Q&A with Anna Dyson
The extraordinary, first-of-its-kind report, “Building Materials and the Climate: Constructing a New Future” compiled by the Yale Center for Ecosystems + Architecture (Yale CEA), UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction (GlobalABC) is out now.
Featuring insights and research from global thought leaders and industry experts, including lead author, Anna Dyson, Founding Director, Yale CEA and Design for Freedom Working Group member and Dr. Mae-ling Lokko, Willow Technologies and Yale School of Architecture, both of whom we were honored to welcome as speakers for our 2023 Design for Freedom Summit, the report is going to be vital to building our understanding of how we can kickstart and amplify ethical decarbonization over the next few decades.
As we move forward in the sustainability movement, it is critical to consider how our actions to mitigate climate change co-exist with the built environment – a key element of our mission at Design for Freedom and something that is more critical than ever, especially when we consider this statistic: the building and construction sector accounts for 37% of CO2 emissions worldwide – a number that is unfortunately rising.
“As the largest global industrialized sector construction, also has widespread social impacts; it is at the highest risk of forced labor, with lax environmental and labor regulations tending to coincide.” – Grace Farms Foundation 2022
Our CEO and Founder, Sharon Prince, and our Ethical Materials Director, Nora Rizzo, are among those who reviewed the report’s findings, and we encourage all to download and read the report now.
Below are excerpts taken from a discussion with one of the report’s lead authors, Anna Dyson, in recognition of the report’s launch. The excerpts have been slightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: The United Nations has issued warnings that climate change is more dire than previously thought by leaders and scientists. What does the built environment contribute to carbon emissions?
The built environment sector contributes 37% to global (CO2) emissions. There is now a lot of attention on the operational carbon of buildings, meaning all of the energy and carbon that we expend in order to heat and cool buildings and to maintain them with machines and other appliances. However, under a ‘business-as-usual’ scenario, and if we were to implement all of the best practices that we currently have in the building materials sector, that is the embodied energy within buildings and building materials, the percentage of CO2 emissions is projected to reach almost 50% by 2050. So, we can see that this is an under-addressed area of global emissions and contributions, and it’s something that really needs to be elevated in terms of recognition and in terms of investment.
Q: What are some major findings in this report?
The major finding of our global report is that if we are to decarbonize the built environment sector, we must recognize the interdependencies across the lifecycle of building materials and the global materials supply chains. We must simultaneously support the producers, the builders, the users, and end of life in order to decarbonize and create a circular material economy that is compatible with natural systems and regional ecosystems.
So, who is required to decarbonize the built environment sector? We need to have incentives across this lifecycle. What that means is we need to create new economic models that will allow for producers, builders, and of course the designers and the users, the ones that are in a sense procuring and deciding, and making decisions on how they’re going to build and what materials they’re going to use. We need to incentivize across this chain in order to allow for new ownership models across this chain. If we do this, producers and builders will have skin in the game to decarbonize and to be able to participate in a circular material economy through the use and end-of-use phases.
By 2060, we’re still going to be producing a tremendous amount of non-renewables, including concrete, steel, aluminum, glass, plastics, and more, in the near future. Therefore, we need to radically decarbonize these processes within the next couple of decades as we build more in this global construction boom that we’re experiencing right now. We’re adding mega cities the size of Paris and New York every month, and we need to figure out how to decarbonize the construction sector. We will be adding a lot more materials into the system and therefore we need to design them in a circular material to design for disassembly and reassembly in order for our buildings to also become material banks.
Q: You raise an interesting point that globally we used to build with bio and earth-based processes. Can you elaborate?
Throughout our history, we’ve mostly been building with bio and earth-based processes, and we’ve built massive global cities. In 1945, the global share of material flows was overwhelmingly biologically based or earth-based. The explosion and extractive non-renewable processes have really happened over the course of the last several decades and it’s the majority of our building materials today. But that has not always been the case. The major culprits for global carbon emissions are comingfrom the concrete, steel, brick, and aluminum sectors.
Q: Developing a circular economy is central to decarbonization. Can you explain?
The most important way that we could lower the carbon emissions of the built environment sector is to build to last or to keep existing buildings in place. We must avoid new construction and extraction. We should be continuously be refurbishing and renovating and repurposing buildings. And this is a very big and important part also of a circular material economy. So, we want to be able to increase the share of circularity. There’s a growing gap between supply and demand of circular materials, that is secondary materials in the sectors such as steel, aluminum, and glass. And that is because we are building more and more, but we also need to design for circularity, and that needs to be legislated and mandated in the building energy codes.
Q: By adopting the suggestive measures in this report to reduce emissions globally, what percentage of emissions could be cut?
I think what we’re suggesting is that if we take the synergistic measures to radically improve conventional materials shift as much as possible to bio-based materials and avoid raw material extraction through better design and circularity, then by 2060 we could be net zero in the built environment sector. So, we are really looking at a kind of radical complete decarbonization of building material sector by 2060.
Q: How hard is it to make the necessary changes so building industries can start to align with some of the practices and processes mentioned in the report?
In many parts of the world, it is hard to enforce the building codes that are in place already. And then we need to have building energy codes and include embodied energy of materials in building codes. So that sounds like a heavy lift. One of the most important things in emerging economies is for the public sector to take the lead with large public work projects and other construction projects.
They are large enough and prominent enough to be able to set the pace for other types of construction, and they would really provide not just an example, but a substantial proportion of decarbonization of buildings in the formal material sector. In general, globally, the formal material sectors must take the lead here. So that starting with the governments, but also for any type of formal construction process, there needs to be a commitment on the part of the property owners, the builders, and the institutions associated with these things. If we can legislate and enforce that legislation, that would obviously be ideal. And there are great examples in the world of that emerging, even at multiple scales across the built environment. We have several case studies from around the world, and one of them is Finland, where they are already looking at decarbonization at the district scale. There’s cooperation across buildings and districts and this includes some of the most advanced building energy codes in the world. So, there are great examples for emerging economies to leapfrog over the high carbon and toxic non-renewable material processes of mature economies.
Q: How can the use of bio-based materials better manage forests?
There’s a tremendous opportunity here with bio-based materials to manage global forests more productively for carbon sequestration by culling the underbrush, culling the decaying matter, the old growth trees as well and species, and also to plant a biodiverse species according to their attributes or their functional traits. And so, this is emerging research, emerging knowledge, that we really need to incentivize and fund the research and development of the knowledge that we have for local species. Building with bio doesn’t mean it’s not the same as building with steel or concrete and we have to accommodate the specificities of different species in different regions. As an example with concrete, the shift to bio might also really support the decarbonization of the concrete and cement industry because we can also take forest detritus and agricultural detritus and sewer sludge and other materials from the biological cycles. The highest carbon content of concrete is in the Portland cement. So, we really want to shift this. And that could also be a way that we have enhanced cooperation, for example, between the management of agricultural and forest tracks and the cement industry.
Q: What’s required for this new paradigm shift in the building sector?
This is a moment in time in history when we do need to shift radically towards nature-based and bio-based processes. If you recall, we actually did use predominantly bio-based and earth-based processes until the middle of the 20th century to build massive global cities. What’s important to realize is that our global cities are largely built up, and those buildings will be in place in the future. So, buildings need to be retrofitted and repurposed towards, for example, collecting energy and distributing energy.
They need to be repurposed towards lowering the carbon footprint through the integration of vegetation and other things. A lot of the surfaces on the buildings, both interior and exterior, will be refurbished or replaced. There’s a lot of opportunity in the retrofitting of existing building stock to shift towards bio-based practices. And fortunately, this doesn’t necessarily include the macro structure that’s already in place, which is likely going to be concrete or steel. However, we can see around the world tall buildings that are being built with heavy timber. We have many examples around the world now. Probably Canada and other countries are in the lead testing these very tall buildings with the sort of substructure and the superstructure largely in timber.
Q: China is also a major contributor of carbon emissions. What role can China play in decarbonization?
As the largest global emitter in the built environment sector, China has a huge opportunity to demonstrate ethical decarbonization … If we’re going to decarbonize, we have to look at the role of ecosystems and humans inside the ecosystem…with the relationship between labor and ecosystems and the production of materials in the certification process, we need to establish the relationship between them and hopefully coordinate the certification between fair labor practices and ethical decarbonization.