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Deal or No Deal in Durban

In the anticlimactic aftermath of the COP17 Climate Change Conference, how can architects respond in the face of overwhelming political apathy?

The world’s largest travelling club, the one trying to curb air miles, rides again. Fourteen years on from Kyoto, the world gathered in Durban, under the auspices of COP17, the United Nationals Framework Convention, to confront the threat of climate change. But yet again, the Kyoto Protocol was traded in for nothing, a fiasco wrapped in victory rhetoric.

In its wake lies bruised illusions. The only issue agreed on each year is: ‘We’ll meet again’. The Kyoto Protocol was established in 1997. It stated that some countries could increase CO2 emissions and some reduce them during 1990-2012. China and the US, representing 40 per cent of emissions, have not signed up to Kyoto. And Canada has just withdrawn from the accord, claiming that it would cost its taxpayers CAN$14 billion (£8.5 billion) in sanctions for not sticking to targets.

Meanwhile Norway, one of the richest oil exporting nations in the world and a champion of environmental double standards, signed to raise emissions by only 1 per cent in 1990-2012. That is now 10 per cent and heading towards 20 per cent, ridiculing its commitment.

Most of the discussions in Durban were along two lines: the Kyoto agreement expiring in 2012 and trying to keep the global warming trajectory under 2°C by 2020 through CO2 emission reductions. Both failed. Agreed targets have not been respected. Instead, it was decided that Kyoto would be prolonged until 2015, when a new agreement could be negotiated, replacing Kyoto and valid from 2020.

Both China and the US have signalled participation in such negotiations. Though this can be seen as a willingness to talk, it simply stalls things for the foreseeable future. The same applies to the agreement in Durban to establish a green global fund. Nobody committed to invest any resources into it − yet. Another opportunity lost.

The EU has not been the worst behaved actor in Kyoto; on the contrary. Yet it only represents 14 per cent of global CO2 emissions. The
EU commitment to reduce its emissions by 20 per cent by 2020 agreed under European law, will more than cover its Kyoto reduction quotient. This demonstrates that national and regional initiatives appear to be more realistic than Kyoto. It is a path of hope to be pursued. Yet instead of closing the Kyoto process, the big ‘bazaar of burden sharing’ continues its world tour. Astonishingly, creating a smarter, cleaner, more energy-efficient, renewables-based, greener, more silent world is still seen as a burden.


If architects, planners and urbanists are looking for guiding lights, they should ignore Kyoto. Any consensus among over 190 nations will be a least common denominator so small that it matters nothing. And in any case, agreements are not respected. If one country cuts more, another can waste more. Hence Kyoto is a waste of time, regulating only 30 per cent of global CO2 emissions. All the focus on CO2 has also drawn the attention away from particle emissions (nitrous oxide and sulphur dioxide) caused by log fires and combustion engine-based transportation. These are very harmful to human health.

In order to limit global warming to 2°C, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommended CO2 emission reductions of between 60 and 80 per cent. The Kyoto negotiations were all about tiny percentages. It is too little, too late. The process has stolen too much attention and offered false promises. It is still derailed.

In a recent International Energy Agency report analysing the world energy situation until 2035, it was confirmed that the global temperature has already risen 0.8 °C. Today’s policies will result in a temperature rise of between 2°C and 3°C by 2035 and 3°C and 6°C by 2100. Imagine 6°C higher temperatures and the impact on buildings. It means that warmer, wetter and wilder weather, fires and drought, an increased need for cooling to reduce death tolls and systems to deal with heavy rain.

What can be done? Paradoxically, the global recession could be good for the planet. During the financial crisis in 2009, CO2 emissions in Norway alone dropped by 11 per cent. Other nations saw larger drops. We know that by working systematically, adhering to but going beyond national and regional targets, knowledge and technology will be developed. The foggy veil could be lifted. A wonderful greener world might appear. Almost half the global CO2 emissions come from buildings, if production and refinement of building materials are included.

Two-thirds of buildings standing in 2050 are already built. We can half their energy needs. New buildings can achieve zero energy. Integrating workplaces and housing reduces the need for transport. Architects can be the ‘change agents’, reminding clients that reduced running costs are feasible.

This ‘pro-hope’ philosophy can combat the ‘no-hope’ mentality now endemic because of lack of action. Instead of reprising exhausted icons and the popular songs of yesterday, architects need to actively develop a new aesthetic of sustainable architecture and planning. Our potential as generalists rather than specialists encompasses many disciplines and could be a powerful force for change. It’s time to apply this potential with a sense of responsibility, boldness
and playfulness.

Durban Climate Conference. Photo: ISSDDurban Climate Conference. Photo: ISSD

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