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Carl Nettleton headshot

Excess Carbon Emissions Are a Failure of Design

By Carl Nettleton

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?

Carbon emissions are a design failure

William McDonough, the author of "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things," says carbon emissions are a design failure.
"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."

In a Nov. 14 article published in Nature, McDonough says the language of carbon needs to be redefined into three categories:

  • Living carbon: organic; flowing in biological cycles; providing fresh food, healthy forests and fertile soil; something we want to cultivate and grow.

  • Durable carbon: locked in stable solids such as coal and limestone or recyclable polymers that are used and reused; ranges from reusable fibers like paper and cloth, to building and infrastructure elements that can last for generations and then be reused.

  • Fugitive carbon: has ended up somewhere unwanted and can be toxic; includes carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, 'waste to energy' plants, methane leaks, deforestation, much industrial agriculture and urban development.

Would this broader definition change perceptions about carbon? McDonough points out that CO2 is classified as a commodity by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, a pollutant by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and a financial instrument by the Chicago Climate Exchange.

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:

  • Carbon positive: Actions converting atmospheric carbon to forms that enhance soil nutrition or to durable forms such as polymers and solid aggregates; also, recycling of carbon into nutrients from organic materials, food waste, compostable polymers and sewers.

  • Carbon neutral: Actions that transform or maintain carbon in durable Earth-bound forms and cycles across generations; or renewable energy such as solar, wind and hydropower that do not release carbon.

  • Carbon negative: Actions that pollute the land, water and atmosphere with various forms of carbon, for example, CO2 and methane into the atmosphere or plastics in the ocean.

McDonough’s concept of a carbon positive city brings his proposed language for describing carbon into an urban design framework useful at both a regional and international scale.

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.

Creating buildings as if they are trees

Of course, the proof of new concepts is always in the implementation. And McDonough, through his architectural firm William McDonough + Partners, has been evolving the concept as far back as 1989 when his firm designed a daycare facility in Frankfurt, Germany, that imagined the building as if it were a tree. He says the children could “move solar shutters, open and close windows, grow food on roof terraces and irrigate the gardens with rainwater.”

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:

  • Hero Global Center for Innovation and Technology: Designed to inspire creativity and as a center of innovation, connecting people with nature while providing a lively, colorful atmosphere; a place where people can open their minds and reach beyond boundaries.

  • Schiphol Trade Park: The Netherlands’ national demonstration to the world of a practical and profitable transition towards a circular economy by showing and exporting Holland’s entrepreneurial leadership in sustainability, design, trade, agriculture and logistics.

  • Park 20|20: The first full-service cradle-to-cradle-inspired working environment in the Netherlands. Located within a manmade cultural landscape of a Dutch polder (land reclaimed from the sea), the firm was engaged by Delta Development Group in 2007 to create a new model of sustainable development that implements the Cradle to Cradle philosophy holistically and at all scales — from the city to the molecule.

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 headshot

Carl Nettleton is an acclaimed award-winning writer, speaker and analyst. He heads Nettleton Strategies, a public policy firm specializing in oceans, water, energy, climate, and U.S. Mexico border issues. Carl also founded OpenOceans Global, an NGO solving ocean crises by unifying and empowering global communities. Carl 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 co-chair of the San Diego Water Conservation Action Committee (CAC) and a member of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, Lambda Alpha, South County Economic Development Council, Otay Mesa Chamber of Commerce and U.S.-Mexico Border Philanthropy Partnership.

Read more stories by Carl Nettleton