Only with collective empowerment can architects implement the essential solutions, says Charlie Edmonds
COP26 was a failure. The UN climate summit was hailed as our ‘last best chance’ to address the climate crisis but what transpired was a series of compromises by centralised political power in deference to fossil-fuel capital. A report from Climate Action Tracker found that policies in the wake of COP26 will lead to a global temperature increase of 2.7°C – resulting in more frequent extreme weather events, a devastating loss in biodiversity and exacerbated global poverty.
The built environment is responsible for 40 per cent of carbon emissions, so it has never been more urgent for architects to engage with societal change. Despite this, the climate crisis is too often treated as nothing more than a ‘design challenge’. As part of its Design for Planet initiative, the Design Council released a video promoting the role of design in addressing the climate crisis. Over a backdrop of swelling strings and drone footage, designers were presented as the group that could ‘start solving some of these big climate challenges’ possessing ‘the power and a responsibility to address the climate crisis’. This video exemplifies a broader trend in the creative industries: presenting a depoliticised role for designers in the climate crisis, as technocratic actors pursuing the silver bullet of climate innovation.
As much as we might like to believe otherwise, the impetus of architectural work is directed according to the interests of private clientele and capital investment
During COP26, architect Enlai Hooi claimed the typical architect produces ‘162 American lifestyles’ worth of carbon emissions throughout their career. Yet the typical architect possesses little-to-no agency in determining how they work or, perhaps more importantly, for whom they work. As much as we might like to believe otherwise, the impetus of architectural work is directed according to the interests of private clientele and capital investment. This contradiction of intent vs agency is potentially the most significant limiting factor for architects’ capacity to mitigate climate crisis.
Despite its many failings, COP26 did demonstrate that any work to address the climate crisis that does not also address equity is incomplete and insufficient. This lesson did not come from world leaders or even the event organisers but from activist groups and the global south. These groups campaigned for the creation of a Loss and Damage fund, which would have made wealthy countries, which have created the vast majority of carbon emissions, liable for the damages to livelihoods and infrastructure in poorer countries. Unsurprisingly, this call for climate justice was blocked by the UK, EU and USA – nations that have profited extensively from the legacy of colonialism, contemporary extractive economics and the carbon emissions that have resulted.
In her piece All Design Is Political, Not All Politics Is Design, Leijia Hanrahan critiques the architectural tendency to centre our work within the midst of social and political struggle. She encourages architects to see their profession for what it is, in all of its potential and limitations, while also having the confidence to look beyond their profession. As architects campaign for climate action, it is essential to keep these limitations in mind. We must campaign not only for technical solutions, but also for the collective empowerment and equity required to implement those solutions. The ‘typical architect’ may emit 162 American lifestyles of carbon emissions, but if they are not empowered to campaign for systems change, they will remain an instrument of capital investment.
The climate crisis is an existential threat, but one that can be resolved through a just and equitable economic transition. For this to happen, we need mass popular action to influence centralised political power. The organisation of architectural workers can be a step towards this future, but first the profession must accept that addressing issues of labour and equity are fundamental to effective climate action.