What's your carbon footprint?[Prepared by Gretchen Wilson for Activate Architecture March 2009]
South Africa is a major contributor to climate change, and South African architects and builders need to respond, says Michael Magner.
Climate change - caused by excessive quantities of carbon being injected into our atmosphere - isn’t just a widely accepted scientific fact these days. It’s actually looking worse than experts originally thought. Rising global temperatures are melting ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, and new projections show sea levels rising by up to 1.4m by the end of this century, more than doubling a 2007 projection by the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC).
These are the early warning signs of impending catastrophe for life that we take for granted, and require a proactive response from architects and the construction industry. In South Africa, some leading architects and scientists are making important strides in advocating for greater sustainability in the built envirnonment. Llewellyn van Wyk, a senior researcher with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) Built Environment unit in Pretoria, points out that the Earth is an organism from which more than 6.3 billion people and other living things draw resources to sustain life, and into which they discharge their waste.
“We are not only consuming more materials, but in that process we are producing high amounts of waste in one form or another,” says van Wyk. This man-made waste comes in the form of gasses (i.e. carbon dioxide), liquids (i.e. raw sewage), and solids, (i.e. plastics, bricks and computers).
Many say it’s our generation that has pushed this planet into the red. In a 2002 study published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, sustainability advocate Mathis Wackernagel and other scientists declared human demand for the Earth’s natural resources reached a tipping point way back in 1980. Since then, they say, we’ve been consuming the capital value of Mother Nature at higher and higher rates. We’re now consuming global resources at a pace unprecedented in the history of the planet. Putting it another way, we are eating the hand that feeds our children.
While China and the U.S. are often slammed for being the world’s largest national producers of carbon dioxide emissions, there’s no question that South Africa is itself off-sides. We generate 90% of our electricity with carbon-spewing coal burning power stations, and Eskom recently called for at least another 40 new coal mines by 2020. Sasol, one of our largest and most successful companies, makes inordinately carbon-rich fuel out of coal, and our emissions here are all the worse because we are such a car dependant society.
In addition, our buildings - both in their construction and in their day-to-day running -- are woefully energy inefficient. In South Africa, we all need to step up to the plate. By and large, we in South Africa aren’t making well-considered and progressive decisions about how to develop our infrastructure, perhaps because we don’t have sufficiently skilled professionals to lead the way. In some respects, South Africans are at the mercy of foreign investors often eager to offload their relatively outdated technology.
One example is the pitching of pebble-bed nuclear reactors as “clean” sources of power, because they produce low carbon emissions. Meanwhile, we are prepared to conveniently forget the small matter of enriched uranium waste! And because our leaders have very few sustainable building policy experts to turn to for advice, they often base their purchase decisions on convincing sales pitches.
Single-handedly, very few of us can change the world, or even a nation’s law. But at Activate Architecture, we believe we can all do something to build a more sustainable future. We believe architects have a responsibility to lead the industry in sustainable building, because they are often in the best position to define the direction of new projects.
Activate is transforming its business in three important ways:
First, we are committed to minimizing the negative impact we have by neutralizing the firm’s carbon emissions. Using the South African carbon calculator developed for the nongovernmental organisaton Food & Trees for Africa (www.trees.co.za), Activate Architecture has tabulated the number of trees we need to plant to neutralize all of our carbon emissions since we started the business 11 years ago.
We’ve accounted for our total consumption of paper, electricity, fuel (for staff commutes), and all business flights. The idea is that by planting enough trees, we’ll wipe out our business’s carbon footprint. To this end, Activate recenty used Food and Trees For Africa’s National Tree Distribution Programme to plant 250 trees at the following schools:
Second, we are supporting South Africans’ education in sustainable building practices. Activate Architecture will lead a coalition of small firms in founding the IKUSASA trust. IKUSASA, which means ‘future’ in both isiZulu and isiXhosa, will pay for world-quality tertiary education of young, previously-disadvantaged individuals who have a passion for green building.
IKUSASA Trust will be able to generate an income by acquiring a BBBEE share of Activate and other small-to-medium enterprises. The income generated will be distributed through dividends to support education, as well as seed capital, for young professionals from disadvantaged backgrounds. The idea is that by supporting a new generation of South African architects and builders, our nation can be at the cutting-edge in creating sustainable built environments. We believe this is will be crucial in improving South Africa’s economy, as well as the global environment.
Third, we are designing green buildings. Activate Architecture strives to engender a lower-energy, sustainable architecture. With each project, we carefully consider how to minimize each structure’s carbon footprint. And to ensure we use the latest strategies in green building, we engage with the existing knowledge-base here in South Africa. Our firm is a member of the new Green Building Council of South Africa (http://www.gbcsa.org.za), which promotes sustainable building in the country’s property industry. We believe this is a fantastic and essential body that will help better define our goals as an industry.
Activate Architecture encourages every company in our sector to contribute to stabilizing climate change. Sure, our actions are minute impacts in the global reality. But we believe we all have to do whatever we can. There is only one planet that we and our children can live on. And we’re currently taking it for granted.
Michael Magner is a partner with Activate Architecture, a Johannesburg-based architectural practice that prides itself in designing innovative and appropriate buildings for its time and place.
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