Climate Science Demands a Post Carbon Landscape Architecture

© Steve Austin (used with permission)

By Steve Austin, JD | ASLA | Clinical Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture, Washington State University

Right now, landscape architects face the most critical challenge in the history of the profession: how to fully and finally respond to the reality of the climate crisis.  Climate science shows the crisis intensifying and accelerating, while making it clear how to avert the worst of it. To do so, humanity, including landscape architects, must halve fossil fuel use within 10 years, and zero them out within thirty years.  This is because the carbon dioxide (CO2) released by burning fossil fuels is increasing earth’s greenhouse effect, which is rapidly heating the planet and causing the climate to change in terrible ways.

That’s it. That’s what climate science tells us.  That “rapid, far reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” are needed to salvage a livable future.  That our future must be “post carbon.”

Right now, it is not at all clear that landscape architects are prepared to accept this.  While there are plenty of platitudinous statements about landscape architecture’s ability to be a positive force, there is currently no plan in place for a post carbon version of itself.  There is no plan for the time when the work of landscape architects will be more needed, but when fossil fuels will be unavailable for construction, material production, transportation, and maintenance.  It is as if the profession is in a trance, hopefully reaching for every possible alternative besides the stark, but only, one offered by climate science.  Landscape architecture won’t get a pass because of good intentions.  At this point, well meaning but incremental actions will only increase the damage.

The good news is that, while a post carbon future will change the profession dramatically, it should not change it fundamentally.  Nothing that landscape architects do inherently requires fossil fuels.  So while making the transition to the post carbon era will entail enormous challenges and impose harsh physical limits, ultimately landscape architects will only be bound by courage and imagination.

Where things are now

It is rapidly getting hotter.  The earth has already warmed by nearly two degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial era temperatures.  20 of the last 22 years have been the hottest on record, and the heating over the past four years has been “exceptional.”  Further, it appears that global surface temperatures in 2019 are on track to be either the second or third hottest since records began. 

Earth’s oceans are also swiftly heating, which will further amplify surface heating.  Recent research shows that heat waves are sweeping the ocean “like wildfires,” killing sea life and destroying life support systems.  In the Arctic, white ice once deflected the sun’s rays, but that ice is melting into dark water that is now absorbing more heat. This is creating a new weather dynamic, where warmer Artic seas deflect the jet stream in ways that can bring mega storms, droughts, and flooding to lower latitudes.  One example is the bomb cyclone that hammered the Midwestern US in March 2019.  This storm, categorized by the National Weather Service as one of “historic proportions,” was amplified by unusual jet stream behavior consistent with Arctic Ocean warming.  It appears that abnormal jet stream is implicated in the terrible storm and flooding episodes in the middle US in May 2019

Warming air and seas are leading to “extraordinary” melting of earth’s ice.  Ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland are melting six times faster than in the late 1970s, which could raise sea levels to the extreme end of projections made just a few years ago. This year Greenland’s ice was observed melting even in the middle of winter. This melting also threatens to negatively alter the warm ocean currents that provide habitable winters in the northeastern US and Canada, as well as northern Europe.  It is ironic that in a warming world, some places might become too cold to live in. 

A hotter planet is introducing new concepts into our culture.  Megafires and megadroughts, superstorms and superfloods, climate famine and climate wars, all are here now.  The climate crisis is destroying lives:  more than 1.5 million child deaths per year are attributed it, and millions are already refugees.  It is also disrupting human progress:  schools are being destroyed by weather events, health threats are arising in places where they previously have not occurred, food is becoming less nutritious, and money is being spent for disaster recovery that could be used for development.   Even more ominously, global warming is but one human cause in the accelerating decline of the Earth’s life-support systems, threating the collapse of nature.  It is so bad that Jane Goodall heartbreakingly asks: “How come the most intellectual creature to ever walk the earth is destroying its only home?”

Climate science and the future

In October 2018, in the face of this bleak evidence of the rapid and devastating increase in global temperatures, the UN released a landmark report whose implications will reverberate for decades.  This report offers definitive proof of the destructiveness of fossil fuels and marks the first time they’ve been given a firm expiration date.  Climate science is unequivocal in that to keep temperature rise to a barely tolerable increase, global annual carbon dioxide emissions – primarily from fossil fuels – must drop by half by 2030 and then be at zero by 2050.

But leveling off at a higher temperature isn’t enough.  To restore a more stable climate by reducing temperatures, humanity must work to draw down excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.  This will require relentlessly protecting and restoring carbon sinks such as forests, wetlands, and soils, as well as adding biodiverse afforestation in all possible areas.  Advocating for reducing carbon instead of zero carbon is not compatible with this needed drawdown; achieving only a balance of emissions and sequestration would still leave the atmosphere with an excess of CO2, thus continuing the damage already occurring.  

Unfortunately, the path we are on right now will lead us to reach the absolute upper temperature of civilization’s safe operating zone within the next 30 years.  This will expose millions of people to greater heat stress, water and food scarcity, sea level rise, and climate related poverty.  It will also make large swaths of the planet uninhabitable, leading to a massive increase in climate refugees.  These migrations are likely to result in frightening geo-political instability, leading to more wars, as confirmed by a 2019 Pentagon study.  In order to not cross this last temperature rise boundary, we must completely stop burning fossil fuels not long after 2050 anyway. Thus, there is no scenario in which we can continue as we are without risking apocalypse. 

Yeah, about that.  Global carbon emissions rose significantly in 2018, following a rise in 2017.  If this continues, the earth is on a path to be as much as seven degrees Fahrenheit hotter by the end of this century, within the lifetimes of humans born this year. This “would constitute the end of civilization as we know it,” according to climate scientist Michael Mann.

Even worse, that increase means that there is the possibility that large areas of permafrost will thaw and rapidly release vast stores of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, potentially leading to a runaway greenhouse effect.  This is the nightmare scenario, leading to conditions beyond our ability to adapt. It is that serious.

The Post Carbon Era

In response to climate science, important shifts pointing to the post carbon world are underway.  In May 2019, the UK’s House of Commons became the world’s first bipartisan national body to declare a climate emergency.  At the same time,that government’s chief climate advisory agency recommended for the first time an accelerated plan to cut the country’s carbon emissions to zero by 2050.  Soon thereafter, the parliaments of Canada and Ireland followed suit in declaring a climate emergency. They have been joined by hundreds of local and regional governments around the world. 

In the US, climate science is front and center of the growing idea of a Green New Deal to help the country with the post carbon transition.  And around the world millions of students – all future landscape architects, clients, and users – are participating in “school strikes for climate,” aimed at bringing awareness of the need for the end of fossil fuels into everyday life.  This is Generation Z, the largest generation in global history, and they are very concerned about their future prospects. They are also future landscape architects, clients, and most importantly, users of landscape architecture.

Perhaps most remarkably, in April 2019 the Network for Greening the Financial System, an organization representing 34 central banks comprising most of the largest economies on the planet (including the central banks of England, France, Germany, Japan, China and the European Union – but not the US) issued a reportbased on climate science, with a dire warning:

“Carbon emissions have to decline by 45% from 2010 levels over the next decade in order to reach net zero by 2050. This requires a massive reallocation of capital. If some companies and industries fail to adjust to this new world, they will fail to exist.” (emphasis added)

Read that again.  Central bankers, a group not known for being keen environmentalists, wrote that. They are announcing the end of fossil fuels as a business proposition.  

Post Carbon Landscape Architecture

As stated before, ending the use of fossil fuels and working to draw down excess carbon dioxide will change landscape architecture dramatically, but not fundamentally. The goals of landscape architecture can be achieved without fossil fuels.  For example, the ASLA defines the work and outcomes of the profession this way: “Landscape architects analyze, plan, design, manage, and nurture the built and natural environments. Landscape architects have a significant impact on communities and quality of life. They design parks, campuses, streetscapes, trails, plazas, and other projects that help define a community.”Wonderfully, none of these things requires fossil fuels and all have great drawdown potential. Fossil fuels definitely make those things easier, but they are not necessary, as the history of the profession shows.

As importantly, the ASLA asserts that the work of landscape architecture requires  “a license…necessary to safeguard the health, safety, and welfare of the public.” With what is now known, can there be any other response but to acknowledge that the profession’s continued use of fossil fuels violates that mandate? Landscape architects can safeguard the public without fossil fuels.

These are a solid foundation upon which the profession can move into the future. Now, for the more difficult part.  Assuming the profession will accept climate science, what would post carbon landscape architecture look like?

Most fundamentally, there will be significantly less energy available.  Fossil fuels currently make up 80% of the energy supply.   Even an enormous increase in renewables will not come near to making up the difference. This will introduce hard limits to vital projects, requiring new angles of creativity to accomplish needed goals.

As significantly, current landscape architecture construction and maintenance methods, material creation, and transportation are highly dependent on fossil fuels.  It is wishful thinking to assume there are easy substitutions.  Instead, landscape architects will need to relearn ways of addressing all of those needs without fossil fuels.

Dealing with those conundrums, as well as providing for drawing down excess carbon dioxide by profuse planting of trees and other vegetation, will require new design approaches. All of that, in turn, will challenge educational frameworks, and point toward needing evolved ethical values.  Aesthetics are obviously implicated in this transition as well:  what is a beautiful post-carbon landscape?

At this point, a reasonable response is:  “there has to be an alternative.”  Unfortunately, there does not appear to be one.  There is no scalable technology on the needed time horizon that will allow us to continue to use fossil fuels without consequence.

Nor is hoping to use plants to offset a project’s carbon emissions the answer.  Landscape architecture soaked in fossil fuels will take decades, if ever, to become climate positive through the sequestration of carbon dioxide by a project’s plants.  The crisis doesn’t allow us that much time.  And loading additional CO2 into an already overfull atmosphere is irresponsible.  Instead, to meet climate science, post carbon landscape architecture must start with as little carbon emissions as possible, and then let plants work to drawdown existing excess CO2 from there.

Moving Forward

It will take great imagination and a phenomenally collaborative and fast effort to shape post carbon landscape architecture. Most immediately, a plan to halve the profession’s fossil fuel use over the next 10 years is needed.  At the same time, landscape architects, in both academia and practice, should begin visualizing what it will take to create fossil-fuel-free projects.  This will involve investigating zero carbon materials, experimenting with new construction and maintenance methods, and working with suppliers and contractors.  Accountability is also vital; the climate footprint research being done by Pamela Conrad, ASLA and others is needed to provide an honest assessment of the impact of the profession. All this must be shared and critiqued widely, in appropriate zero carbon ways, and with a great sense of urgency.

Right now is the moment of decision for landscape architects.  It is clear that delay in acting to end fossil fuel use is the same as denying there is a problem; both exacerbate the crisis. Either, or both, will do great injustice, not only to our fellow humans but also to all life on the planet.  To paraphrase writer Alex Steffen, from now on, landscape architects will be working in the time of planetary emergency.   What will be the response?



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“Renewables” are Neither Clean, Nor Renewable

SA: So much hope these days centers on the dream of replacing the fossil fuels that are killing life on this planet with solar panels and windmills so that we get to keep the way that we currently live basically the same. Fuck, no one wants that more than I do. But it cannot happen.

There are many, many reasons why it is an utter myth that “clean, renewable energy” is the pathway to our best future but I’ll lay out three prime ones here.

The first reason is the reality of renewable energy: it provides electricity. At this time, electricity only amounts to around 20% of all the energy we use. Even an enormous scaling up of electricity production and transforming much of the realities of modern life to function on electricity will not come close to replacing what fossil fuels do for us. The vast majority of our modern world is created or enhanced by fossil-fueled fire, from transportation, to manufacturing, to everyday materials. Electricity is not a substitute for so much of that. So a renewable world will be a fundamentally different one.

The second reason is that the fabrication of renewable generators involves socially and environmentally unjust mining of non-renewable resources. The mined material is then transported, fabricated and installed using fossil fuels. They are not only unjust, they are vastly dirty.

The third reason is a corollary of the second. Renewable energy technologies are not at present able to reproduce themselves using only the energy they generate. That is, neither solar panels nor windmills generate the energy needed to mine, transport, fabricate, install and maintain themselves. They are not self replicating

There are many more “clean, renewable energy” myths exposed is this fine piece by Don Fitz at His summation after exposing those myths: “Every form of energy production has difficulties. ‘Clean, renewable energy’ is neither clean nor renewable. There can be good lives for all people if we abandon the goal of infinite energy growth. Our guiding principle needs to be that the only form of truly clean energy is less energy.”

While undoubtedly unpopular with Green New Deal folks, this is the reality we must be planning our living arrangements for: A future with extremely low energy, and that is bioregionally localized focused on a regenerative society of sufficiency.

A Globalised Solar-Powered Future is Wholly Unrealistic – and our Economy is the Reason Why

SA: This commentary about the myths of a renewable economy, from Alf Hornberg, is powerful, and most likely very unwelcome to adherents of a Green New Deal. While undoubtedly their hearts are in the right place, the idea that somehow fixing what we’ve got to run on renewably generated electricity and interjecting more “justice” into the current system will allow us to keep all the mod-cons we enjoy is extremely misguided.

The crux of Hornberg’s argument: “Despite good intentions, it is not clear what Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion and the rest of the climate movement are demanding should be done. Like most of us, they want to stop the emissions of greenhouse gases, but seem to believe that such an energy transition is compatible with money, globalised markets, and modern civilization.” Spoiler alert: it is not.

And further: “Take the ultimate issue we are facing: whether our modern, global, and growing economy can be powered by renewable energy. Among most champions of sustainability, such as advocates of a Green New Deal, there is an unshakeable conviction that the problem of climate change can be solved by engineers.” Spoiler alert: it can’t be.

The final line of the piece lays out our fundamental challenge: “Climate change and the other horrors of the Anthropocene don’t just tell us to stop using fossil fuels – they tell us that globalisation itself is unsustainable.”

I agree with Rupert Read that at this time we are facing three possible outcomes to the crises we find ourselves in:

  • This civilisation could collapse utterly and terminally, as a result of climatic instability (leading for instance to catastrophic food shortages as a probable mechanism of collapse), or possibly sooner than that, through nuclear war, pandemic, or financial collapse leading to mass civil breakdown. Any of these are likely to be precipitated in part by ecological/climate instability, as Darfur and Syria were. 

  • This civilisation (we) will manage to seed a future successor-civilisation(s), as this one collapses. 

  • This civilisation will somehow manage to transform itself deliberately, radically and rapidly, in an unprecedented manner, in time to avert collapse.

The first two cannot be avoided or aided by Green New Deals. It is the last prospect to which Green New Deals are presumably addressed. The transformation Read alludes to must be to an extremely low energy, bioregionally localized, regenerative society of sufficiency. That means the end of the current era and will require an entirely different set of adaptations than are currently proposed by Green New Deals.

If we want to salvage a livable future, we must give up clinging to the thought that we can just “green” up our current arrangements and inject more “justice” into them. The current system is inherently unjust and cannot be “greened” by its very nature. Instead, we must strive to imagine what it means to live regeneratively, in small scale, local places, where social and environmental justice is intertwined within our everyday lives.

Read the entire piece here.

The Unimaginable Scale of Trying to Capture Carbon

SA: Below is a hopeful piece about the economic possibilities of trying to suck excess carbon dioxide out of the air. It may work, but do we have the time? Is achieving this in 100 years worth continuing to emit CO2 today?

From David Roberts in Vox: “To give a sense of scale, that means by 2030 humanity needs to be compressing, transporting, and burying an amount of CO2, by volume, that is two to four times the amount of fluids that the global oil and gas industry deals with today.”

The Terrible Truth of Climate Change

SA: This is so powerful.

By Joëlle Gergis in Common Dreams

As one of the dozen or so Australian lead authors on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) sixth assessment report, currently underway, I have a deep appreciation of the speed and severity of climate change unfolding across the planet. Last year I was also appointed as one of the scientific advisers to the Climate Council, Australia’s leading independent body providing expert advice to the public on climate science and policy. In short, I am in the confronting position of being one of the few Australians who sees the terrifying reality of the climate crisis.

Read the whole thing here.

World ‘gravely’ unprepared for effects of climate crisis – report

From The Guardian:

The world’s readiness for the inevitable effects of the climate crisis is “gravely insufficient”, according to a report from global leaders.

This lack of preparedness will result in poverty, water shortages and levels of migration soaring, with an “irrefutable toll on human life”, the report warns.

Trillion-dollar investment is needed to avert “climate apartheid”, where the rich escape the effects and the poor do not, but this investment is far smaller than the eventual cost of doing nothing.

The study says the greatest obstacle is not money but a lack of “political leadership that shakes people out of their collective slumber”. A “revolution” is needed in how the dangers of global heating are understood and planned for, and solutions are funded.

Read the whole thing here.

There is no Plan B for dealing with the climate crisis

SA: This is a really powerful argument about the need for ending all fossil fuel use. Not “net-zero” but “real zero.” The implications of the first sentence alone for all planning and design disciplines is enormous.

By Raymond Pierrehumbert, published in: Bulletin of Atomic Scientists– definitely click on that link to read the whole thing.

ABSTRACT: To halt global warming, the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by human activities such as fossil fuel burning, cement production, and deforestation needs to be brought all the way to zero. The longer it takes to do so, the hotter the world will get. Lack of progress towards decarbonization has created justifiable panic about the climate crisis. This has led to an intensified interest in technological climate interventions that involve increasing the reflection of sunlight to space by injecting substances into the stratosphere which lead to the formation of highly reflective particles. When first suggested, such albedo modification schemes were introduced as a “Plan B,” in case the world economy fails to decarbonize, and this scenario has dominated much of the public perception of albedo modification as a savior waiting in the wings to protect the world against massive climate change arising from a failure to decarbonize.

But because of the mismatch between the millennial persistence time of carbon dioxide and the sub-decadal persistence of stratospheric particles, albedo modification can never safely play more than a very minor role in the portfolio of solutions. There is simply no substitute for decarbonization.