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Sara Wilkinson and Wil Srubar III attended the CarbonPositive ’20 conference in LA in March to present on the use of next-generation biomaterials in construction. The three-day event reset the agenda for sustainability and decarbonisation of the built environment from lowering and minimising our carbon emissions and meeting zero carbon targets, to becoming carbon positive.

We know the impact of the built environment is massive – buildings are responsible for 40 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions – and our responsibility to reduce that impact as built environment professionals is paramount.

With an ever-growing human population and an estimated doubling of the built environment footprint by 2060, research shows we have only a decade to arrest climate change and keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees.

While the challenge is enormous, so too are the opportunities. To think we can transform the construction sector into one that acts as sink rather than an emitter of is inspiring. And as we heard at the CarbonPositive’20 conference, it is achievable.

We have just experienced an Australian summer unlike anything in living memory – fires,  floods, and hailstorms. Australia leads the world in species extinction. We have had a nauseating taste of the future, enough to know that, for Australians, climate change equals climate destruction.

The opportunities to avoid this outcome were highlighted in various presentations at the conference. There were four key takeaway themes that establish a framework for a carbon positive future for our built environment in an Australian context.

Existing Buildings: With approximately one to two per cent typically added to the total stock of buildings each year, 90 per cent of the building stock we will have by 2030 is already here; and approximately 75 per cent of the stock we will have by 2050 is already built.

Most of it performs poorly in respect of energy and water consumption and predates considerations of sustainability.

The challenge we face is to make optimised retrofits that improve performance and retain carbon already expended in existing construction. Given the sheer numbers, our most impactful carbon positive actions lie in retrofit of existing buildings and avoidance of the upfront carbon emissions of new construction.

Networks for Change: ECN Australia: The Embodied Carbon Network (ECN) is a global organisation of architecture, engineering, and construction professionals, and manufacturers, academics and policymakers dedicated to understanding, quantifying, and reducing embodied carbon in the built environment.

Embodied carbon is the total carbon emissions associated with the manufacture, transport, construction, use, and disposal of building materials. Since its inception in 2017, the ECN has welcomed more than 2000 professionals to its global membership. Members are connected through an online community.

The ECN has evolved into a vibrant network of professionals representing 200 cities and 33 countries across the world. While ECN Global is a virtual, online community, local and regional ECN hubs are being established to facilitate in-person networking and to empower grassroots change.

A great opportunity now exists for Australia to join the ranks of the ECN and found a regional hub, ECN Australia, to mobilise and effect change in a similar manner.

Construction’s Biotechnology Revolution: The construction industry is well poised for a biotechnological revolution. A transition from energy- and emissions-intensive physicochemical to biological process technologies will be a hallmark of the 21st century.

The introduction and rapid market acceptance of cross-laminated timber (CLT), or mass timber, construction in Europe, the US, and Canada signifies a voracious demand for high-performance materials that permanently store larger sums of carbon than is sequestered in their manufacture.

Biogenic carbon – the mass of carbon sequestered and stored by photosynthetic processes in trees, plants, grasses, and agricultural waste – will be key for the industry’s transition into a carbon sink.

Living plants and trees sequester large sums of carbon, so sustainable forestry and farm practices will be critical to keep the balance. Emergent rapidly growing industrial biomaterials, like hemp and algae, will undoubtedly see widespread application in the built environment within our lifetime.

Engaging local communities – Think and Do: A keynote presentation by UK climate lawyer and activist, Farhana Yamin, informed the conference about the ways to take effective action locally. 

Yamin explained the turning point. In the year of Greta Thunberg, climate school strikes, and Extinction Rebellion, she concluded that now was the time for global activism—and the timing is critical.

As she explained, it is time for people to get angry and take action locally. Our elected officials aren’t acting quickly enough.

In November, 2019, a pop-up space, Think and Do, was set up opposite Kentish Town library in Camden. The space was conceived in response to the proposal from Camden’s Citizens’ Assembly to do more to bring existing community groups together to work on tackling the climate crisis. It is a space that harbours knowledge and empowerment to show local people what effective actions they can take. These spaces unleash the imagination, but give concrete traction to actionable efforts to address and change local and global issues.

How many vacant retail spaces do we have in our communities in Australia? What if we turned empty shops in our high streets into pop-up imagination and change-agent empowerment spaces? Spaces where communities could come together to develop ideas and projects to help tackle the climate and ecological emergency, while sharing a cuppa. The Australian summer of 2020 has shown us the power and glory of community engagement and support. Now is the time to act—and the timing is critical.

While the conference has concluded and we delegates have dispersed to our respective corners of the globe, the end of CarbonPositive’20 is only the beginning for us and our fellow AEC professionals.

In no other time in history has the AEC profession been called to such a noble and important obligation. Together, we can save the world.

Sara Wilkinson is Professor of sustainable property in the School of Built Environment at University of Technology Sydney. Wil Srubar III is an assistant professor in building systems engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder in the US.

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  1. All good – except when the value vampires are in control (which is most of the time) : Re “How many vacant retail spaces do we have in our communities in Australia? What if we turned empty shops in our high streets into pop-up imagination and change-agent empowerment spaces? Spaces where communities could come together to develop ideas and projects to help tackle the climate and ecological emergency, while sharing a cuppa. ” . . . There are two big blind spots with this and most built environment professionals lack of understanding / integration of how investment cycles track the real estate’s 19 year cycle [we are now in midst of the “mid cycle slowdown” which will likely be larger than usual because of the Covid economic disruption and panic]. Second is related – the failure of built environment professionals to work with and around the capture of economic rent (by REITs , savvy ‘land bankers’, etc) to make local and State govts revenue to fund the essentials. When underused spaces ( high vacancy locales ) are ‘funkified’ by creative peoples (often starting as ‘pop ups’ (temporary) the next rent seeking investment wave begins and creatives are underpaid, rarely get a stake in land tenure, and economic rent (from land values ) is wholesale syphoned into real estate industry mega profits (REITs, savvy ‘land bankers’, etc). In the end , ‘doing good’ in what ever the latest ‘thing’ is – now its ‘Carbon positive’ – there is little profit motive to work with the creative cycle starters / initial creatives unless enforced with an iron rod by local / state govt . So , again we will probably see en-masse fashion based mainstream architecture put fwd anything that seems separate from last cycle – and on through the end of the 19 year cycle, with only incremental changes, not the scale change needed. Cycle disruption & or hard rule taxation shift is the big missing component. Will the investment moguls and their Political Party lawmakers allow the cycle to change ? They know it well and make vast privatised profit at societies expense. Architestcs must be at the vanguard of the economics of land -it frames and underpins all of what architects do. Refer: Prosper Australia research. Michael Hudson. Phil Anderson & co.