The future of the planet is decided in the built environment
Around the globe, there is growing awareness of the critical role of the built environment in addressing the climate crisis. The building sector has become the most significant source of anthropogenic environmental disturbance, while failing to meet the basic needs of billions of urban dwellers who continue to live in impoverished and undignified conditions. According to a recent GlobalABC report, the built environment accounted for 36 per cent of global final energy consumption and 37 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2020, despite a pandemic-related construction slowdown. At the same time, resource consumption continues to grow relentlessly: in the European Union, the sector is responsible for half of all extracted materials and for over a third of the total waste generation (European Commission, n.d.)
If we continue to build using the strategies, practices, and technologies prevalent across the globe today, the environmental and social impacts will be devastating. By 2050, an additional 2.5 billion humans will live in cities, mostly in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The unprecedented scale and pace of this urban growth will create an enormous demand for housing and urban infrastructure, which will double both the world’s building stock and floor area in the coming decades. Sixty percent of buildings that will exist by 2050 have yet to be built: if they are constructed using conventional materials such as steel, cement or aluminum, we will consume three quarters of the CO2 budget we have to work with – if our goal is to stay within the 1.5-degree target necessary to ensure our—and our fellow species’—survival (WBGU 2016 ). The future of our planet thus depends on how we handle this building project: our ability to rethink and rework the materials, the means, and the methods with which we build our cities, and the way we organize, occupy, and maintain them.
From climate culprit to climate healing: Re-imagining the building sector as a means for climate restoration
While recognizing the building sector as the ‘elephant in the climate room’ current discussions and actions are largely focused on minimizing damage in the sense of decarbonizing the sector. However, it is only through a systemic shift in the building life cycle, from fossil-based linear extractivism towards regenerative, circular urban economies and bio-based building, that we will be able to truly address the climate crisis and contribute to climate restoration. Protecting, regenerating and expanding our global forests and other bio-based materials can significantly increase terrestrial biomass and remove large amounts of atmospheric carbon, while creating opportunities for meaningful and dignified rural employment. And replacing energy- and emissions-intensive materials with regeneratively sourced bio-based materials—timber, bamboo and agricultural waste products, for instance—can massively reduce CO2 emissions from conventional construction and transform buildings and human settlements from climate culprits into durable urban carbon sinks (Churkina et al. 2020).
This transformation process will require an unprecedented, concerted effort by countries of the Global North, largely responsible for the climate crisis, as well as countries of the Global South where the bulk of building activities is expected to take place in the near future. Apart from being our greatest lever to address the global climate crisis, this shift provides us with the opportunity to restructure and redesign our built environment to create more beautiful, livable, durable and dignified dwellings and public spaces in cities that are humanely scaled and equitably shared. By upgrading and retrofitting our building stock and minimizing our construction activity, we have the unique opportunity to transform buildings and cities in ways that re-balance our relationship with nature.
Bauhaus Earth was founded by the climate scientist John Schellnhuber as a global interdisciplinary think-and-do tank to promote a radical transformation of the built environment towards regenerative futures. Based in Potsdam and Berlin, Bauhaus Earth references the famous historical movement which, about a century ago, sought out to embrace the opportunities of industrialization to build better and more inclusive cities worldwide. Today, in the context of the planetary crisis, we again need a transdisciplinary effort convening leading thinkers, designers, and policy makers from across the globe to articulate a new vision and action plans for systemic change.
Responding to the urgent need for a global vision for the built environment that sets out values, principles and the course for systemic change, Bauhaus Earth initiated a collaborative Charter process involving authors from science, architecture, spatial planning, and policy making from around the world. The Charter for the City and the Earth is the outcome of this global transdisciplinary effort and a call to action for the healthy and regenerative re-connection of human activity with the Earth’s natural systems. On the occasion of Bauhaus Earth’s Reconstructing the Future Conference at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Vatican/Rome, on June 9, 2022, the Charter was launched and has been signed by numerous international thought leaders, practitioners and policy makers. Designed as a ‘living document’, the Charter will be updated on a regular basis and serves as an invitation to the global community to join forces, while mobilizing the necessary financial resources to translate conceptual ideas into concrete and impactful action.
As a framework for the implementation process of the vision, Bauhaus Earth seeks to support city-regional champions across the world to explore, test, and demonstrate pathways for a regenerative and socially just transition in the built environment. Change needs to be made tangible and visible, and requires awareness, trust, and political buy-in. To initiate a global network of city-regional change agents, Bauhaus Earth will launch a Global Regenerative Building Challenge prompting builders, designers, and researchers from across the globe to create regenerative design solutions. The Challenge aims to connect people and ideas within and across different geographies, discover the diversity of existing approaches and promote regenerative building solutions that are replicable and scalable, attesting that buildings can indeed be climate positive.
The role of global forums and philanthropy in promoting the transformation of the built environment
Strategic multilateral platforms such as the G20 and G7, as well as global philanthropies, have a critical role to play in driving the global transformation of the building sector by initiating the necessary policy processes, creating visibility and political support, and mobilizing financial resources. Three areas should be prioritized:
- Accelerate strategic efforts and a global political process: Although the built environment receives increasing interest among decision makers, the need for a systemic redesign of the entire life cycle of buildings is not yet firmly anchored on national and global political agendas. Often, the built environment is considered a domestic issue rather than a topic of planetary relevance, and approached from the perspective of energy transition, infrastructure, or poverty alleviation, rather than as a lever for systemic restoration. Moreover, existing initiatives are often limited in scope and fragmented, leading to a corresponding lack of influence. Accelerating strategic efforts and policy advocacy by empowering critical voices around the globe is crucial. These voices can articulate the vast opportunities opened up by linking climate mitigation with job creation, and other developmental opportunities through the transition towards bio-based circular building economies. This narrative needs to be developed globally, as well as folded into specific regional contexts to mobilize the appropriate political decision makers and private investments at the appropriate scale.
- Support champions for change and local demonstrators: The narrative of a systemic overhaul of the building sector needs to be underpinned by both solid, evidence-based research to close knowledge gaps as well as tangible demonstrators to show that it can be done. This needs to happen much faster than the slow, bureaucratic trajectories of bilateral or multilateral development cooperation. Philanthropy can bypass path-dependencies, as well as forge and empower new alliances between researchers, practitioners, and investors to break new ground and become champions for change.
- Invest in global learning and capacity building: Transitions require agile change makers able to think systemically, mobilize creativity and cut through administrative silos and bureaucratic hierarchies. We need new approaches to learning and capacity building, inside and outside existing educational institutions and across geographies. Giving access to knowledge and connecting individuals across disciplines and locally specific contexts can foster the transfer and adaptation of ideas, instruments and approaches.