. The Code Council will begin outreach to fill the Energy and Carbon Advisory Council in March. 

Focus on climate and energy efficiency globally

The Use of Climate Data and Assessment of Extreme Weather Event Risks in Building Codes Around the World was published last month. 

Climate data is frequently only updated on a 10-year cycle on average, so as weather becomes more severe from year to year, the underlying data simply does not accurately reflect the risk to the building of these extreme weather-related events. International Codes are updated on a three-year cycle.

Climate change, coupled with net zero emission targets, is focusing minds to act faster.

From the end of this year, all new buildings in Singapore will face higher minimum energy performance requirements, according to the Building and Construction Authority (BCA). It will raise the minimum energy performance requirements for new buildings and existing buildings that undergo major retrofit, to be 50% and 40% more energy efficient respectively, compared with 2005 levels. The city state aims to ‘green’ 80% of buildings by 2030.

The Net Zero Home standard developed by CCG (Scotland) is intended to deliver a standard of specification that reduces greenhouse gas emissions arising from regulated operational energy use to a rate less than or equal to 0kg C02/m2/year. 

A new construction products national regulator is imminent in the UK, in a bid to bolster standards following the Grenfell inquiry.  

New Frontiers in Data Center Sustainability

New Frontiers in Data Center Sustainability

Rich Miller writes in DATACENTERFrontier that Beyond Green Power: New Frontiers in Data Center Sustainability can easily be envisioned as these are increasingly populating planet earth.

Above picture is of Large pipes sporting Google’s logo colors move water throughout the cooling plant at the Google’ data center in Douglas County, Georgia. (Photo: Google)

February 3, 2021

New Frontiers in Data Center Sustainability
Get the full report.

Sustainable Construction Strategies

More data center projects will integrate sustainability into design and construction, with early collaboration between teams to minimize the environmental impact of the construction process and create a building with low operational carbon impact, enabling more effective and cost-efficient offset strategies. Design collaboration is essential in seeking to integrate cleaner technologies into the power chain and cooling systems.

Several data center providers are working with CarbonCure, which makes a low-carbon “greener” concrete material for the tile-up walls that frame data centers. Concrete’s durability and strength are ideal for industrial construction, but the production of cement requires the use of massive kilns, which require large amounts of energy, and the actual chemical process emits staggeringly high levels of CO2. CarbonCure takes CO2 produced by large emitters like refineries and chemically mineralizes it during the concrete manufacturing process to make greener and stronger concrete. The process reduces the volume of cement required in the mixing of concrete, while also permanently removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

Waste Stream Accountability and the ‘Circular Economy’

A key priority is tracking the environmental impact of construction components, including a “reverse logistics” process to track the waste stream and disposition of debris. Asset recovery and recycling specialists will become key partners, and the most successful projects will communicate goals and best practices across the contractors and trades participating in each project. The goal is a “circular economy” that reuses and repurposes materials.

Managing packaging for equipment that is shipped to a data center facility is an important and often underlooked facet of waste stream accountability. There are also opportunities in reuse of components and equipment that that can still be productive (although this must be closely managed in a mission-critical environment).

The ability to document a net-zero waste stream impact has the potential to emerge as an additional metric for data center service providers, as customers consider the entirety of their supplier’s sustainability programs.

Green Certifications

As customers ask tougher questions about a providers’ environmental practices and corporate social responsibility policies, certifications may emerge as another avenue for service providers to differentiate themselves.

Several ISO certifications, including ISO 50001 and ISO 14001, which Iron Mountain is certified for across its global data center portfolio, focus on energy management and provide frameworks that can assure stakeholders that the provider is considering energy impact and environmental goals in audits, communications, labeling and equipment life cycle analysis.

Water Conservation and Management

Amid changing weather patterns, many areas of the world are facing drought conditions and water is becoming a scarcer and more valuable resource. Data center operators are stepping up their efforts to reduce their reliance on potable water supplies.

Sustainable water strategies include both sourcing and design. On the sourcing front, several Google facilities include water treatment plants that allow it to cool its servers using local bodies of water or waste water from municipal water systems. Data center districts in Ashburn (Va.), Quincy (Washington) and San Antonio offer “grey water” feeds that provide recycled waste water to industrial customers.

On the design front, more providers are choosing cooling systems with minimal need for water, while others are incorporating rainwater recovery strategies that capture rain from huge roofs or parking lots and store it on site, reducing potential burden on local water systems.

Matching Workloads to Renewable Energy

Google has been a leader in the use of artificial intelligence and sophisticated energy provisioning to match its operations to carbon-free energy sources. The company recently said it will power its entire global information empire entirely with carbon-free energy by 2030, matching every hour of its data center operations to carbon-free energy sources. This marks an ambitious step forward in using technology to create exceptional sustainability.

Google can currently account for all its operations with energy purchases. But the intermittent nature of renewable energy creates challenges in matching green power to IT operations around the clock. Solar power is only available during daylight hours. Wind energy can be used at night, but not when the wind dies down. Google created a “carbon-intelligent computing platform” that optimizes for green energy by rescheduling workloads that are not time-sensitive, matching workloads to solar power during the day, and wind energy in the evening, for example. The company also hopes to move workloads between data centers to boost its use of renewables, a strategy that offers even greater potential gains by shifting data center capacity to locations where green energy is more plentiful, routing around utilities that are slow to adopt renewables.

Google has pledged to share its advances with the broader data center industry, providing others with the tools to reduce carbon impact. Continued instrumentation of older data centers is a key step in this direction.

Eliminating Diesel Generators

New Frontiers in Data Center Sustainability
A backup generator at a Microsoft data center in Virginia. (Photo: Rich Miller)

Microsoft recently announced plans to eliminate its reliance on diesel fuel by the year 2030, which has major implications for the company’s data centers, many of which use diesel-powered generators for emergency backup power. With its new deadline, Microsoft sets in motion a push to either replace its generators with cleaner technologies, or perhaps eliminate them altogether by managing resiliency through software.

Eliminating expensive generators and UPS systems has been a goal for some hyperscale providers. Facebook chose Lulea, Sweden for a data center because the robust local power grid allowed it to operate with fewer generators. In the U.S., providers have experimented with “data stations” that operate with no generators on highly-reliable locations on the power grid.

There are four primary options companies have pursued as alternatives to generators — fuel cells, lithium-ion batteries, shifting capacity to smaller edge data centers that can more easily run on batteries, and shifting to cloud-based resiliency.

Fuel Cells and On-Site Power

Microsoft has successfully tested the use of hydrogen fuel cells to power its data center servers. The company called the test “a worldwide first that could jump-start a long-forecast clean energy economy built around the most abundant element in the universe.”

Microsoft said it recently ran a row of 10 racks of Microsoft Azure cloud servers for 48 hours using a 250-kilowatt hydrogen-powered fuel cell system at a facility near Salt Lake City, Utah. Since most data center power outages last less than 48 hours, the test offered a strong case that fuel cells could be used in place of diesel generators to keep a data center operating through a utility outage.

Some companies, like Equinix and eBay, have deployed Bloom Energy fuel cells to improve reliability and cut energy costs, but have powered them with natural gas. The use of biofuels looms as another potential avenue to pair fuel cells with renewable sourcing.

Energy Storage

New Frontiers in Data Center Sustainability
An illustration of the Tesla Megapack, which provides 3 megawatts of energy storage capacity. (Image: Tesla)

Utility-scale energy storage has long been the missing link in the data center industry’s effort to power the cloud with renewable energy. Energy storage could overcome the intermittent generation patterns of leading renewable sources. Solar panels only generate power when the sun is shining, and wind turbines are idle in calm weather. Energy storage could address that gap, allowing renewable power to be stored for use overnight and on windless days.

A new project in Nevada will showcase a potential solution from Tesla, the electric car company led by tech visionary Elon Musk. Data center technology company Switch will use new large-scale energy storage technology from Tesla to boost its use of solar energy for its massive data center campuses in Las Vegas and Reno. It is a promising project in pioneering a holistic integration of renewable power, energy storage and Internet-scale data centers.

Talking Sustainability With Experts

Don’t miss the last installment of this series that features a conversation on the future of sustainable data centers. Data Center Frontier Editor Rich Miller discusses the topic with Kevin Hagen, Director, Corporate Responsibility at Iron Mountain, and Alex Sharp, Global Head of Design & Construction — Data Centers at Iron Mountain.

It’s a preview of the upcoming webinar  where these experts will discuss sustainability strategies for greener data centers.

And catch up on the first entry here, followed by an exploration of the power of the “negawatt.” 

Download the full report, Green Data Centers and The Sustainability Imperative, courtesy of Iron Mountain, to explore how climate change and a greening of data centers is changing the industry.

Colluding With the Corrupters

Colluding With the Corrupters

Michael Young in an interview, with David Linfield who argues that international donors are benefiting existing power structures in the Middle East. It is all about Colluding With the Corrupters.

Preamble

Corruption spread deep and for some time in the MENA region with social, political, and economic implications, but with differing penetrations rates. All because the area can divide into two types of governance. The autocratic monarchies live with side by side with the so-called republics. Few of these latter countries know a higher degree of corruption than the first-mentioned countries. In any case, all have made the fight against corruption a priority by passing laws and adopting strategies to combat crime. But in vain.
Colluding with the Corrupters could quickly summarise a situation where such deviant behavioural attitudes originators can be traced back out of the region.

  • January 29, 2021
Colluding With the Corrupters

David Linfield is a visiting scholar in Carnegie’s Middle East Program. He is on sabbatical from the U.S. Department of State, where he is a career foreign service officer. Linfield recently wrote a commentary for Carnegie, titled “International Donors Are Complicit in Middle Eastern Elites’ Game.” In mid-January, Diwan interviewed him to discuss his article, and more generally to examine the anti-elite feeling that has permeated protests throughout the Middle East in the past year, notably in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. The views expressed by Linfield are his own and not necessarily those of the U.S. government.

Michael Young (MY): You’ve just written a commentary for Carnegie, titled “International Donors Are Complicit in Middle Eastern Elites’ Game.” What is your argument in the piece?

David Linfield (DL): My argument is that the United States and other international donors have put significant clout and resources behind promoting economic liberalization in the Middle East, while they have been hesitant to put similar emphasis on political reforms. By political reforms I mean boosting transparency, combating corruption, and empowering elected officials. International actors have partly justified this approach by suggesting that economic reforms are a better way of promoting stability and less risky than political changes. But I contend that recent events in the region suggest that these policies are making violent, sudden change in the region more likely, not less so.

When adopted in the context of authoritarian political systems, economic reforms such as privatization have tended to benefit existing power structures, exacerbating economic inequality and citizen-state tensions. The World Inequality Database now ranks the Middle East as the most unequal region in the world. While economic inequality has decreased worldwide since the 1990s, it has remained constant in the Middle East.

By supporting policies that have inadvertently led to such entrenched inequality, while neglecting political reforms, international donors have contributed to citizens’ frustrations with their relative economic status while leaving them without peaceful institutional means of expressing their grievances. This is all a recipe for instability, which is the opposite of what donors want.

MY: You write that “[e]merging solidarity among previously competing groups, grounded in [economic inequality]” is a feature of the growing resentment of elites in the Middle East. Are you suggesting, to borrow from Marxist jargon, that we are seeing the emergence of a sort of class consciousness in certain countries that may have revolutionary potential?

DL: Most of the protests in the Middle East since 2018 have focused on economic inequality and corruption. Whereas previous demonstrations in the region tended to consist of a homogeneous ethnic group—whether from a particular religious sect, region, or group of tribes—these recent protests have been more diverse.

Common frustrations with inequality appear to have led people from lower-income communities to demonstrate in common cause—albeit sporadically and tentatively—against what they see as a corrupt and multisectarian elite that has failed them. We have seen this happen most explicitly in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon.

Some of the slogans used in recent protests in these countries do indicate the emergence of class consciousness. When the Jordanian Teachers Union threatened to strike in summer 2020, they framed their plight as a class struggle against those who had “looted the country.” The 2019 Lebanese protests included slogans like “down with the rule of the thieves.” Iraqi protestors in 2019 and 2020 told media outlets that their struggle was about taking the country back from “thieves.”

MY: In light of your assessment, how have the traditional fault lines among Middle Eastern populations that regimes have manipulated to retain power—things such as sectarian, tribal, or regional divisions—fared in what you describe as a changing environment?

DL: The traditional fault lines in Middle Eastern societies are still very much present. Emerging class-based tensions have not fully supplanted preexisting divisions based on ethnicity, religion, and tribalism, but rather now coexist alongside them more than before. That said, the trendlines I described earlier suggest that class-based divisions will continue to grow in relative importance and have the potential to reshape existing political alliances and divisions.

In addition to the demonstrations I mentioned earlier, another indicator of the power of class solidarity is a 2019 experiment by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. The study, which assigned hundreds of Lebanese people into different conversation groups having varying compositions based on sect and class, found that when Lebanese people gathered with other members of the same class, they exhibited markedly less support for sectarian politics.

It’s too early to craft a comprehensive assessment of how emerging class-based tensions will interact with longer-standing societal divisions in the Middle East. One reason that we’ll have to observe for a longer period is that Covid-19 shifted the focus dramatically from political and economic challenges to the health crisis. But given that the pandemic exacerbated economic inequality, with lower-income communities bearing the brunt of related economic disruptions, we probably won’t have to wait long before class discussions reemerge.

MY: If the problem is that economic liberalization has reinforced elites, what are you recommending as an alternative approach by Western donors? And what makes you think that such an approach would have any chance of working?

DL: The alternative approach I’m recommending is for international donors to incorporate measures to promote transparency and combat corruption into existing economic liberalization efforts. These political reforms are also good for business and economic growth—as noted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank reports I cite in my article. The IMF’s recent insistence that Lebanon address corruption before receiving additional loans is a positive step to putting teeth behind their analysis.

Other helpful steps would include pushing to empower the many weak legislatures across the region beyond their current rubber-stamp roles, which would provide an alternative to protests for frustrated publics. If international donors put the same clout behind good governance that they have behind economic liberalization, they’ll make peaceful and durable progress more likely in the Middle East.

MY: Are you not reading too much into anti-elite solidarity? Ultimately, states in the region have shown that they will resort to violence in order to survive and societies have often gone back to being silent. Why will this change?

DL: Ruling elites in the region have demonstrated that they are willing to go to extreme measures to maintain their benefits. I am not suggesting that elites will somehow decide that they should altruistically begin to share resources with the rest of society. Rather, as your question implies, I am arguing that the elite behavior of concentrating power and resources is an unsustainable strategy that will ultimately foment violence and harm everyone’s interests, including those of the elite.

Autocratic regimes tend to resort to violence when they feel they have run out of other options, but rely more often on nonviolent coercion and intimidation to maintain daily control. By the time regimes turn to violence, it tends to be a prelude to their loss of control—or a stage where they are nearing that.

The strategy of international donors focusing their influence and resources on economic liberalization instead of good governance has not succeeded in bolstering stability and strengthening citizen-state relations. Instead, the policy has exacerbated class-based tensions and increased the prospects of unrest.

These trends are not linear: demonstrations in the region against economic inequality and corruption have ebbed and flowed. Ruling elites remain intent on doing everything they can to outmaneuver these latest challenges to their vested interests. Longer-standing societal tensions based on sect, region, and tribe also continue to simmer and remain exploitable by elites. But the overall direction of the region is still toward economic liberalization in the midst of authoritarian entrenchment. As long as that remains the case anti-elite solidarity is likely to build. International donors are inadvertently contributing to these increasing citizen-state tensions. Instead, they could be fostering more durable change that would make the region more stable and prosperous for everyone.


If data are new gold, governance can safeguard society

If data are new gold, governance can safeguard society

China Daily Global in an article titled ‘If data are new gold, governance can safeguard society’, perhaps domestically, but says it all about what to expect in the future relationship of China with say countries of the MENA region.

If data are new gold, governance can safeguard society

By Liu Xiaochun | China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-01-18

The Central Economic Work Conference held in December outlined certain key tasks in eight major aspects for this year. These include strengthening efforts in antitrust and preventing the disorderly expansion of capital.

It was clearly pointed out in the meeting statement that the collection, usage and management of data shall be improved.

With robust growth of the “new infrastructure” sector, particularly the application of 5G and the internet of things, digital technology will find applications in all walks of society and will bring significant change to people’s way of living.

While appreciating the positive effect that digital society may bring, it is important to fully acknowledge and evaluate the risks that interconnectivity of data may bring and pay attention to data governance.

As digital technology is highly penetrative and spreads widely, the risk of digital technology can be widely disruptive and can go beyond personal privacy. It thus requires precautionary regulatory measures to manage or pre-empt such risks.

There are key issues and risks in data connectivity, and it is important to strike a proper balance between breaking the information silo and data security.

On the one hand, it is important to clarify which part of the society will guide the connectivity of data, be it the government, technology firms or other institutions. For example, the building of smart cities will require data collection from a great number of sectors and departments. It is crucial to make clear who will be responsible for collecting and managing them.

On the other hand, how data can be categorized and managed is another emerging issue. In governing smart cities, new data of all kinds emerge every second. The idea of smart city construction, building industrial internet and digital China cannot be realized without data from all departments and organizations going online.

Yet, with all these key data openly accessible online, inadequate or improper management of these data may pose a possible threat to public security, the police, or even to social and national security.

Both governance and the internet of things across all industries should take the management of public data into account. At the same time, the arithmetic model, a key technology in artificial intelligence, may amplify potential risks in information spreading with no targeted audiences.

There is also the risk of giant internet and technology companies adopting a winner-takes-all approach in data collection. Conventional monopoly usually means taking monopoly of one particular type of products or at most, a certain industry. The new winner-takes-all approach would mean exclusive owning of all data on one particular platform by a certain enterprise.

Online platforms in fields such as e-commerce, digital payments, and delivery services may even gain access to huge amount of social data in the name of innovation or breaking up information silo. Such data may be related to personal, business or even government information.

Should such platforms or online behemoths land in major trouble, or face some unforeseen risks, massive systemic disruptions could unsettle or destabilize society. And with the growth of 5G, the number of such businesses is expected to grow.

A number of steps will likely be taken to strengthen data governance. Control of data risks should be raised as part of State governance efforts. Any arbitrary collection of personal information and data should be prohibited.

The issue of data categorization needs to be resolved through legislative efforts in this field. A number of suggestions have been made in legislation regarding personal information protection, which is very necessary.

Categorization should be made for data under digital economy.

First, special attention should be given to managing data regarding public security, finance and people’s livelihood, and how they can be made accessible on internet platforms and how such data can be used.

Second, the responsibility of data management should be specified, and ownership and usage rights to data clarified.

Third, legal liability in data use and transaction must be made clear.

Fourth, as data management is a new and emerging sector yet closely related to national security, social stability and a steady running of economic activities, a special regulatory department or mechanism should be set up with powers of oversight.

At the same time, a category-specific, more proper oversight on artificial intelligence is also needed, particularly a more targeted regulatory model for algorithms developed by various businesses.

An overhaul of personal data already collected once all the aforementioned systems are in place would be in order.

Mechanism for the oversight and management of super-giant data platforms should be set up. On the one hand, objective views are needed about the monopolies taken by super-giant digital platforms.

These platforms also bear public service functions, differentiating them from industrial or commercial monopolies. Concentration of platforms may also help add on commercial competitiveness and social efficiency.

Take third-party payments as an example. To ensure unimpeded payments, various market participants tend to gather on one payment platform. If communications across different telecom companies cannot be realized, only one telecom platform will eventually survive.

Such logic also applies to third-party transactions, which explains why even though the regulators concerned issued a number of licenses, only a few survived. And there are reasons behind why only those few did manage to survive.

First, the survivors are those that are supported by the banks’ unified payment services. Second, the companies specialized in integrated payment services has become a solution for third-party payment platforms banning one another.

Super-giant platforms will likely continue to increase as digital society grows. Concentration of multiple services in a single platform may make business sense for market share-minded companies. But it is debatable if this is the right path to digital transformation of society.

So, proper regulatory measures and oversights are needed in helping such platforms to grow with society in a responsible manner. This is why, oversight mechanisms are needed, as platform enterprises can’t achieve this on their own through self-regulation.

Meanwhile, all data collected by platform businesses are related to society’s various publics and therefore should not be treated as commercial assets.

The article is a translation of a comment from the Bund Summit by Liu Xiaochun, the deputy dean of the Shanghai Finance Institute.

Is it Time to Stop Building Skyscrapers?

Is it Time to Stop Building Skyscrapers?

Wasteful, damaging and outmoded: is it time to stop building skyscrapers? Wondered Rowan Moore in The Guardian‘s The Observer of Architecture. We have little to add but meditate on every word of the article. Here it is.

Wasteful, damaging and outmoded: is it time to stop building skyscrapers?

11 & 12 Jul 2020

Tall buildings are still deemed desirable, even glamorous, but experts are drawing attention to the high environmental cost of building them.

If no one ever built a skyscraper ever again, anywhere, who would truly miss them? I ask, because the engineer Tim Snelson, of the design consultancy Arup, has just blown a hole in any claim they might have had to be environmentally sustainable. Writing in this month’s issue of the architecture magazine Domus, he points out that a typical skyscraper will have at least double the carbon footprint of a 10-storey building of the same floor area.

He is talking about the resources that go into building it, what is called its “embodied” energy. Tall buildings are more structurally demanding than lower ones – it takes a lot of effort, for example, to stop them swaying – and so require more steel and concrete. In London, which is mostly built on clay as opposed to Manhattan’s rock, they require ample foundations. Snelson also mentions “in-use” energy consumption and carbon emissions – what is needed to cool and heat and run lifts, which he says are typically 20% more for tall than medium-height buildings.

Skyscrapers often indicate corruption. What they are not are markers of progress

If all this might seem pretty obvious, it’s good to have calculations to attach to a hunch. And tall buildings are still sold on the basis that they are good for the environment. Mostly the argument is about density – if you pile a lot of homes or workplaces high on one spot, it is said, then you can use land and public transport more efficiently. There’s some truth in this, but you can also achieve high levels of density without going above 10 or 12 storeys.

Every now and again you get a one-off skyscraper design that makes play of its environmental features. The Gherkin, where cooling air was to flow through spiralling internal atria, was an early example. Strata SE1, the south London tower with three wind turbines at its top was another. Often these don’t perform as promised. Even when they do, they’re fighting to overcome the self-inflicted environmental handicap of being tall buildings in the first place.

They have got away with it in part because embodied energy hasn’t until recently been paid as much attention as energy in use. It has been deemed acceptable – by the building regulations, by architects, by the professional media – to rip untold tonnes of matter from the earth and to pump similar tonnes of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, in order to produce magical architectural devices that might, if all their wizardry were to function as promised, pay back some of their carbon debt some time in the next century. By when it might be too late.

The view from a 20th-storey flat in London’s Strata SE1. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

There’s another meaning to “environment”, which describes personal rather than global surroundings. In this respect, it’s a bit of mystery why towers are thought desirable: you typically progress from a windy and inhospitable plaza to a soulless lobby, to a long lift ride, to another lobby, to a flat that has to be fortified and sealed against strong winds, to a balcony (if you’re lucky) with a similarly embattled relationship to nature. Good design can mitigate at least some of these deficiencies, but good design is weirdly hard to find in new tall buildings.

Skyscraper apartments are sold on the view, with prices rising the higher you go up a building, which can indeed be spectacular. But this visual buzz goes with a range of sub-optimal physical experiences, which have been made that much less attractive by the spread of a virus that seems to thrive in air-conditioned and enclosed spaces. Architecture is not just about things you can see.

Meanwhile, towers continue to be built. An annual survey by the independent organisation New London Architecture has found that in the capital 525 buildings of 20 storeys or more are in the pipeline – either under construction, approved or going through the processes of planning applications. Other British cities, including Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol, have succumbed to the belief that there is something glamorous about this well-worn and old-fashioned building type.

Manchester’s Beetham Tower looms above the Bridgewater canal. Photograph: Tony Moran/Alamy Stock Photo

In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, a concrete stump stands in the desert that may or may not turn into the world’s first kilometre-high tower, its progress having been stalled by the arrest on corruption charges of its patron, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, in 2017. If it is ever completed, it will not be a sign of economic dynamism, as might have been said of the 20th century’s skyscrapers in New York and Chicago, but of the ability of a few members of an authoritarian society to accrue vast wealth for themselves.

In Britain, tall buildings are signs of failed planning, which finds it hard to discover the space for more sustainable and humane ways of building homes. In Gulf states (and indeed in Britain, to the extent that dirty money often goes into tower projects), skyscrapers often indicate corruption. What they are not are markers of progress. Advertisement

Tim Snelson puts it well: “While the collective progression of civilisations over centuries is still largely measured by the ability to build bigger, faster and taller, we have come to the point where we must put the limits on ourselves and apply our forces to the challenge of building sustainably, above all else, or risk destroying the very future that will hold our legacy.” Quite so. And why, really and truly, would you want to live in one of these things?