What are the biggest levers we are and aren't pulling?

I just finished a fantastic video all about personal responsibility in climate change: Can YOU Fix Climate Change? It concludes that personal responsibility is overplayed (though we should still vote at the ballots and with our wallets), so we should focus on the biggest levers of climate change: policies, regulations, and technology. I strongly believe that we must proportion our efforts to the outcomes, which is a point this video did an excellent job driving home.

I consider the CLF to be an important lever that’s bringing people to action to pull other big levers (Buy Clean legislation, local action from regional hubs, etc.), but what other big levers are we pulling and what are we missing? What levers are we pulling at our firms or in our municipalities and where are we falling short?

I highly recommend watching the video and sharing it with your respective networks!

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This video was brought to you by GatesNotes, where Bill Gates, a technophile billionaire shares his delusions.

Honestly, Gates thinks that carbon capture and storage is a viable solution, and that should tell you enough to question his motives. He maintains that 65% emissions come from poorer nations, and we need to let them emit to catch up to the standard of living in the West - the thing is that the poorest 50% could double their emissions so long as Gates and his friends cut their huge emissions back to reasonable levels. What he also fails to mention is that the emissions from lower income countries are typically due to them manufacturing goods at low cost for the West, and these costs are kept so low because of a lack of environmental and social protections.

So the biggest lever we need to pull is to end the obsession with consumption. Amazon (and others) allow people to click a button and have something delivered the next day, completely separated from the realities of all the resources and waste that go into those products. The fact that we have this thing called “retail therapy” (and that it works) shows a fundamental issue in our society, and advertisers have a lot to answer for. Politicians also encourage consumption as a way to raise GDP, but I think we need to move away from the GDP obsessed society. Carbon taxes are vital, but also we need to take the ‘externalities’ and make them ‘internalities’.

In other realms electrification of everything has the potential to reduce emissions by 40%. If we shut down all the coat power plants that’s also 40% of emissions, and happily renewable (+ storage) are cheaper than running existing coal power plants in many markets, and only getting cheaper. Of course renewable energy infrastructure takes resources, but that is why we should be building them to last 100+ years - it is feasible for concentrated solar power, but less so for wind and photovoltaics. Perovskite solar cells will be fantastic if they can be durable, because the raw material is clay, which is ubiquitous. Once we have renewables and massive electrification it should be feasible to produce zero emissions building products (except for cement) - but this still leaves us with the issues of resource overconsumption and biodiversity collapse.

We need to recognize that we owe a debt to poorer nations, and provide assistance to help them develop modern, distributed renewable power generation.

In terms of what people in this forum can do (beyond voting):

  1. Advocate to build nothing and reuse existing building stock wherever possible.
  2. Minimize building footprints and massive reduce the use of materials that damage the environment, ban old growth lumber from your job, don’t blindly build with timber without understanding its sourcing.
  3. Design for the circular economy, engage materials engineers to make sure your structures can last 100 - 1000 years, design for adaptive reuse.
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Yep, hearing GatesNotes definitely bothered me as well, but I still think the video has a good message about individual responsibility: to think about the individual’s role in the context of big systems and big levers.

How feasible do you think it is to end an obsession with consumption? As much as I like to tell people that the best embodied carbon mitigation strategy is to not build at all, and as much as I agree that GDP is a bad metric, I’m not sure how we can convince a significant group of people to stop consuming. I agree it would be great to change everyone’s minds or force them to change their minds by pricing out the convenience (turning externalities into internalities), but I think it might just piss people off so whoever came up with the idea would get voted out or fired. And if we did it slow enough for people to be okay with it, it probably wouldn’t be quick enough to matter given our short timeline or someone else would sweep in and crank up the consumption again. Though I’m certainly no expert in social science or economics so I could be off base here.

Totally agree about investing in renewables. Fossil fuel subsidies are maddening. From 2017-2019, G20 governments provided an annual average of $584 billion for fossil fuel production and consumption. Point that money towards renewables.

Yep, the onus is on wealthy nations to support poorer nations in a technological leapfrog to skip high-carbon industrial processes in favor of a sustainable grid.

Another point to add for circular economy and long-lasting structures that I don’t see often enough - it’s not just about building a structure that will physically last 100-1000 years, it’s also about designing a structure that people will want to keep there for a long time. There’s a moral imperative to design beautiful, elegant, thriving buildings that are integrated in the culture and community so nobody would want to knock them down.

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With consumption it is not necessarily a drop in quality of life, etc. it is about valuing quality over quantity, purchasing things that last and that you really need, and purchasing second hand goods. Then the other factor is valuing experiences over things - already younger generations preferences are showing this trend. Fast fashion and tech gadgets aren’t required to be happy!

Sure, but orchestrating a mass shift in values (i.e. convincing people they don’t need one-day delivery, fast fashion, or the newest tech gadgets - or pricing them out of it) is a gargantuan task, especially when you’re fighting against massive marketing/advertising budgets and really effective pipelines like social media. I agree with the values you’re espousing, I’m just not sure about how much it’ll catch on for everyone. But we’ve wandered away from embodied carbon so maybe this is a conversation for another place/time lol.