Studio founder Norman Foster called time out after coming in for sustained criticism from some of the more radical declare architects for his refusal to stop working on airports. Photo by Domagoj ?osi? on Unsplash

What’s good enough action when the planet is facing a climate emergency?

This week, that question came thudding home to supporters of the Architects Declare movement as global architectural studio Foster + Partners, renowned for its sustainability commitments, withdrew from the movement.

Studio founder Norman Foster called time out after coming in for sustained criticism from some of the more radical declare architects for his refusal to stop working on airports.

The irony is that Foster is a founding signatory of the movement.

Another founding signatory Zaha Hadid Architects had come under fire for the same reason, including its design of Western Sydney airport.

Principal Patrik Schumacher inflamed the situation when he suggested in a recent address to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat conference that “economic growth should not be compromised for fighting climate change”, the Architects’ Journal said.

“I want to warn against those voices who are too quick to demand radical changes, to moralise, even talking about degrowth [and] breaking up global supply chains.

“There is a big danger there because what we can never compromise [on] is growth and prosperity, which gives us the freedom to invest more in research,” he said, adding that economic growth was necessary to fighting climate change.

“We need to allow prosperity and progress to continue, and that will also bring the resources to overcome [the climate crisis] through investment, science and new technology,” he said.

Foster + Partners was already facing sustained criticism but after the Schumacher flareup, Norman Foster pulled the pin. In a bold and lengthy public advertisement, he said, even airports needed to be built sustainably. They were part of modern life, there was no going back and in addition, aviation fuel was already starting to be replaced by renewable fuels.

“Airbus recently released three concept planes that would be powered by hydrogen rather than jet fuel and which, they claim, could be carrying passengers by 2035,” he said in his statement.

“Meanwhile, whilst our industry and others continue to drive these positive changes through innovation rather than protest, a sense of proportion and serious consideration of the facts is required.

“This could start with the realisation that emissions from jets are estimated to account for only 2 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions compared with 14 per cent from other forms of transport.”

“Since our founding in 1967, we have pioneered a green agenda and believe that aviation, like any other sector, needs the most sustainable infrastructure to fulfil its purpose. Unlike Architects Declare, we are committed to address that need,” he said.

But the track record isn’t enough to convince some people.

Especially as another set of bad climate news started to trickle through this week from think tank The National Centre for Climate Restoration, or Breakthrough.

In recent days, this group released a document of peer reviewed research that says the widely circulated 2050 climate deadline is far wide of the mark; that the IPCC reports seriously and fundamentally misrepresent and underestimate the looming climate crisis; and that other sources – the US defence department for instance – have far greater catastrophic forecasts.

For instance, while the IPCC says the world will reach 1.5C warming by 2050, current research suggests 2030. While the IPCC says 0.26-0.62 m sea level rises are likely, the US Department of Defence says expect between 1 and 2 metres.

Spokesperson for Architects Declare in Australia, Caroline Pidcock, says the move by Foster + Partners to withdraw rather than change practices was a severe blow under the climate emergency threat we face.

It was “really disappointing because they’ve been great sustainability advocates and it’s disappointing that they’re leaving an organisation that is all about that.

“Especially if they say that airports are more important that the sustainability movement when we are in a climate emergency.”

Of particular concern was the messaging at a time when reports such as the Climate Reality Check 2020 reveals that the majority of data in the public domain has been overly optimistic.

‘We’ve got to get to net zero by 2030 if we want to create a place where human beings can exist. It’s really, really urgent.

“It’s not a joke and it’s not political ideology. It’s just facts.

“There are tipping points that have happened and there are tipping points coming and those are irreversible.”

Worse is the time it takes to turn the trends around, Ms Pidcock said. The analogy is the Titanic, which saw the iceberg five minutes before hitting it. It needed 10 minutes to turn around.

Australian Institute of Architects president Helen Lochhead said it was probably “very ethical” of Norman Foster to resign.

“You have to be consistent.”

She said the fracas with Foster + Partners was because they are designing airports; their argument is that you can’t stop air transport; it’s part of the world we live in, but you can still design a facility to the best of your ability.

“He’s stated he’s not in a position to deliver on those commitments so it’s better to say you’re not a signatory.

“It’s really easy to sign up but the commitment is to do something different to what you’re doing today. It might take period of time to do that. But if you make a commitment you have to do something.”

It was a tough issue, she said “There’s a “gap between people signing up and people walking the walk.”

The institute had also signed up to the declare movement and was putting into practice steps to go carbon neutral or carbon positive, with the learnings to be shared with members.

“Most of the time, people have the best of intentions, but they don’t have the skills to be able to do it. And it’s quite onerous to be carbon neutral, but we’ve made that commitment.”

There was also a need to demonstrate commitment through actions, she said.

One way the institute was moving was to mandate targets in its awards program – “you can’t enter if you haven’t achieved it.”

Some people were not happy, she said, arguing that they might have designed a project a certain way but that the client had rescinded on the commitment.

The solution was a five-year window to advise on what the new rules would be.

Professor Lochhead said that biggest hope was for leadership from big corporates and government to lead the way.

“It’s incumbent on the clients – big business and government in particular – to take it seriously.”

She said there was generally excellent progress in Australia, especially over the past five year, with “great leaps and bounds” in high rise timber and elements such as biophilia and now chilled beams as standard practice.