Eighteen percent of your body and mine is carbon. Eighteen percent. That tree outside your door is made of 50 percent carbon. In fact, the weight of that tree doesn’t come as much from water and fertilizer as it does from the carbon it sucks out of the air -- stuff you can’t even see, the evil carbon dioxide (CO2).
So, why has the element that is prized on earrings and rings (diamonds are a girl’s best friend, the saying goes) become so reviled?
"Anthropogenic greenhouse gases in the atmosphere make airborne carbon a material in the wrong place, at the wrong dose and wrong duration. It is we who have made carbon a toxin—like lead in our drinking water," McDonough wrote earlier this month. "In the right place, carbon is a resource and tool."
McDonough insists businesses, institutions and policymakers are all led to believe that shrinking our carbon footprint will “bring down the carbon enemy.” And he thinks terms like low-carbon, zero-carbon, decarbonization, negative carbon, neutral carbon, and a war on carbon are part of the problem.
In reality, McDonough says carbon is an asset and “the life-giving carbon cycle could be a model for human designs.” He argues for a new language that will shape how we think about carbon that identifies three strategies for carbon management and climate change:
Unveiled at the COP22 climate talks in Marrakech, Morocco, McDonough says the carbon positive city “transforms fugitive carbon into durable carbon, such as plastics and building materials, and into living carbon, such as healthy soils, gardens, crops and landscapes.” In his vision, “sewage treatment plants become fertilizer factories and intensive integrated agriculture systems.” He calls these systems “solar orchards” that provide clean energy, clean food, clean water and jobs simultaneously.
The concept endured, and the firm began to imagine building and city designs as “photosynthetic and biologically active, accruing solar energy, cycling nutrients, releasing oxygen, fixing nitrogen, purifying water, providing diverse habitats, building soil and changing with the seasons,” he said.
Current projects include:
While McDonough is an acknowledged thought leader on sustainable design who has put his thoughts into action, the question becomes how widely will his concepts or similar designs be implemented by others? In answer, McDonough’s website points to the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN) a membership group of more than 135 sustainability directors from municipalities in the U.S. and Canada with more than 70 million people in their jurisdictions. USDN is “dedicated to creating a healthier environment, economic prosperity, and increased social equity.” The organization’s network “shares best practices and accelerates the application of good ideas across North America.”
One of USDN’s projects is the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, “a collaboration of international cities committed to achieving aggressive long-term carbon reduction goals.”
The project web site says that cities must cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 percent by 2050 because urban areas product nearly three quarters of anthropogenic emissions. The project recognizes that “reaching this goal will depend in large part on our ability to re-imagine and reinvent cities.” McDonough’s work is an important example of the thinking required to reach carbon emissions goals.
Image credits: 1) Pixabay 2) McDonough Innovations; 3) McDonough + Partners
Carl Nettleton is an acclaimed writer, speaker, facilitator, and analyst. He heads Nettleton Strategies, an environmental policy firm specializing in oceans, all things water, energy, climate, and U.S. Mexico border issues. Carl also founded OpenOceans Global, an NGO linking people to the world's oceans. Carl also serves on the national and California advisory councils for Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), a national, nonpartisan group of business owners, investors and others who advocate for policies that are good for the economy and good for the environment. He is also active with the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Energy and Water Committee, the international Eye on Earth initiative, and other business and environmental organizations.