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It’s now or never to balance our environment

Hugh Pearman

The climate emergency won’t wait any longer: we’ve no more time to waste

Recently I came across an interview I did with James Lovelock, inventor of the ‘Gaia’ hypothesis of our planet as one self-regulating mechanism/organism. It was in 2011 for RIBAJ’s ‘Towards Zero Carbon’ issue and Lovelock was pretty old at 91. He is now even older at 101 and happily still pretty chipper at the time of writing, to judge by a recent Guardian interview. How has architecture managed the climate crisis in the intervening years? 

Going through the journal archives reveals that environmental concerns have always been there, back through the early low-energy building designs following the oil shock of the early 1970s to Edwardian times, where you find discussion on air pollution and the effects of soot – and the RIBA president trying out the new-fangled smokeless coal in his study. Leap to today, where super­green, energy plus buildings are manifestly feasible and becoming more common – we show some in this issue.

Glance at the national power generation picture, where wind and solar sources have ramped up impressively in recent years as coal-burning is phased out.  And remember how the Stirling Prize became in 2019 a force for positive change, when most of its living UK winning practices joined forces to establish Architects Declare, the declaration being of a global climate and biodiversity emergency, with actions set out for tackling it. At the same time the RIBA itself instigated its 2030 Climate Challenge programme which has its own stringent carbon reduction targets. And out in the streets, Extinction Rebellion protestors were closing them down to make their impassioned point. 

In Edwardian times you find discussion on air pollution and the effects of soot – and the RIBA president trying out the new-fangled smokeless coal in his study

So what’s new, you might ask. In 2006, under president Sunand Prasad, RIBA Council signed up to the rigorous ‘Contraction and convergence’ methodology to reduce and even out global carbon emissions. A key date for that was also 2030. One of the most enduring earlier contributions came from the far-seeing president Alex Gordon in 1972 with his famous ‘long life, loose fit’ mantra: bang on for today with our urgent need to refurb-and-adapt rather than demolish-and-rebuild. 

So nobody can say that all this is a recent arrival on the agenda of architects and now 2030-aligned ‘sustainable outcomes’ are enshrined in the Plan of Work too.

But is it all too late? Lovelock thought so in these pages, back in 2011. In his genial way he pointed out that sustainable development would have been a great idea in 1800, say, when there were only a billion people on the planet. ‘If we’d adopted it then we wouldn’t be in the mess we are now. Now it’s far too late…what we’ve done already would take thousands of years to go away.’ This year in the Guardian he noted: ‘I would say the biosphere and I are both in the last one per cent of our lives.’

 However Lovelock does offer a gleam of hope: us. He notes that we are the first collective intelligence ever on Earth. In other words: if we USE that collective intelligence then – why, we might think of and implement enough clever things to make a difference. So don’t give up. Redouble your efforts.