The chart above is of profound importance to landscape architecture as a profession and especially for any practitioner or student under the age of thirty.
This chart, which is based on the science supporting the Paris Climate Agreement, foretells that if we are to have any chance at salvaging a livable climate, humanity must essentially cease the use of fossil fuels within 30 years. Vitally too, this chart shows that we must work to draw down the excess carbon dioxide (CO2) that is already in the atmosphere. These two actions give us the best chance of bringing climate back into a balance conducive to civilization.
This “below zero” era of minimal carbon dioxide emissions and increasing CO2 drawdown will have enormous implications for landscape architects. For while the need for our work will only grow, eliminating the use of fossil fuels would radically alter the materials and construction methods we take for granted. This in turn would have dramatic implications for design and professional practice.
Fossil fuels provide 80% of the energy our society uses (see chart below).
Their elimination will immediately mean that society will have drastically less energy overall to use. At this point, many people will simply say, “yeah, but we’ll just use renewables.” Unfortunately, renewables are not a significant substitute for fossil fuels: they are not “plug and play.”
Renewables, which currently provide approximately 10% of our total energy supply, are at the mercy of the weather and the revolving earth. Even more importantly, renewables only provide electricity. But it is fossil fueled fire that powers our industrial civilization. It is fire that moves our large machinery and transports our supplies. It is fire that provides us with our most commonly used materials.
And yet this chart tells us that we must end the use of fire if we are to stop and reverse global warming. It is unknown, but seems unlikely, that renewably generated electricity alone can provide us with all the energy and materials that we have grown accustomed to.
For example, cement production is the third largest source of carbon dioxide pollution globally. It is literally impossible to make cement without emitting a large amount of CO2, as that gas is one of the byproducts of the production. Further, fossil fuels alone provide the heat required to expel that CO2. Thus, at the end of the process, as much as one ton of CO2 results from creating one ton of cement.
This is unacceptable in the below zero era. Remember, we can’t keep cheating; we must get to below net zero carbon dioxide emissions. Thus it is unlikely that landscape architects will be able to rely on using large amounts of concrete in their work.
Another example is steel production. Like the cement process, CO2 is a chemical by-product of the process of steel creation. To drive out that CO2 requires very high temperatures, normally supplied by fossil fuels, especially coke, which is a high carbon form of coal. While some quantities of steel can be made with electricity, there is no evidence that large-scale amounts of non-CO2 steel can be produced. Again therefore, large-scale use of steel may be unlikely.
In addition to cement and steel, other common materials that may be severely curtailed by ending the use of fossil fuels include most plastics and metals, fired bricks, ceramics, and glass. But it is doubtful that the need for the functions provided by those materials will decrease correspondingly.
Construction methods will also be directly affected. Most landscape architectural projects involve fossil fueled machinery. Trucks, backhoes, skid steers, and earthmovers: all depend on fire. While it is possible to run some equipment on electricity, it is doubtful that we could count on the amount of energy and machinery we utilize today. Therefore, landscape architecture in the below zero era will have to look to other means to perform much of our necessary work.
These realities will deeply influence design. The design process, which now takes insufficient notice of embodied and required carbon in both materials and construction methods, will need to respond to a completely new paradigm. In the future, a principal way that design will be evaluated is by how much carbon it draws down. Designers will learn to work with different materials, including reused and repurposed ones, and find new ways of accomplishing the construction process. Design for maintenance without dependence on fossil fuels will be essential.
The below zero era will also greatly impact professional landscape architecture practice. Managers will need to respond to limits in practice scope compelled by changes in transportation modes. Landscape architects might need to become more directly involved with construction projects. Ethical considerations such as what types of projects to use limited energy on may become more important. Landscape architectural education will need to adjust to these realities as well.
Many will hope that these realities are overstated and that technology and other actions will enable business as usual. They will point to the possibilities of biofuels, carbon scrubbers, massive tree planting to offset emissions, and even geo-engineering as pathways along which we can continue as we have
Unfortunately, there is little evidence that any of those will enable us to continue to pour CO2 into the atmosphere without unimaginable consequences. We have gotten ourselves to a pretty stark place.
The world is on the edge of an epochal change, with two choices for moving forward. We can continue business as usual, accepting the ravages done to our life support system by climate change in the hope that somehow it will be survivable. Or we can voluntarily choose to eliminate fossil fuels and begin to craft a new economy and way of life on different kinds of, and much less, energy. If landscape architects are going to lead with authenticity, it is vital for us to become knowledgeable about the implications and possibilities of the below zero era.Published in