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The dire warnings that came this week from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report should be a wake-up call to everyone everywhere who are betting on being able to continue doing what they’ve always been doing, in the future, and expecting the same results. The IPCC’s message that “We can no longer continue to do business as usual” also means that no human endeavor is more impacted than how we grow.
Ironically, in the face of this stark and unarguable reality, there is a growing chorus of climate deniers, hell bent on exacerbating the problem.
I’m referring in particular to politicians like California State Senator Scott Wiener and the cadre of academics, planners, professional organizations, nonprofits, Bay Area corporate interests and their dedicated “shock troops,” the YIMBYs, all of whom promote hyper-growth as the solution to housing affordability and environmental sustainability. Like the far right, in order to rationalize their purely political agenda, they go beyond being uber-growth advocates to being outright climate change deniers in their own fashion.
These collaborators continue to manipulate data to justify environmentally destructive uber-urbanism in the name of saving the planet. But the shrill, self-obsessed YIMBYs don’t even pretend to care about the planet. In fact, they’re outspokenly anti-environmental and against regulations that protect it. They would do away with the California Environmental Quality Act completely, if they had the chance, replacing it with their “progressive” version of “trickle down” environmentalism fueled by willful ignorance of environmental science.
The YIMBY approach seems to be ‘the environment will have to wait until I own a nice house in my preferred neighborhood near my favorite barista.’
The great lie of the progressive left is that unchecked growth and particularly urban growth is good for the environment, even though there’s no contemporary science (or common sense for that matter) to back up that claim. For someone like me, who spent my formative adult years in the 60s and 70s, how the left sold out and became the other anti-environment party remains baffling.
To state the obvious and at the risk of bursting some bubbles, growth, a consumption-addicted economic system and our antiquated methods of building construction – for affordable housing or anything else -- are not in any way, shape or form good for the planet. Not even close, particularly because of the way we presently design and construct 95% of our buildings.
Construction of our buildings and their supporting infrastructure is the most resource intensive thing we do on the planet. Yet by and large, how we build remains stuck in past centuries, with manual labor working in the field, framing structures girder by girder and board by board, laying bricks one at a time, and shingling roofs by hand, albeit with the assistance of hand power tools.
Growth = Development = Climate Change
In the past, I’ve written extensively about the great myth about urbanism’s ability to reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs). The reaction I always get from progressives is as if I’ve committed some unpardonable sin to even suggest this. For a lengthy analysis of this subject, please see The Best Laid Plans: Our Affordable Housing Challenges in Marin, and my Marin Post piece, Plan Bay Area’s High Density, Multifamily, Transit-Oriented Development Won’t Reduce Greenhouse Gases.
For now, however, suffice it to say, there is a great deal of talk these days about how things should be sustainable, but very little acknowledgment about how things actually are.
According to a report by the US Green Building Council in 2016
Buildings Account for 39% of CO2 emissions in the United States. The commercial and residential building sector accounts for 39% of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the United States per year, more than any other sector. U.S. buildings alone are responsible for more CO2 emissions annually than those of any other country except China. Most of these emissions come from the combustion of fossil fuels to provide heating, cooling and lighting, and to power appliances and electrical equipment. [Emphasis Added]
They go on to explain:
The most significant factor contributing to CO2 emissions from buildings is their use of electricity:
- Commercial and residential buildings are tremendous users of electricity, accounting for more than 70% of electricity use in the United States.
- The building sector consumed 40 quadrillion Btus of energy in 2005 at a cost of over $300 billion.
But energy use and the corresponding CO2 emissions are only part of the story of how growth and development impact climate change, and may even be the least impactful part. As they explain further:
The energy impact of buildings is likely to be even greater when taking into account other energy use attributable to buildings. For example, the energy embodied in a single building’s envelope equals 8-10 times the annual energy used to heat and cool the building. [Emphasis Added]
This is referring to what is called the “energy externalities” of building: the greenhouse gases and environmental impacts of the mining, transportation, fabrication and installation of the materials and components that go into it. Or as Paul Hawkin put it,
Everyone is for ‘sustainable solutions.’ But those solutions need to actually be socially, economically and environmentally sustainable after considering their true costs of “natural capital” and their external affects (supply chain energy usage, third world environmental degradation, etc.)
To emphasize the extent of the impact of our built environment, the Building Council notes:
Buildings have a lifespan of 50-100 years during which they continually consume energy and produce CO2 emissions. every year [Emphasis Added]
Even the best performing LEED Platinum designed buildings, which are far and few between, only reduce energy and water consumption by about a third, nowhere near enough to make a difference.
These indisputable facts are constantly countered with another powerful, progressive myth about transportation, and in particular, the automobile: claiming that automobiles are the world’s greatest evil and the major polluter. This is then used as justification for urbanism and high-density development and increasingly draconian taxation, legislation and planning to get people to stop using cars. Yet all things considered, the number one GHG emitter remains our built environment, particularly in urban areas in California. Agriculture comes in second and all transportation a distant third.
In a comprehensive study, Greenhouse Gas Emissions along the Urban-Rural Gradient, by Clinton J. Andrews, published in the Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, Vol. 51, Issue 6, 2008, the author questions the fundamental argument urbanists make for why urbanism is better than suburban living, when they argue that the data says that “Buildings in urban areas contribute more emissions than personal transportation” -- thus outweighing any other advantages that might exist.
Sifting through the IPCC Report
While the IPCC Report doesn’t claim to be a planning document, per se, it references various “scenarios” and “pathways” to carbon neutrality that are instructive for planning and development.
For example, in Chapter 2, Executive Summary, page 2-4, it emphasizes the importance of limiting “growing resource-intensive consumption,” and “energy-demand reductions, decarbonisation of electricity and other fuels, electrification of energy end use” and other methods. On page 2-5 it goes on to note that “Investments in low-carbon energy technologies and energy efficiency would need to approximately double in the next 20 years” to avoid catastrophic consequences.
This is an extraordinary fast-tracked requirement. In terms of how we build, it’s basically saying that unless we immediately change our construction methods - the materials we use and how we design our buildings (the structures, finishes, mechanical systems, appliances, etc.) - we are up a creek.
So, how can the build-baby-build crowd possibly condone their push for more and more 20th century urbanism and still claim to be “progressive” and caring about social justice and equity at the same time? What good is high density housing if climate change places it under water or in the path of increasingly menacing weather?
The young, tech honchos who are pouring millions into the hyper-urbanism effort, are of course confident that their ilk will invent some brilliant new technology to sequester CO2 in the air, to avert climate disaster. But, even the IPCC Report, as hopeful and optimistic as it tries to be, is deeply skeptical of tech’s ability to save the day. Several times they note that “CDR [carbon dioxide removal technology] deployed at scale is unproven and reliance on such technology is a major risk in the ability to limit warming.”
Yet, as incredibly thorough as the IPCC Report is and as impressive as its overall global scientific analysis is, it continues to make assumptions about categorical contributions to GHGs that fail to account for the incredible technological advances in transportation that we are seeing almost daily.
Academic planners and YIMBYs are particularly fond of vilifying the automobile and the “rich.” In fact, one could argue that the entire philosophy of current planning doctrine is built on the single premise that the automobile is an evil invention. But, their zeal has blinded them to the fact that their theory is on shaky ground. According to the fashionable mantra, it is selfish, rich, suburban commuters (car owners) who are the true environmental evildoers.
Meanwhile, these same academics and YIMBY groups are funded by and carrying water for the deepest pockets and the most privileged among us: major private and corporate foundations, big business organizations, tech millionaires and quasi-governmental groups such as the Bay Area Council and CASA – many of whose leaders drive really nice cars and live in really large homes in places like Palo Alto, Cupertino and San Francisco.
While urbanists are happy to rail against the suburbs, evil rich people and the automobile, when it suits their legislative purposes and their financial interests, companies like Mercedes Benz, BMW, Toyota and Honda, which are run by some of those very rich people, and the entire automotive industry for that matter, recognize that the only thing wrong with cars is that they pollute and so they’ve have been spending billions to bring us electric, hydrogen and hybrid cars and trucks at increasingly attractive prices and improve their supply chain impacts as well.
So, I wonder, what will all the “transit oriented development” planners do with the egg on their faces, when the tipping point is reached and the automobile has transformed itself into a carbon neutral machine? They’ll need to find another villain. I would like to suggest they turn their attention to the tech companies who fund them. They’d be a good candidate, because automotive engineering is the most rapidly “greening” technology on the planet, while gadget-happy tech companies aren’t doing a tenth as well in reducing the environmental lifecycle impacts of their products.
Growth is just growth and there’s nothing “smart” about it
The pro-growth crowd and the unelected bureaucrats and the tech moguls who fund their efforts are desperately clinging to politically correct but unscientific theories about high density development being good for the environment and scapegoating everyone who disagrees with them. It’s not just a losing strategy in the long run, but it will make matters much worse in the short run, because it is siphoning off billions of dollars that will be desperately needed soon, to tackle the real work we need to do to slow down climate change.
It’s time for them to face facts: the system that has been in place during the modern era -- where there has always been some other place out there somewhere over the horizon to escape the consequences of growth -- just ain’t working anymore.
While there is no way to stop growth, the symptoms of the societal and ecological limits we seem to be coming up against should be fair warning. We need to ask ourselves, how much CO2 and methane and other greenhouse gases will prove to be too much for life in its present form, to bear? How many chemicals and toxins can we add to our ecosystem and food web (now at a rate now of hundreds per year) before it’s fatal to keystone species, upon which all other life depends? How degraded can our oceans and rain forests become before the world’s “lungs” collapse?
History has shown that the behavior of ecosystems is a lot like the stock market. Everything seems to be going along without a hitch one day then everything is collapsing the next. But unlike the stock market, the planet has no Federal Reserve to bail it out.
So, why is it still business as usual for the pro-growth advocates? Is the world just filled with people obsessed with getting their slice of the pie and living a life of self-indulgence, surrounded by more and more “stuff,” like they’re taught by advertising, so for them nothing else matters? Or is everyone so stressed out just trying to make ends meet that they have no time to deal with anything else? Or is it that this “ocean liner” that is our society is just too big to turn around in time?
I have no idea, but it’s not just what’s going on in Washington DC these days, that seems to be totally out of whack.
What to do?
I would argue that all of the evidence and circumstances and the critical timeline presented in the IPCC Report leaves us with only one realistic choice. We need to immediately shift gears and slow growth down as much as we possibly can, until we can retool our approach and redefine our goals and wait for building technology innovation and a newly trained workforce to catch up. And, all this must be accompanied by massive public investment in education, social welfare and innovation.
We need to soberly recognize and accept what is working and what is not, environmentally, without political or ideological prejudice.
The IPCC Report stresses this need. It spends considerable time suggesting that retrofitting, remodeling, reprioritizing and otherwise reusing what we already have in place, needs to play a major role in our “growth” and planning initiatives.
It is generally acknowledged today, scientifically, that a watt of energy saved is less impactful than a watt of energy generated, and that the greenest buildings are the ones already standing. All this would suggest that instead of allocating hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer funding to build more and more of what we already have, our future is about investing those precious funds in a massive renovation, retrofit, adaptive reuse and rehabilitation of our existing built environment and its supporting infrastructure.
Many will groan at the thought, but if we have any chance of avoiding the kinds of environmental catastrophes the IPCC foresees, we’re going to have to temporarily accept and embrace slower growth and lower investment returns in order to ensure social, environmental and economic stability and more durable and reliable returns on capital in the future.
A nationwide re-education of our workforce is an essential part of this to get ahead of the inevitable impacts of automation, robotics, computerization and the jobs obsolescence that will result from the deconstruction of retail, office work, middle management, and just about every type of job and profession that presently exists. In a way, we are like a society of buggy whip makers at the dawn of the age of automobiles. The handwriting is on the wall, except that now there’s a double urgency to act, because the environmental wolf is at the door.
The IPCC Report talks about how basic things like heating and cooling design, efficient equipment, lighting and appliances, thermal performance and reducing the “embodied energy” in buildings and integrating the Internet of Things (IoT) can dramatically reduce emissions and slow climate change. This is equally true of infrastructure, utilities and services, which not only need upgrading but re-imagining.
Achieving a sustainable future and planning for change also includes how we distribute power and water and collect and process waste. Throughout history the need to share and efficiently distribute resources from a central location (e.g. water from a river or natural spring) has been a given. This is so ingrained in our thinking that we accept it without questioning its long-term sustainability challenges. But, by 21st century standards, centralized utility systems are incredibly wasteful and inefficient.
Significant losses occur as electrical power moves out through our vast centralized power grids. A large percentage of our drinking water is lost due to leakage and evaporation as it moves through underground pipes and aqueducts. And in many U.S. metropolitan areas, 50 percent of the effluent that goes into sewer lines never reaches the treatment plant because it leaches out into the ground through old pipes.
When it comes to really addressing our environmental challenges, all this becomes very important to consider, because efficient use of resources is fundamental to any environmentally or economically sustainable solution. So we have to ask ourselves, is there a better way?
Advances in energy-conservation and alternative energy sources are about to tip the balance of global energy production and distribution from the top to the bottom: what is called “at the source” co-generation. Feeding power hundreds of miles in one direction out to users on the grid, from central power plants (i.e. hydroelectric plants, nuclear reactors, coal fired generators, and even solar farms.) is technologically obsolete. “Smart Grids” can distribute power the way the Internet distributes information and dramatically alter the “user / producer” relationship.
Interactive, self-monitoring electrical grids change a “distribution” network into a “sharing” network where everyone becomes both a user and a producer. New thin-film photovoltaics can produce solar energy on any surface (even window glass), and wind is now the fastest growing clean energy source in the world. More options will be here sooner than people think, but only if we encourage it financially.
The repercussions of this on growth and planning will be profound
Once personal transportation options (cars and other personal vehicles) no longer pollute or rely on fossil fuels, and more at-the-source utility solutions are introduced (electrical co-generation, waste treatment, rainwater and gray water capture and recycling, etc.) today’s "urban" versus "suburban" arguments will fall apart. In fact, lower density suburban development already has significant environmental advantages over high-density urban development.
A typical suburban home on a small lot can support a highly productive vegetable garden fed by automated drip irrigation. Food waste can be composted on site reducing trash hauling and soils degradation. Hybrid cars, energy saving appliances, passive solar design, proper insulation and solar panels can all be retrofitted in place, to the point that such a home can essentially be off the grid. It is simply impossible for this kind of conversion to take place in a thirty story, high-density apartment building on a typical city block. The vast majority of urban buildings are doomed to remain environmental polluters for decades to come.
While lasting climate change supporting strategies need to be addressed at the highest levels of government, through supportive legislation, the incremental differences will be made in the trenches at the local level. On the national level, our climate change problems are primarily a national policy failure which is expressed through dysfunctional tax, subsidy and funding mechanisms, and our federal government has never had a national energy policy and still refuses to cooperate with every other industrialized nation in the world on climate change treaties.
So, all this has to change for us to accomplish our transition back from the slow growth that we desperately need to adopt right now, to the more normal growth levels we’ll be able to enjoy once we’ve retrofitted and retooled our industries, businesses and our workforce. But, this effort has to begin immediately before too much of our planet’s regenerative capabilities, which are vital to the continued health of our society, are lost.
 Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken
 Amory Lovins
 E.g., Providing federal tax credits and funding and guidelines for the retrofitting of our built environment, or phasing out internal combustion engines using oil as a fuel or power generation using coal as a fuel, etc..
 E.g., Massive “business” write-offs and tax benefits on trucks and gigantic SUVs.
Bob Silvestri is the founder and president of Community Venture Partners, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit community organization funded only by individuals in Marin and the San Francisco Bay Area.