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State of Planet Earth: How much impact can green buildings have on the big problems life faces on the planet?

Eric Elizondo, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C

February 4, 2019

In the last article, I outlined several green building certification systems in the market to help designers, architects, engineers and building owners. This editorial provides commentary and facts to support the need for action from all of us to preserve this precious planet we share and love. And this call to action goes well beyond green buildings. I’ll also look into our collective crystal ball for the outcome that we all hope for humanity’s future. What could the world look like in the year 2100?  I will suggest solutions to these local and global problems that are well thought out and realistic if we begin to think differently about how to balance humanity’s existence on planet Earth with its available resources.

 

Green buildings can and need to play a role in solving many of the issues facing – profit, people and planet.  But it cannot solve them all. There are some big problems that we face which green buildings can assist but cannot solve alone. I think identifying the big issues is a worthwhile endeavor, let’s list the issues we have started to address and then issues that still need much attention:

Current Movement Towards Sustainablity

  • Green buildings weren’t even a “thing” in the public or professional ethos 25 years ago. Now they are impacting thought, discussion, design, material production, and communities around the world.
  • Most architects and engineers understand the importance and need for green buildings and many have the technical experience to execute the design and engineering of green building projects around the world.
  • It may take some time, but nature has the ability to re-heal itself, if we give it a chance and do our part to help the restoration One personal example is that there are many more birds of prey in the skies around Central Ohio, even some who were once listed on the threatened and endangered species list. Earlier this summer, I witnessed a beautiful and massive American Bald Eagle’s nest four miles from my home in Bexley, Ohio just off the Alum creek multi-use path. The American Bald Eagle, first placed under protection in 1940s, was removed from the endangered species list in 2009 and now flourishes across the country.
  • More and more corporations understand that profit, people and planet must be managed in a manner that supports sustainability. Sustainability Directors in corporations, cities and universities are commonplace.
  • More renewable energy sources are in action than ever before.
  • We are developing more recycling strategies than ever before.
  • Environmental education and the studies of sustainability and resilience are prolific at universities. Our K-12 education of environmental issues has improved as well.
  • Scientist are communicating more than ever. Sharing knowledge across all sciences is accelerating our understanding of symbiosis and connections.
  • Data is available to more thinkers than ever and we are more connected to one another.
  • Thinking in Systems, if applied and acted upon in concert by governments, corporations and individuals, can help us to understand the limitations of the natural systems we depend on for our survival and resilience.

Lack of Movement Towards Sustainability

  • Population growth is still on the rise. Growing by 200,000+ people each day, the world’s population was 7,644,514,050 the day this article was published.
  • Water shortages and many of the world’s major rivers are severely polluted, the Ganges in India is dead in areas, filled with so many industrial chemicals and human waste that its biodiversity has disappeared. Here is a list of the world’s most polluted rivers: Ganges, Citarum, Yellow, Sarno, Buringanga, Marilao, Mississippi, Mantaza Riachuelo, Jordan Yamuna, and Yangtze.
  • 844 million of the world’s population currently live without drinkable water.
  • The United States’ cities and regional authorities continue to engineer solutions to solve fresh water supply issues that may not cure the root problem and cause more issues in the future. Reservoirs, dams, pipes and pumps to divert water miles away from the source may have adverse effects on a local ecosystem or deplete  a local water supply If engineers consider these types of solutions, they must work to understand the connectivity to the whole system. Moving water from one ecosystem to another can create long-term damage to existing ecosytems. One current example is California’s ambitious program to divert water from the Sacramento River above the delta, sending it through massive underground tunnels to provide water for two-thirds of the state’s population, from San Jose to San Diego, and thousands of farms. Projects like these are abundant all around the world.
  • The largest aquifer in the United States and one of the largest in the world, the Ogallala, is being depleted much faster than it can being replenished. It took 6,000 years to fill at the level it existed in 1940. Many scientist estimate that the Ogallala will be depleted by 2070. It supplies water to a major U.S. agriculture region and fresh water to millions of people. Many other aquifers around the world are experiencing the same over use. Desalination Plants are only a tiny part of a solution. The process is energy intensive, creates pollution and desalination plants cannot supply enough fresh water to meet the demand. The planet’s temperature continues to rise. World leaders are still struggling to agree on common global climate change policy. Fortunately, there are some corporations, the United Nations (UN), scientists, local governments, and individuals that are not waiting for them to join the party.

    Scientists all around the world are recording the effects of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the oceans.

    The oceans are absorbing more carbon dioxide and decreasing pH in the oceans. This decrease is causing cataclysmic results on ocean life.

    “The ocean absorbs about 50 percent of all the carbon dioxide on the planet. This is a natural part of the global ecosystem, but increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have led to an increased level of absorption. More CO2 changes the chemical composition of the ocean, causing the pH level to drop and raising the water’s acidity.”

    “Floating near the surface of the water and absorbing the sun’s rays, phytoplankton produce approximately 60 percent of Earth’s oxygen. The Melville team is visiting “upwelled” zones off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California, places where centuries-old carbon dioxide is pushed to the surface. In these spots, the ocean is more acidic, providing a glimpse at what ocean conditions may be like in the future if countries fail to reduce their carbon emissions.”

  • Most of the fresh water is frozen and sitting in or near the oceans. It is difficult to access and transport. Once the ice melts, it’s contaminated with salt. The majority of total freshwater on Earth, about 68.7 percent, is held in ice caps and glaciers. It’s melting into the salt water.
  • The third-pole, the Himalayas, are at risk of melting, due to global warming and air pollution. “The region that encompasses the Himalaya-Hindu Kush mountain range and the Tibetan Plateau is widely known as the Third Pole because its ice fields contain the largest reserve of fresh water outside the Polar Regions. This region is the source of the 10 major river systems that provide irrigation, power and drinking water for over 1.3 billion people in Asia–nearly 20% of the world’s population.”
  • Hunger and starvation; 36 million people per year die of starvation. If we focus on solving this issue and give people hope, many of the regions that are in conflict will begin to stabilize.
  • Obesity and nutrition is a big problem and it puts great pressure on our health care systems and resources. Ironic given the previous problem. Transporting food around the globe uses fossil fuels, contributes to global climate change and is creating an imbalance in the ecosystems. One calorie of meat requires ten times the amount of water than one calorie of fruits and vegetables. Meat production has huge impact on our water resources. US eating habits – calories eaten per day by a person in the US is 3,600  this is 1,600 calories more than necessary per day. Over eating places a strain on water resources and energy resources and creates a myriad of health issues, heart disease, cancer and diabetes are the big ones.
  • The manner in which we grow our food and distribute it, needs an overhaul. Dumping nitrogen and pesticide indiscriminately on our soil is not the answer and creates additional pollution in our lakes, aquifers, rivers and streams.
  • Consumerism seems to have no checks and balance, yet. Global economies are based on more not less. There are academics and economists who are working on the blueprint for a better way.
  • We waste too much. Just one example:1 million tons of waste is dropped off per year at the SWACO landfill in Jackson, Ohio (just south of Columbus, Ohio). 1 million tons is an area that is approximately a 100 meter cubed.
  • Humanity’s hunger for energy continues to grow. As the middle-class grows in developing countries, the middle class populations around the globe will desire the same lifestyle as US middle-class. This lifestyle is currently wasteful, energy intensive and heavily reliant on fossil fuels.
  • We just can’t seem to get along. Countries still bicker, kill and war over ancient ideas that have no relevance to the current state of the world and its resources. It’s difficult for leaders to focus on our necessary natural resources and the day to day pressure we place on the planetary systems that support human, plant and animal life
  • We call precious and non-renewable resources “commodities”. Water, air, wildlife, plants and humans are not commodities, they are precious resources. Our mental approach needs to change.
  • Current political climate is focused on nationalism rather than cooperation. In order for us to solve the world-wide problems, that affect us all, we need to work together politically, economically and socially.
  • Momentum – it’s hard to change the collective human heart and mind. The industrial revolution created an explosion of human population and human convenience for a large portion of the world and many other cultures desire this lifestyle.
  • Individuals want to live longer not shorter lives. Longer lives mean more people on earth at one time using limited resources.

Are Green Buildings A Solution?

So, how many of these issues can be chipped away at by designing, engineering building green buildings and communities? Let’s take a look.

  • PopulationNo, and this is big one. We need other solutions.
  • Energy Yes (efficient building skins, passive strategies, renewables, efficient mechanical systems, grow plants in our buildings and utilize intelligent building control systems)
  • WaterYes (more efficient water systems, localized water collection, recycled water systems, localized sanitary systems and composting toilets) but – it is our lifestyle, agriculture, livestock, and industry that are placing much more strain on our water supply than buildings.
  • Natural Resources Yes (build only what is needed, localized resources, recycled materials, renewable material resources and responsibly manufactured materials)
  • Political – Sort of yes – advocacy in the government, education, vocal drivers can make a difference. The buildings can’t do this but the people who manage them, design them and build them can.
  • Individual Behavior and Education – Yes – The Living Building Challenge addresses this better than the other certifications.
  • The Engine of Consumerism: Sort of yes – The Living Building Challenge addresses this better than the other certifications. Education is the key.
  • Support Mass TransitYes – many green building certifications contain points for locating buildings near mass transit so that occupants can become less reliant on automobiles.
  • Carbon Dioxide reduction in the oceans and atmosphereYes – many green building certifications contain points for making buildings more efficient users of energy and even less reliant on carbon based energy and more reliant on renewable energy.
  • Carbon Dioxide Air Quality Yes, the materials that are specified for buildings can contain chemicals that are dangerous to people and wildlife.
  • Solid Waste ReductionYes – all of the green building certifications encourage or require recycling construction waste and on-going recycling programs for the building’s operation and use.
  • Improve HabitatYes – many of the green building certifications encourage or require that buildings to consider local plants and animals in their function, location and design.

What can you do?

Call to action, a few recommendations

  • Use less (reduce), waste not, reuse and recycle.
  • Financially support science that is working on understanding the limitations of our natural resources.
  • Get involved in government and other institutions to support policies that will help the future.
  • Countries needs to take the lead on global climate change and implement a carbon tax.
  • The U.S. and the world need to build more fresh water resource projects throughout the globe. This should include new reservoirs, pipelines and aquifer replenishing projects.
  • Livestock is major drain on natural resources and burns more fossil fuels, we need to be supportive to eating a plant based and whole food diet. This will also help our health.

Nestle, the world’s largest food production company, is extremely concerned about the planet’s fresh water supplies. “The company estimates that continuing population growth and modest further increases in per capita meat consumption will push annual water withdrawals to 10,000-11,000 cubic kilometers by 2050. This amount will be sufficient to provide the then 9 billion people 2,500 calories a day with somewhat higher per capita meat consumption than today. However, it will require a level of fresh water withdrawals only 15% shy of the sustainable planetary maximum. But this is where the picture grows dark, and potentially catastrophic. The average American diet is not 2,500 calories a day – it’s closer to 3,600 calories a day (and growing) due to substantial meat consumption. Oberhaensli (of Nestle) said that if the whole world were to move to (America’s dietary) standard, global fresh water resources would be exhausted at a population level of 6 billion, which the world reached in the year 2000.”

  • Support local food production.
  • Support, advocate, and produce more green buildings. Design buildings with more nature inside and out. Buildings should function more like trees. We live in a world filled with trees and plants that work symbiotically with humans. Modern architecture has mostly abandoned the natural world and has relied on mechanical systems rather than plants to supply oxygen in our buildings.
  • Support environmental clean-up efforts. Hold current polluters accountable.
  • Large corporations are already aware of the dangers of depleting fresh water and the dangers of global rising temperatures. Companies like  Amazon, Google, Nestle, Exxon, Apple, and Monsanto all have initiatives to address these issues.
  • Plastics are wreaking havoc on the environment, the oceans and our fresh water supplies. Use less plastics in your daily life until there are better solutions available. Plastics are so prolific in our daily lives, they are difficult to avoid, but it is possible to limit their use and recycle them when you can so they do not become pollution.
  • Don’t give up—we need thinkers and leadership—and lots of them. We should not sit on the sidelines and wait for others to act.
  • Spread knowledge and solutions, we need to understand how connected we are all.

Looking into the Crystal Ball

What will the world look like in the year 2100?

 

Many signs show us the earth is very near a point where it can no longer sustain the large amount of human beings living a lifestyle that requires so much of its resources. I am cautiously hopeful that we will learn how to cut back before nature forces us to do so. We need, very soon, to stop depleting and start conserving in a major coordinated effort and find out how much fresh water we have in the Earth’s stockpile. Fresh water access, its location, and global population are major issues facing humans now and will only get more severe in the years leading up to 2100.

 

If we continue to live in the same manner we do today, the Ogallala aquifer will be depleted. Millions of people in the US who rely on this water source will need to migrate and live somewhere else. California and the southwest US already have major water problems. They too will need to migrate to areas of the country that have fresh water. They will move to the areas with water like the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, Montana, the Dakotas, and the cities surrounding the Great Lakes.

 

There will likely be many more people inhabiting the earth in 2100, but how many will rely on if the resources exist to support them. There are already many serious conflicts around the globe due to lack of fresh water—Syria and Yemen are two current conflicts that are results of desperate citizens that need fresh water. My concern is that these conflicts are the canary in the coal mine. We could see more of this in the years between now and 2100. Desperate people thirsty for water and food will either migrate, if they can, or get angry.

Conclusion

If we can change our lifestyle, change our economies, see the bigger picture, solve rising population growth, save our natural resources and work together as a coordinated world system, then maybe we can build a path that leads to balance with the natural world. Is this just hippie-like hope? Maybe, but we all need to get to this place, in our minds, our hearts and our actions.

 

I read a statement over the years that humans are using the resources of two Earths, this statement is completely incorrect. There is only one Earth and we cannot use more than the Earth contains. But we can use and—waste the resources enough so that human population will suffer due to lack of food and water—we are seeing it now. One of the big mistakes of the environmental movement is that the narrative has always been focused on saving the environment and not about saving humanity. The earth’s systems allowed us to evolve to our current state of existence and we still do not fully understand nor appreciate how essential these systems are to our future. The finite resources that we have been abusing and wasting are under stress, at a tipping point.

 

We can decide what our lifestyle changes look like or allow the warmer world—with less food, less water, less animal species, and more pollution—to determine our fate. We need to understand that this is our choice and we have the power to change our behavior and solve the real problems that face our collective survival.