Below zero landscape architecture

By Steve Austin

As the destructive impacts of climate change accelerate, we are at a critical point in history. The chart above shows the path that civilization must be on by 2050 if we are to have a chance at maintaining a livable climate by reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). It also points the way toward to a dramatically different practice of landscape architecture.


This chart shows the two requirements for any possible success. First, our civilization must essentially cease using CO2 emitting fossil fuels within the next 30 years. And, we must draw down much more CO2 than the little we do emit. This is no longer about “zero carbon”: this will be the “below zero” era. Unfortunately, getting there is far easier graphed than done.

There are two reasons for this. One is that society, and landscape architecture, is absolutely hooked on fossil fuels. It will be hard to break our addiction. The other reason is that drawing down CO2 in such vast quantities, in such a short time, has never been done before.

It is right to expect that landscape architects should have a large part in that effort, as our work can be effective at sequestering CO2. However, reality will demand that our profession change if we are going to be a part of the solution.

There is often little consciousness of the enormous amount of CO2 emissions that are embedded in our work. For example, most of the common materials landscape architects use, like concrete, metal, and plastic, cannot be made without CO2 emissions. Thus “below zero” will likely preclude their large-scale use.

Further, CO2 emissions are deeply associated with our construction methods and processes. It is almost impossible to imagine a project – of any size – that is not constructed using machines that run on the fire provided by fossil fuels. It is these fuels that spew CO2 in the atmosphere. “Below zero” would mean that those machines would be off limits.

At this point, many landscape architects will ask about green energy. Green energy is provided primarily by renewable sources, which produce electricity. Nuclear power also generates electricity. Unhappily, electricity cannot do the same things as fossil-fueled fire, which provides 80% of our current energy.

In a “below zero” world, electricity will do more than it does for us now, but it will not replace the vast amount of CO2 spewing fire that enables us to use the materials and processes that we’ve become dependent on.

Landscape architects may also ask if what we do is green enough to offset a project’s CO2 emissions. It is true that our work in planting trees, protecting soil, and preserving wild lands does bring carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. But there is no evidence that our projects will sequester enough CO2 to allow us to offset our current emissions.

Great landscape architecture – from Villa d’Este to Central Park to Ryoanji – has been produced throughout history with essentially zero CO2 emissions. We are creative people in a profession vitally needed for a better future. We cannot continue to be part of the problem. We must embrace the “below zero” era and let our imaginations free as we seek to preserve a livable climate.


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