Net Zero Law in Washington State: Implications for Design and Construction

In this lecture I discuss the current state of the climate crisis, Washington state’s new net zero law – the Climate Commitment Act – and the implications of complying with this law for design and construction.

Spoiler: Decarbonizing will have significant impacts on energy availability, materials and construction methods, and approaches to addressing the climate impacts that are already occurring. This will require designers and constructors to rethink much of what was learned and applied during the 20th century.

This lecture occurred on January 30, 2023, as part of the Washington State School of Design and Construction series in conjunction with the US Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Urban planning as we’ve known it is obsolete

By Steve Austin

Urban planning as practiced today in the USA is functionally obsolete and must end.  The laws, procedures, and values urban planners employ are not suited to either of the likely futures that we face.  The stable climate in which modern urban planning evolved in no longer exists; Holocene era planning is unable to address Anthropocene era realities. Recognizing this and calling for change is vital because 83% of the U.S. population lives in urban areas and will be harmed by ineffective – or worse – urban planning. 

The two likely futures we face are related to the climate crisis.

First, current urban planning will not have ability to cope with a business-as-usual future where average global temperatures rise by at least 5° Fahrenheit within a few decades.  Preeminent climate scientist Katharine Hayhoedescribes this future as one where “there is no adaptation that is possible.”

Read that again.  

The reason for this is that the earth, due to CO2 emissions-caused climate heating, is on the verge of entering a chaotic system, without equilibrium and no repeatable patterns.  Climate scientist Kevin Anderson says of the heating, “it’s occurring so quickly that the human systems and ecological systems cannot evolve that rapidly in any sort of stable form.”

According to new research as reported by LiveScience, a chaotic climate “would have seasons that change wildly from decade to decade or even year to year.” Orfeu Bertolami, a scientist who worked on the study, explains, “A chaotic behavior means that it will be impossible to predict the behavior of Earth System in the future.”

Urban planning is in part a forecasting profession. This forecasting is in an effort to anticipate the social, economic, and physical needs of citizens in the future.  On a 5° hotter planet, this will be impossible. Dr. Hayhoe says, “Human civilization is based on the assumption of a stable climate. But we are moving far beyond the stable range.”

Thus, any effort at preparing five-year or longer plans will be pointless because historical trends – climatic, economic, political – no longer provide validity on which to base projections: the future will not look like the past.  Climate writer Alex Steffen refers to our time now as a “discontinuity.”  The changes we face are so abrupt that Steffen says that past experience has lost its value as a guide to decision-making about the future.

What is known is that weather will become ever more increasingly extreme resulting in deaths and devastation from storms, floods, fires, and heatwaves.  This will wreak havoc on communities’ infrastructure. Dr. Hayhoe states that “Our infrastructure was built for a planet that no longer exists.”  It may also be said that our planning was created for a planet that no longer exists. 

It is likely that the vast majority of urban planners have no idea this is what we face.

And not only are urban planners not ready for this reality, but the profession is also pushing us into this future.

For an example, by enforcing segregated land uses that require immense amounts of driving, American urban planning actively demands high emissions.  Americans drive far more than any other nation on the planet – more than twice as much as any comparable developed nation.  Because of this, transportation is by far the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.  US urban planning makes the planet hotter every day.

The second likely future we face is one where greenhouse gas emissions are eliminated in an attempt to salvage a livable climate.  This is a “net-zero” scenario and it will be one with much, much less available energy.  Net-zero would change everything in our lives from transportation, to land use, to agriculture and food distribution, to building materials and economic development.  Current urban planning will be unable to adapt to this situation because the modern profession is rooted in 19th and 20th century understandings of prosperity, which was a by-product of humans gaining access to apparently limitless fossil fuels. 

It is completely implausible that a profession rooted in high energy availability of the past two centuries would seamlessly adapt to very low energy availability

However, since net-zero will so radically change our way of living, it seems unlikely to be adopted in the US.

Thus, the likeliest future scenario is “business as usual,” resulting in at least 5° of heating within the lifetimes of young people today.  To honestly face the reality of this scenario, brave urban planners should admit that long-term planning is now pointless.  It is impossible to plan for an utterly unpredictable future. 

But for as long as we can, we must try our best to adapt to the potentially unadaptable.

Therefore, planning must shift to much shorter time frames, such as year to year or even season to season. In these time frames, planning should focus on identifying climate risk, local vulnerabilities to those risks, and then defining and preparing for local resilience.

Planners must identify the greatest climate risks to their communities. These risks may be weather-related, food-related, energy-related, resource-related and even, horrifyingly, global war-related risks over migration and access to resources.

Weather related risks may include long-duration floods, excessive heat, extreme cyclonic activity, intense cloudbursts, fire and smoke, extended drought, and powerful derechos. In order to reduce vulnerabilities to many of these risks, Anthropocene urban planners should demand the best possible weather forecasting so that freak weather events might not take communities by surprise.  

Along with better forecasting, better communication throughout communities is needed to warn all citizens quickly and effectively of looming destructive weather.  Planning for evacuations, immediate disaster responses, and maintaining “lifeline services” will obviously also be vital. New building codes are also necessary for requiring new buildings and retrofitting existing ones to better cope with these events. To prevent repeated disasters occurring in the same places, retreat plans are needed for quick, permanent abandonment of many urban areas. 

Eliminating vulnerabilities to food related risks include ensuring food supply despite weather, political, or supply chain disruptions.  This must take the form of massive efforts at local agriculture on every appropriate piece of land in the community as well as providing emergency food storage from year to year.

Risks to energy availability and supply chains are similar:

  • weather-related destruction of the grid, distribution and transportation infrastructure;
  • local, state, national, and global actions restricting trade;
  • and potentially even global military actions.

Reducing these vulnerabilities include developing creative plans for:

Achieving many of these will require communities to reconnect with their bioregion and to cooperate with their neighbors to ensure sustainable management of those bioregional resources. 

(Speaking of global war, those communities near US military bases and other high-profile targets should seriously study impacts of a potential global world war on their immediate surroundings.)

There are many other risks and vulnerabilities. Once those are fully identified, it will be of paramount importance for planners to define and ensure local resilience. I’m defining resilience as an ability to quickly rebound after a shock in order to maintain a viable community through maintaining essential functions and ensuring public health, safety, and welfare. While every community will have unique resilience plans, all should be focused on ensuring enough food and clean water for everyone, suitable housing, a minimal level of electricity, empathetic public security, and health care for all citizens. 

If you’ve made it this far, you’re likely to be asking, “what about zone changes, development plans, subdivisions, conditional uses?”  I think that all of these are now irrelevant, but I do understand that most urban planners in the current paradigm ultimately work to keep the real estate development industrial complex going.  So, if planners insist on carrying 20th century practice forward, perhaps it could be with a new ethic that re-focuses conventional planning actions on only those things that reduce risks and vulnerabilities and builds resilience. 

Regardless, knowing what we know about our terrible predicament, continuing as before without these ethics or completely new practices must be considered malpractice.

The trajectory of the climate crisis reveals current planning practice as utterly insufficient for the real world. The knowledge and actions of the past are of no use to planning today. Pretending otherwise is unacceptable.  Climate Scientist Kevin Anderson clearly says what urban planners face: “There is no non-extreme future.” Urban planning must pick one extreme future to focus on and begin anew.

Steve Austin is an urban planner and designer and land use attorney.  He currently teaches landscape architecture, urban planning, and construction law at Washington State University.

The (energy) elephant in the room

This is the real inconvenient truth: if we end fossil fuel use to salvage a livable climate, we will have much, much less energy overall. And this has to be done within the next 20-30 years. There is not some source out there ready to plug in so we can continue as we have.

Fission nuclear, for example, has a 60+ year track record and provides just a small percentage of overall energy. Fusion is not happening in anytime frame that would help us. Anyway, those only provide electricity, not the fire that an industrialized civilization needs.

Will wind and solar be ramped up? Sure, but they will not fill the fossil fuel gap. And right now, they cant be made and installed without fossil fuels. They’re electricity providers too.

Hydrogen? Not likely. Biofuels? Not if we’re going to feed 8+billion people. Hydropower? We’ve damed just about every conceivable river in the world.

The reality is there will be much, much less energy. Our challenge is to figure out how to use what little we have to do the things that will keep us alive AND give us a quality of life somewhat better than cave dwellers.

Washington’s New Climate Law Will Fundamentally Change Urban Planning

The climate crisis is worsening and accelerating, increasing human and ecological injustice.  In response, this year Governor Inslee signed the most ambitious climate law in the western hemisphere.   The Climate Commitment Act (CCA) will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 95% from 1990 levels by 2050.  This signals the end of the fossil fuel era in Washington state.  After more than 125 years of fossil fuel aided community building, this will require profound changes to the ways we plan our communities.

Chief among those changes is meeting increased needs with less energy.    Currently, fossil fuels provide at least 60% of all energy used in the state. While renewables will grow significantly over the next couple of decades, it is unlikely that they will provide an equal amount of energy of the dirty sources being phased out.  Further, renewables only provide electricity, which is absolutely not an equivalent substitute for what fossil fuels do in our economy.  Such is what justice requires.

Crucially, this will change transportation.  Transport today relies nearly exclusively on oil.  Almost all our economic and social systems are enabled by internal combustion-based transportation networks. 

While transport electrification is a prime target of the investment funds created by the CCA, it can only do so much.  Long distance trucking and aviation are unlikely to be electrifiable at scale and counting on plentiful, cheap biofuels or hydrogen as substitutes is foolish. Urban transport will revolve around electrified transit and small personal electric mobility vehicles.  Given the limitations of electrified transport, distance will matter a great deal once again, leaving unprepared communities vulnerable.  This will affect work patterns and logistical supplies, especially food delivery.

Ending nearly all greenhouse gas emissions will bring other challenges.  For example, urban infrastructure, especially storm water systems, will need to be rethought.  Currently, most infrastructure is comprised of concrete and steel, which are enormously emission intensive to manufacture, and which are typically put into place by large fossil-fueled machines.  For the future required by the CCA, planners must reimagine how infrastructure functions. This will demand new ways of planning besides the simply additive:  un-doing, subtracting, reversing, reducing, softening, and accepting will need to become essential parts of the planning lexicon. 

Planning systems must be reimagined too.  For instance, long-range planning, zoning, and development regulations are from the era of high energy and a stable climate.  It is doubtful that planners can just bolt on additional tools to address an unstable and rapidly changing climate and less available energy. The result would be too dissonant, creating unresolvable regulatory conflicts.  New tools are needed.

The CCA necessitates that planners envision new activities as well.  Emission reduction accountability, appropriate energy landscapes, and relocalization of food production will be needed. Building codes must be redone to make reuse of all buildings the default and mandate low energy buildings and zero emission materials and construction methods for new buildings. Vitally, land use integration – the opposite of today’s planning – will be essential in creating the complete communities that will be compatible with the CCA. 

Urban planners face a daunting task.  Everything they do must be rapidly reevaluated. The good news is that the CCA will jump start the revolution in planning that has been needed for a very long time.  A more resilient and socially and environmentally just future awaits; we can heal divisions and mend fractures in the fabric of our communities and ecologies. That is no longer a dream of what we’d like planning to do.  The CCA is the law that demands it of us.

Through the Eye of a Needle: An Eco-Heterodox Perspective on the Renewable Energy Transition

SA: This is such an important paper by Megan K. Seibert and William E. Rees

In 13 well-written pages that clearly present that trying to solve only for climate change will indeed not solve anything. This can be shown in the context of the idea and ideals of a Green New Deal.

“We argue that while the GND narrative is highly seductive, it is little more than a disastrous shared illusion. Not only is the GND technically flawed, but it fails to recognize human ecological dysfunction as the overall driver of incipient global systemic collapse.

By viewing climate change, rather than ecological overshoot—of which climate change is merely a symptom—as the central problem, the GND and its variants grasp in vain for techno-industrial solutions to problems caused by techno-industrial society.

Such a self-referencing pursuit is doomed to fail. As Albert Einstein allegedly said, “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”. We need an entirely new narrative for a successful energy transition. Only by abandoning the flawed paradigmatic source of our ecological dilemma can we formulate realistic pathways for averting social–ecological collapse.”

The authors clearly demonstrate that a reliance on renewable energy to keep things are they are today is completely misguided:

“GND proponents are appallingly tolerant of the inexplicable. They fail to address how the gigatons of already severely depleted metals and minerals essential to building so-called RE technologies will be available in perpetuity considering typical five to 30-year life spans and the need for continuous replacement [17,18,19]. They offer no viable workarounds for the ecological damage and deplorable working conditions, often in the Global South, involved in metal ore extraction [20,21]. Green New Dealers advance no viable solutions (technical or financial) for electrifying the many high-heat-intensive manufacturing processes involved in constructing high-tech wind turbines and solar panels (not to mention all other products in modern society) [22,23,24,25]. The waste streams generated by so-called renewables at the end of their short working lives are either ignored or assumed away, to be dealt with eventually by yet non-existent recycling processes [26,27,28]. Proposals for electrifying the 80% of non-electrical energy demand overlook crucial facts, namely that the national-scale transmission systems and grids required for electrified land transportation do not even exist today, nor is the needed build-out likely given material, energy, and financial constraints [29].”

And then in solid but brief detail, the authors illustrate clearly the limitations of electricity as a substitute for fossil fuels in an industrialized economy.

“In short, no RE source or system is viable if it cannot not generate sufficient energy both to produce itself (literally from the ground up) and supply a sufficient surplus for society’s end-use consumption. Currently, no so-called RE technology is in the running.”

Ultimately, trying to keep industrial civilization going is a losing battle, and one that will only make overshoot worse: “Clearly, the climate crisis cannot be solved in isolation from the macro-problem of overshoot—certainly not by using technologies that are reliant on the same FFs and ecologically destructive processes that created the problem in the first place.”

The most colossal planning failure in history

SA: These are excerpts from the great Richard Heinberg. So important!

He explains the predicament we are in: “Here’s the essence of our planning failure: we have built up civilization to a scale that can temporarily be supported by finite and polluting energy sources, and we have simply assumed that this scale of activity can continue to be supported by other energy sources that haven’t yet been developed or substantially deployed. Further, we have incorporated limitless growth into the requirements for civilization’s success and maintenance—despite the overwhelming likelihood that growth can occur for only a historically brief interval.”

Then he explains what we need to do: “We should start with conservative estimates of how much energy solar and wind can provide. No one has a definitive figure, but for industrial nations like the US, it would be wise to assume some fraction of the energy currently provided by fossil fuels: half, for example, would be a highly ambitious goal (one of the first projects of the planning process would be to come up with a more precise estimate). Then, planners would explore ways to reduce energy usage to that level, with a minimum of disruption to people’s lives. Planners would also seek to determine approximately the scale of population that can be supported long-term by these sources without degradation of the environment (yes, Putnam discussed the relationship between population and energy back in 1953), and then create and implement policies to begin matching population to those levels in a way that reduces, rather than worsening, existing social inequities.

A comprehensive plan would detail the amount of investment required, and over what period of time, and would specify the sources of the money.”

Then he tells us what our fate will be if we do not plan: “Without planning, this is what will most likely happen: we’ll fail to produce enough renewable energy to power society at the level at which we want it to operate. So, we’ll continue to get most of our energy from fossil fuels—until we can’t, due to depletion. Then, as the economy crashes and the planet heats, the full impacts of our planning failure will finally hit home.”

And he offers us a tantalizing planning experiment: “Finally, as I have suggested elsewhere, good planning would entail the creation of a pilot project, in which a medium-sized industrial city is transitioned to get all its energy (for food, manufacturing, heating and cooling, and transportation) from renewables.”

WHAT A GREAT CHALLENGE! I fear we will not accept it.

The discontinuity doesn’t allow us a “do-over”

Alex Steffen is an excellent thinker and writer on the existential crisis time we find ourselves in. He recently posted a commentary entitled: “We’re not ready for what’s already happened. Welcome to the discontinuity, population: everyone.”

His central thesis is this:

“The true measure of the seriousness of the planetary crisis is not destruction but discontinuity.

My most succinct working definition of a ‘discontinuity’ is a watershed moment, one where past experience loses its value as a guide to decision-making about the future. It’s a critical concept, so I’m going to do my best in this week’s email to quickly explain what it means to me, and why it may be useful to you.

The planetary crisis is what I call the interlocking, complex, accelerating changes our actions are bringing on in the natural world. Climate change is the largest problem within this crisis, but it is interconnected with ecosystem degradation, biodiversity loss, topsoil loss and water shortages, threats to food systems, changes in ocean chemistry, the release of rivers of toxic chemicals into the biosphere, invasive species and so on. We can talk about them as separate challenges, but in reality they are all one crisis. And it is getting worse, fast.

The planetary crisis is a discontinuity. This is the most important thing about it. Failing to understand the climate/ecological emergency as an all-encompassing discontinuity in human societies is failing to understand it, full stop.

Every time human systems and planetary realities clash, the human systems fail, and human beings lose. It sometimes takes a while for the defeat to become obvious, but on a wide variety of fronts, the defeats we’ve already dealt ourselves over decades of inaction are growing unignorable. Many more are coming into focus now—and we’re still losing our conflicts with nature on a grand scale.

Those defeats have altered all our human systems, already. Not only is the Earth’s entire biosphere being transformed at a speed greater than anything humans have lived through before, but the human world has become something no human has ever experienced before.

Discontinuity is a fact of our lives. It’s no longer a choice. Most of us are confused about when we are. I know I’m still figuring it out.

Here’s something we do know: The longer we delay acting at disruptive speeds, the more discontinuous the near future will be with present expectations… and the less value present systems will retain. Disruption now, or even more discontinuity (and then more disruption) that’s our choice—and the speed of our actions is how we choose between them.

Acknowledgment of that reality may be the most powerful idea on earth right now.

The planetary crisis is a crisis because it has unleashed discontinuity throughout human systems, and because only a few of us can see it yet.

We are in the teeth of a King Grizzly discontinuity, and it’s shaking our material certainties and our cultural assumptions apart like a salmon-wrapped ragdoll. Oily stuffing is already flying in all directions.”

I think this is absolutely correct and wonderfully stated.

AND THEN, such a smart, insightful person suggests in the very same piece that the solution to this discontinuity is as follows:

“Above all, this means building. It means hundreds of millions of new homes; wind farms and solar fields by the tens of thousands, factories churning out batteries and electric cars and induction stoves and geothermal systems; new shipping infrastructure; the rebuilding of coastal cities everywhere; massive investments in ecosystem services, fire protections, water and soil conservation; a reinvention of huge industries like chemicals and concrete and consumer plastics; a landscape in upheaval. A giant building boom is what successful action looks like.”

What the actual fuck!? How can he accurately diagnose our predicament but come up with this prescription? Electric cars for fuck’s sake!

In appears that Alex’s mind, the solution to the discontinuity is MORE OF THE SAME THAT GOT US TO THIS POINT. (“…factories churning out…)

Where will all the raw materials come from for this “giant building boom?” How will everything needed be extracted, transported, manufactured, constructed, and maintained without enormous carbon emissions? Renewables absolutely cannot power a “giant building boom.” This would be nothing but the last carbon soaked straw in destroying a livable planet.

If we are in the discontinuity he describes – and I believe we are – then the answer is not more building, but to stop everything. We don’t get a giant do-over to get things right this time.

Instead, we must repurpose what we already have, undo everything that isn’t absolutely essential to sustaining life, restore ecosystems and do this with justice to all life.

And from this stopping, we can begin to imagine how a civilization can be formed solely on the basis of the energy flows of sunlight. This was the past. This is the future.

I’m not a consultant trying to keep my business afloat. Thus I don’t need to peddle fairy tales of “giant building booms” to politicians and corporations desperately searching for a way to keep business as usual going.

Really Dire News:

“The latest measurements released by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego  show that the atmospheric CO2 concentrations at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii, are now at record levels. The average for March 2021 was 417.14 parts per million (ppm), which is 50% higher than the average for 1750-1800. Independent measurements by NOAA also show record CO2 levels. The Met Office predicts monthly CO2 concentrations in 2021 to peak at 419.5 ± 0.6 ppm in May (Figure 1). This is despite a temporary reduction in global emissions last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.”

From the UK MET

This is the decade that will define Pullman’s fate

By Steve Austin

Now that our political crisis has for the moment waned, we must urgently focus on the climate crisis.  Locally, we are one year into the decade that will define the fate of Pullman over the remainder of the 21st century. Unfortunately, we haven’t done much that science recommends to mitigate and adapt to the crisis. It is as if we are ignoring science.  Or worse.  This is ironic considering that Pullman was literally created to support the propagation of scientific knowledge. 

The climate crisis is accelerating.   2020 is tied with 2016 as the hottest year on record.  This follows the 2010s, which were the hottest decade on record.  Ice is melting across the planet at a rapidly increasing rate, in line with worst-case scenarios.  The heating is exacerbating epic weather disasters; last year there were 416 such events globally. 

Here, trends are making it likely that even “normal” summers on the Palouse will become incredibly hot.  And drier.  Rainfall is forecast to become more prevalent in winter and spring, with less in summer.  

These impacts will affect us all here, especially heat sensitive people, those on limited incomes who may not be able to afford cooling, and farmers.  More broadly, the crisis puts all life on this planet is under threat, including hundreds of millions of our fellow humans. 

Looking forward, scientists estimate warming of nearly 3 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5C) by 2030, decades ahead of earlier projections, and representing the threshold of a “safe climate.”  Currently, the world is on track for 7 Fahrenheit of heating this century, which climate scientist Michael Mann says “would constitute the end of civilization as we know it.” 

In order to avert the worst impacts and potentially unstoppable heating, science is clear as to what must be done:  we must halve fossil fuel use by 2030 (less than 470 weeks from now) and then end all use within the following two decades. This is what justice demands.  It remains to be seen whether we will do what is morally right. 

It won’t be easy. Ending fossil fuels will fundamentally change everything in our lives.  They provide more than 80% of all energy use and we rely on them to power transportation systems, create materials deemed essential to modern life, and grow food.   

Ending fossil fuel use will expose Pullman’s deep vulnerabilities in at least two related areas.  First, our region is completely dependent on fossil fueled transportation.   Ending fossil fuels could leave us dangerously isolated. The second area relates to logistical provisions, especially food.  Pullman is at the end of a very long, fossil fueled supply chain. 

So, we know what’s causing the crisis and what’s needed to end it.   What have we done in Pullman so far? 

Not Much. 

Pullman’s new draft Comprehensive Plan contains not one mention of climate change in 243 pages. Absurdly, Washington’s current planning laws don’t require it.  But it seems important to have climate mentioned somewhere in the plan for the 20-year future of the community. 

We’ve fallen short in other areas as well. There are no plans for large scale local food production, shade tree planting, or zero carbon city operations. Development codes have not been revised to ensure neighborhoods will be habitable. No realistic transportation planning has occurred to ensure we remain connected to the rest of the world. Smaller, yet no less symbolic, downtown bike lanes were eliminated, sending an incorrect signal about future transportation. And there is no region-wide plan for ensuring justice for those most vulnerable to climate impacts. 

To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson about a similar crisis, climate warnings are clear and stark, like a fire bell in the night. “The climate emergency is evolving faster than predicted,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said recently. “We must accelerate our response, with ambition and urgency.  This is the battle for our lives.” 

Are we in Pullman going to act on what science is telling us?