In the MENA region, where shading, because of the prevailing climate, has been for millennia and still is one of the most important architectural elements for all built structures of the past, this simple and smart solution could solve cities’ extreme heat problem exposure.
Three years ago, the community impact team at the global design, architecture and planning firm Gensler set out to find answers to a question that rises to the very top of every architect’s mind when a heat wave sweeps over a city: What is the fastest, cheapest way to cool down our cities? Or as Amanda Stone, Gensler’s research manager and community impact specialist, put it: “How can we design a design process to create solutions for the built environment that would combat extreme heat?”
The answer Gensler came up with—an adaptable shading structure that can be configured to fit different kinds of public spaces—is by no means a silver bullet that will help cool cities everywhere in the world. But it is worth dwelling on the process that informed it, which could (and should) become a blueprint for any designer or urban planner working with local communities.
[Image: courtesy Gensler]
After receiving three internal research grants to more deeply explore the question, the Gensler team got to work, but it found that answering Stone’s original prompt—which puts an emphasis on the process, not the output—was too broad and complex to come from only one team. And so, it was circulated across Gensler’s broader network of designers and researchers, who then tapped into their own networks in search of community partners who may want to participate.
One of those communities was in the Costa Rican city of Curridabat, which has been suffering the consequences of climate change for years. Paula Badilla, sustainability specialist at Gensler’s Costa Rica office and regional resilience leader for Latin America, explains that Curridabat already had a strong climate action plan and had been measuring things like its heat vulnerability index, urban heat island effects and flood risk across the municipality. But the team didn’t simply rely on those datapoints to inform the design process—they actually asked residents where they felt the hottest.
[Photo: courtesy Gensler]
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the heat maps and residents’ responses didn’t always match, so in Curridabat, the community chose the final three locations based on their own experiences of the city: right outside a human development center, close to a sports field, and in a skatepark with one lone tree.
[Photo: courtesy Gensler]
In those three locations, the team developed a brief for a shading structure, which they turned into an internal competition to design what it would look like. More than 80 people participated across Gensler’s Latin American offices. The winning designticked all the boxes: it was modular and could therefore be accommodated to fit all tree locations; it was easy enough for the community to build it (and feel a sense of ownership in the process); and it could be made with pretty much any locally found materials—in this case bamboo, rope and canvas. As a bonus, it could also provide more than just shade: residents could use the canvas as a projection screen, or replace it altogether with art, or a trellis for ivy.
To measure the impact the structure will have on the community and how they experience heat, the team is planning to install humidity and temperature trackers on all three structures, then will monitor them over the next three months.They’re also hoping to install CCTV-like cameras to understand who is using the structures (children? teens? parents?) and what they’re using them for. They could, of course, survey residents in a few months, but as project manager Ana Thomas notes: “When you ask people, they tell you things you want to hear, but we need the right information about how they really feel.”
Either way, the findings will not only inform future iterations, but also serve as validation for the community. “The one good thing that I have seen in terms of what really works is knowledge sharing,” says Stone. “It’s gathering the data, gathering the best practices, and sharing those with community members, not keeping it insular.”
Because of its growing impact on society, global warming has taken centre stage in the public debate. While most of us have not read the reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), heat waves, intensifying storms and the multiplication of extreme events remind us of the scale of climate disruption and the urgency of action.
Despite being documented by the Intergovernmental Sciences Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the equivalent of the IPCC for biodiversity, we know little about how biodiversity erosion might affect us and the rest of the planet. Its links and interactions with climate change are underestimated, and any policy to address either in isolation will miss the mark. It’s impossible to take effective action against global warming without addressing our impact on the rest of the living world, and vice versa.
Fossil carbon, living carbon
IPCC scientists have been explaining since their first assessment report (1990) that climate change is a stock problem. To halt global warming, it is not enough to slash greenhouse gas emissions. We need to stabilise their stock in the atmosphere. To achieve reach net zero we must reduce emissions – the inflow into the stock – to the level of the outflow, which is made up of CO2 absorption by carbon sinks (forests and oceans) and the elimination of non-CO2 greenhouse gases at the end of their life cycle.
This requires that we adopt a two-pronged plan, aimed both at cutting down our reliance on both fossil and living carbon. The former feeds the vast majority of the world’s pollution, with coal, oil and natural gas accounting for 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Tackling it will require that we take on the so-called energy transition.
On the other hand, a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions come from “living carbon”, mainly as a result of specific agricultural emissions (unrelated to fossil fuel use) and tropical deforestation and other land use changes that erode carbon sinks. There is no way to achieve carbon neutrality without a profound transformation in the use of living resources, to ensure the reflux of agricultural emissions and better protection of carbon sinks. This is the challenge of what we might call the agroclimatic transition.
One of the major difficulties of the ecological transition is to carry out these two transformations simultaneously, as they involve distinct economic mechanisms. For fossil carbon, we need to introduce scarcity by reducing the use of coal, oil and natural gas to the absolute minimum. For living carbon, we need to reinvest in the diversity of ecosystems to reduce agricultural emissions and protect carbon sinks as part of a bioeconomy.
From adding to subtracting
Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, energy transitions have followed one another. They have all involved adding new energy sources to a system initially based on the use of biomass. The result has been a massive increase in the amount of energy used worldwide.
The climate is forcing us to break with this logic. Lowering emissions is not a matter of adding decarbonised sources to the energy system. It’s about removing fossil fuels. We need to switch from a logic of addition to one of subtraction.
From an economic viewpoint, this means massively reconverting brown assets linked to the production or use of fossil fuels, through a double movement of investment in green and disinvestment in brown. The heaviest cost for the economic system is not the hundreds of billions invested in wind or solar farms, battery gigafactories or hydrogen electrolysers. It’s the cost of disinvestment that forces us to downgrade or reconvert brown assets: financial assets, of course, but also physical assets and, above all, the human assets on which the energy transition depends.
Multiple instruments will have to be called upon to bring about such a transformation. Pricing carbon from fossil fuel use is a key way to reflect the increasing scarcity of the atmospheric capacity to store carbon. Whether obtained through taxation or emission trading schemes, such taxation raises the cost of using fossil fuels, without returning the resulting rents to producers, as happens, for example, when oil prices soar on energy markets. On the demand side, it is a powerful stimulus to energy efficiency and sufficiency; on the supply side, it encourages a shift away from carbon assets.
The main difficulty with fossil carbon taxation lies in controlling its distributive impact. As the “gilets jaunes” protests in France showed, fossil carbon taxation without redistribution to the most vulnerable poses more problems than it solves. Only a redistributive carbon tax will be socially acceptable. Similarly, if carbon pricing is to be extended on an international scale, the proceeds must be returned on a massive scale to the countries of the South.
The distributional impacts of regulated carbon markets should also not be underestimated. Within the European Union, the extension of the emission trading scheme to the transport and buildings sector will increase household energy bills. This is why the proceeds from allowances sales at auction must be redistributed to the most vulnerable households via a “social fund” which will be the pillar of the regulation to be put in place.
While fossil carbon taxation accelerates the energy transition, negative carbon taxes – in other words, fossil fuel subsidies – delay it. Following the outbreak of war in Ukraine, these subsidies reached unprecedented levels in the European Union, with the multiplication of “tariff shields” erected as a matter of urgency to protect Europeans from the worst of the cost of living crisis.
Another pernicious form of subsidy to fossil fuels is the free allocation of CO2 allowances in the European trading scheme, which hampers the emergence of a green industry, a lever for the competitiveness of tomorrow’s Europe.
Investing in the diversity of living beings
Let’s imagine for a moment that the world has eradicated all use of fossil fuels in 2050. Would we automatically be in a situation of climate neutrality? Everything depends on what has been achieved on the second front of the transition, that of living carbon, the source of a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Pricing fossil carbon is hardly useful for the agroclimatic transition. Worse, it could even prove counterproductive: using a CO2 price based on energy criteria, it would become profitable to transform the Amazon rainforest (or the centuries-old oaks of the French Tronçay forest) into short rotation coppice to produce energy! The reason is simple. Agro-climatic transformation means finding ways to reinvest in biological diversity, in other words, in the abundance of living things. But the price of CO2 does not reflect the value of this diversity. We therefore need to use other instruments, which are more complex to implement.
On land, forests are the main carbon sink. Their capacity to soak up atmospheric CO2 is weakened by a combination of climatic and anthropogenic factors. In France, for example, the CO2 storage capacity of forests has been divided by three since 2005, mainly due to climatic factors. There is therefore an urgent need to adapt forest management methods in anticipation of the severity of tomorrow’s climates. Worldwide, the main anthropogenic impact on forests is tropical deforestation. Its main cause is the expansion of land for crops and livestock. This is why the key to halting deforestation lies in changing agricultural practices.
The key issues of agriculture and food
The impact of farming systems on the net balance of greenhouse gas emissions is not limited to deforestation. Depending on the techniques used, farming systems may themselves release carbon into the atmosphere (deep ploughing, draining of wet soils, etc.) or, on the contrary, store it in living soils (conservation agriculture, agroforestry, etc.). The former erode biodiversity by specialising farmers according to industrial-type logics. The latter use living diversity to intensify production and regenerate the natural environment.
These agroecological techniques also make it possible to better withstand tougher climatic conditions, while reducing methane and nitrous oxide emissions from agricultural sources. In economic terms, their promotion requires investment in innovation, research and development, the establishment of dedicated farm advisory networks and, above all, incentivisation to reward farmers for the ecosystem services they provide to society. This is not something that happens spontaneously on the market. It requires public intervention and dedicated funding.
As in the case of energy, the agroclimatic transition implies, on the demand side, that we consume smarter and less. The foods we eat have contrasting climate footprints. There can be no successful agroclimatic transition without finding ways to dramatically reduce emissions associated with the most polluting ingredients, including industrially processed foods and animal products, especially those from ruminant breeding. The use of food rations might be one way of achieving this, according to the recommendations of the world’s health authorities.
Remembering the ocean
Last but not least, the agroclimatic transition will have to take into account the management of the oceans and marine biodiversity, which are currently the blind spots of climate policies. Global warming and certain human practices (overfishing, pollutant runoff, etc.) are altering marine biodiversity, a crucial component in the storage of CO2 by the oceans. Protecting the ocean sink is vital to stabilise tomorrow’s climate: it is estimated that the continental biosphere contains four times more carbon than the atmosphere. For the oceans, it’s 47 times.
The authors thank Frank Convery for his insightful review
The Climate Economics Chair of Paris Dauphine-PSL University is organising, in partnership with the Toulouse School of Economics and the National Museum of Natural History, the 24th Global Conference on Environmental Taxation, which will take place from September 6 to 8, 2023 and will have as its theme “Climate & Biodiversity: Tackling global footprints”.
The above-featured image is of a Swiss Air Force Super Puma helicopter drops water on a wildfire on the flank of a mountain in Bitsch near Brig, Switzerland, July 18, 2023. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
A man is seen with a towel tied around his head to escape hot weather as a heat wave hits Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China, July 10, 2017. Picture taken July 10, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo
Countries at odds over which should pay climate finance
EU wants China to contribute to climate funds
China among countries not currently obliged to pay
BRUSSELS/BEIJING, July 21 (Reuters) – Record-breaking heat in China. Wildfires forcing Swiss villages to evacuate. Drought ravaging Spanish crops. As the costs of climate change rack up, a debate is surging among governments: who should pay?
The question has been in the spotlight amid this week’s climate talks between the U.S. and China, where the world’s two biggest economies tried to find ways to work together on issues ranging from renewable energy deployment to climate finance ahead of this year’s U.N. climate summit, COP28, in Dubai.
Given China’s rapid economic growth and increasing emissions, pressure has grown on Beijing to join the group of countries providing this funding.
During the talks in Beijing, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry said the two sides would continue to discuss climate finance over the next four months, before the COP28 conference starting Nov. 30.
“It’s difficult to argue that countries like China, Brazil or Saudi Arabia should still be put at the same level as the least developed countries and small island developing states,” a diplomat from one European Union country told Reuters.
The EU, today the biggest contributor of climate finance, has lobbied to expand the pool of donor countries that provide it.
Climate finance refers to money that wealthy countries pay toward helping poorer nations reduce CO2 emissions and adapt to a hotter, harsher world.
So far, the few dozen wealthy countries obliged to make these payments have not delivered cash in the amounts promised. That list of financing nations was decided during U.N. climate talks in 1992, when China’s economy was still smaller than Italy’s.
Now, some countries are calling for China to contribute. U.S. officials including Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen have noted that Chinese contributions would boost the efficacy of the U.N. climate fund.
Other countries under similar pressure include Qatar, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates, three of the world’s richest nations in terms of GDP per capita.
So far, China has resisted calls that could group it alongside wealthy nations.
In a meeting with Kerry on Tuesday, Chinese Premier Li Qiang stressed that developed countries should deliver their unfulfilled climate finance commitments and take the lead in cutting emissions, according to Li’s office. He suggested developing countries could make contributions “within their capabilities.”
That resistance suggests the effort faces serious challenges. Changing the official U.N. donor list would require international consensus.
“There is much too much resistance among countries like China and Saudi Arabia to touch the official definition,” one EU official said on condition of anonymity.
Advocates for the change argue that an expansion needs to happen before a new – and, likely, far bigger – U.N. target for climate finance kicks in after 2025. Countries still need to negotiate the size of that target and who will contribute to it.
“All countries that are able, must contribute to global climate finance,” said Ambassador Pa’olelei Luteru, who chairs the Alliance of Small Island States.
The bigger issue, Luteru said, is which of the poor and most vulnerable countries will be in line to receive it.
WHO IS RESPONSIBLE?
The U.N. climate financing arrangement is based on the principle that rich countries have a greater responsibility to tackle climate change, because they have contributed the bulk of the CO2 emissions heating the planet since the industrial revolution.
The United States’ historical CO2 emissions are bigger than those of any other country, but China today is the world’s biggest CO2 emitter in terms of pollution produced each year.
Countries will face the question of historical responsibility at COP28, as they aim to launch a new fund to compensate vulnerable states for costs already being incurred in climate-fuelled natural disasters.
The EU dropped its years-long resistance to that fund last year, but on the condition that a larger group of countries pay into it. Countries have not yet decided who will contribute.
The United States has been cagey about making payments that could be seen as reparations for climate change.
Some countries not obliged to contribute to UN climate funds have done so anyway, including South Korea and Qatar. Others have begun channelling aid through other channels.
China launched the South-South Climate Cooperation fund in 2015 to help least developed countries’ tackle climate issues, and so far has delivered about 10% of the $3.1 billion pledged, according to think tank E3G.
That’s a fraction of the hundreds of billions that Beijing is spending on its Belt and Road Initiative, backing projects including oil pipelines and ports.
Such arrangements allow countries to contribute without obligation, although if done outside of U.N. funds they can face less stringent criteria for public reporting – making it harder to track where the money is going and how much is paid.
Byford Tsang, a senior policy advisor at E3G, said a Chinese offer of more climate finance would be a “win-win” for Beijing. “It would earn China diplomatic clout, and pressure Western donors to raise their stakes on climate finance,” he said.
Some vulnerable countries, frustrated with the flagging finance to date, are looking to new sources for cash. The Barbados-led Bridgetown Initiative is pushing for a revamp of multilateral development banks so they can offer more support for climate projects. Other nations have rallied behind a global CO2 levy on shipping to raise funds.
Reporting by Kate Abnett in Brussels and Valerie Volcovici in Beijing; Editing by Katy Daigle and Stephen Coates
Valerie Volcovici covers U.S. environment and energy policy from Washington, DC. She is focused on climate and environmental regulations at federal agencies and in Congress. She also covers the impact of these regulatory changes across the United States. Other areas of coverage include plastic pollution and international climate negotiations.
At this moment in Texas, it is difficult to imagine living without air conditioning. Most parts of the state are stuck in a streak of triple-digit temperatures with no end in sight. AC is, literally, a lifesaver. And the number of people worldwide who use it is expected to grow, especially in places like China and India.
There’s a contradiction inherent in air conditioning, though: The more we use it, the more we help heat the planet. Climate watchers like Stan Cox have long called to wean ourselves off AC, or at least reduce our reliance on it. Cox is a fellow at The Land Institute and the author of “Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer).”
Cox spoke to the Texas Standard about whether a future with less air conditioning is still possible.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard:To what extent does air conditioning itself contribute to global warming?
Stan Cox: Air conditioning kicks off kind of a vicious cycle in which our greenhouse gas emissions make summers become warmer, so we use more air conditioning. And then by burning more energy for air conditioning and the refrigerants from air conditioning, which are greenhouse gases, we’re guaranteeing that future summers will be even hotter.
Is air conditioning here to stay, or do you see a time in which we we might actually be able to do without it?
Unfortunately, it probably is. Back 15 years ago when I wrote this book about air conditioning, I argued that certainly we need it for heat emergencies, but that the routine lavish use of air conditioning and commercial spaces and houses is excessive, and especially in this country. But it’s getting harder and harder each year to make that argument.
What technologies or techniques do you have in mind to make better use so that there’s not this sort of profligate use of AC?
It’s really going to take an overhaul of our built environment: to tear up parking lots, tear up streets, make it hard to drive in urban areas, but to plant trees and grass there, to plant green roofs on buildings and to adjust our selves to the temperature. Because when we’re in continuous air conditioning, it lowers our heat tolerance. Being exposed to warmer temperatures actually makes us more tolerant of higher temperature.
We’ve become over the past 60 years people not worrying about not being in that optimum temperature range in the 70s to a place where now it’s considered a necessity. People for millennia have gotten by in hot climates without air conditioning, so it’s not like we can’t do it. Although if we keep emitting greenhouse gases the way we are and we keep seeing temperatures rise so fast, then, you know, there’s not much you can do about it.
Let me ask you about something that I think a lot of folks who work days think about as they leave their house in the summer. Do you turn off all of your AC, come home to a house that’s rather hot, then crank up your AC to try to get it back to not as hot as it has been? Or is it a more efficient use of energy and perhaps more environmentally sound to bring the temperature up in your house and then bring it back down when you get home, or just leave it at one constant temperature all the time?
With central air conditioning in a large house, certainly the idea of leaving the air conditioning off all day on a really hot day and then coming home and turning it on is going to use a lot of electricity. And I’m not an expert in these things, but probably having the thermostat automatically switch between daytime and nighttime settings.
In most countries other than the U.S., central air conditioning is not really all that common. There will be what are called split ACs that are in certain rooms of the house, and they are turned on only when the space is occupied and only during times when it’s uncomfortable. In that case it will very quickly cool that one room down and then only have to keep a much smaller volume of air cool.
It’s not often that the UK feels as hot as the central Sahara, but there were certainly a few days in the summer of 2022 when that was the case. Such heat waves can occur when the Sahara arrives on our doorstep on the back of unusual winds. How do these events work and what can we expect from them in the future?
Heat waves are made in several ways, starting with intense sunshine. But as the early weeks of the summer of 2023 in the UK have shown, you can have noticeably cool air and bright, near-peak summer sunshine at the same time.
What really raises the temperature is the importing of heat from somewhere else. That process is often very efficiently carried out by the wind and that somewhere is the Sahara, when a southerly wind blows for long enough. We have come to call these events African plumes, or sometimes Iberian plumes as you may have heard them described in recent weather forecasts. They only visit the UK a few times a year.
Where plumes come from
African plumes are characterised by a hazy atmosphere laden with dust from the Sahara – the biggest source of that material anywhere on the planet come the summer months in the northern hemisphere.
Very large particles of dust are raised from the desert surface by gusts blowing over hundreds of kilometres, produced by the outflow of energy from thunderstorms. The big bonus following the arrival of this air in the UK is very colourful sunsets, as the setting rays are scattered by the dust, leaving only the red colours of the more elusive longer wavelengths of light for us to see.
While the process of importing heat from afar might sound exotic, it isn’t really. That is exactly what the weather is geared to do. Every day the Earth’s atmosphere has to respond to a never-ending problem of being inundated by an unfathomable amount of energy from the sun and to make things interesting, that energy is unevenly distributed so that some regions, such as the tropics and subtropics receive lots and other regions, notably the high latitudes and polar regions, very little.
Outside the tropics, the number one method for sorting out that discrepancy in energy is to move heat in the winds. In the northern hemisphere, winds from the south are warm and those from the north cool. A constant supply of cool northerly wind has been a key reason why decent June sunshine hasn’t raised temperatures just yet this summer. By crossing latitudes, cool winds going south and warm winds going north help to even up the problem of uneven heating from the sun.
At the latitudes of the UK, weather systems transport more than 3 petawatts of heat polewards. That is about 300 times the installed electricity generation capacity worldwide. If the climate system is so good at carrying out this heat transport, what is it that makes the African plume events infrequent?
First, to line up a wind which blows all the way from the Sahara to the UK takes a special configuration of pressure systems. No one low or high pressure system is quite big enough to do this on its own. And second, that configuration has to stay in place for at least three days because the wind has to travel the better part of 3,000 km.
Assuming those things are to hand, the UK can experience Sahara-like conditions. Of course, the temperature of the wind will be modified as it makes its journey, in this case, cooling slightly the further it gets from the furnace of the Sahara. But that cooling process is much less efficient than you might think. Air retains the conditions at its origin quite stubbornly, and crossing the hot Iberian Peninsula as African plumes have often done in the past – a part of the world which is warming steeply as a result of climate change – doesn’t help.
What the future has in store
Will warming in the UK in future decades result in more African plumes? Well, here’s the surprise. Meticulous work by the Met Office which involved slicing up British weather into 30 different types showed that three out of four of the patterns which can generate southerly winds from the overheated Sahara are actually projected to become less frequent in future, and only one (a southerly wind driven by a high pressure system over Scandinavia) is expected to increase.
Likewise, the persistence or longevity of those weather patterns (and remember, to get the Saharan heat to the UK requires it persisting for three days or more) decreases for three out of four patterns, again only increasing in the case of the Scandinavian high. Meanwhile, there are also weather patterns which can transport heat from central Europe to the UK. And the Met Office work shows that these patterns are set to increase in frequency in the future – and also extend into the autumn months.
Dry soils over Europe reinforce the heat-making pressure pattern. Sunshine warms a dry surface much more readily than a wet one. So Europe is a source of intense heat for Britain too, with temperatures not far off those of the Sahara.
This plume of heat forecast for early June is a good example. We might lose those striking sunsets made of Saharan dust, but the heat is here to stay.
Earth has been used as a building material for at least the last 12,000 years. Ethnographic research into earth being used as an element of Aboriginal architecture in Australia suggests its use probably goes back much further.
Traditional construction methods were no match for the earthquake that rocked Morocco on Friday night, an engineering expert says, and the area will continue to see such devastation unless updated building techniques are adopted.
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