Amid the Climate Crisis, Glimpses of a Sustainable Future

The world’s largest solar power plant in Kamuthi, Tamil Nadu, India / Financial Express

Amid the constant stream of dire news about the climate, shrinking groundwater supply, increasing air pollution, and the virulent anti-environment policies coming out of Washington, D.C., there are snippets of positive news that offer glimpses of a more sustainable future. Widespread concern about the climate is leading to a new environmental consciousness. National policymakers and companies are taking action because communities and consumers demand progress.

Here are just a few examples of that progress:

1) Renewable energy is where the growth is. The International Energy Agency (IEA) states renewable energy sources are expected to account for nearly 26 percent of global electricity production by 2020. According to BP, over the course of 2016, renewable power generation grew 14 percent, accounting for 8 percent of global electricity generation, but represented 40 percent of the total growth in power generation and a majority of the new infrastructure.

Denmark now gets almost two-thirds of its power from renewables, while a number of European countries, like Germany, Spain, Italy, and the UK, already get around a quarter of their power from wind, solar, and hydropower. After stops and starts, the U.S. has hit a major milestone — 10 percent of its electricity from renewables. And Texas now gets 37 percent of its power from wind and solar.

2) Fossil fuel divestment is nearing a tipping point, at least in the West. Religious groups are now nearly united in divesting from oil, coal, and gas investment. In addition to the Church of England and Islamic Society of North America, more than 40 Catholic organizations with billions in funds recently announced they will divest. TreeHugger argues this is a sign big oil, coal, and gas companies have lost the “moral authority to operate.”

Governments are also making major commitments: Ireland and Norway‘s public funds have divested from fossil fuel production, and New York City recently became the largest city in the U.S. to take the same step. In addition, universities, with hundreds of billions under management, are divesting in record number.

3) Countries are creating massive terrestrial preserves to protect against development and resource extraction. The New York Times reports that philanthropists spent $345 million to purchase one million acres of pristine land in Patagonia, Chile. They then told the Chilean government they would donate it if the government added more territory and preserved the land as a park. In a huge win for conservation, Chilean president Michelle Bachelet ended up contributing nine million acres and creating five new national parks and expanding three.

National park system in Patagonia, Chile / Conservation Action Trust

Colombia just expanded its largest national park by 1.5 million hectares, so that it now totals 4.3 million hectares, an area the size of Denmark, and added $525 million to its conservation budget.

And, last year, Papua New Guinea created its largest conservation area: the Managalas Conservation Area, which covers some 1,390 square miles in the southeast corner of the country. According to Mongabay, conservation groups and local communities had been working towards this goal for 32 years.

4) And new marine preserves are protecting fish from over-harvesting. Blue Planet II, which some critics argue is the greatest nature film ever made, makes a convincing case that we are over-harvesting many fish species, threatening their long-term sustainability, the biodiversity of our oceans, and the livelihoods of millions who live along the coasts. Fish need protected spaces where they are safe from the fleets of fishing boats in order to regain their numbers. A number of countries recognize this and are thinking long-term:

  • According to Mongabay, Niue, a small island country in the South Pacific, which is home to only 1,600 people, created a protected 49,000-square-mile marine zone that covers 40 percent of the island’s economic zone.
  • Chile announced a 285,700-square-mile marine reserve around Easter Island, which is now facing erosion caused by rising sea levels, and two new preserves — a 54,170-square-mile one off of Diego Ramírez Islands and a 186,870-square-mile preserve around the Juan Fernández Islands in the southern Pacific.
  • Mexico created the 57,900-square-mile Revillagigedo marine park to “protect sharks, rays, whales, turtles and other important marine species.”
  • And, finally, the Seychelles just created two new massive marine preserves, covering 15 percent of the island country’s ocean, in exchange for debt relief, using an innovative new financing model that is expected to improve upon the nature-for-debt swaps of the past.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) states that almost 15 percent of the Earth’s land and 10 percent of its waters are now protected as national parks or preserves. The amount of water bodies that are protected has jumped 300 percent in the last decade. The target set by Convention on Biological Diversity is 17 percent of the globe by 2020, and we may reach that yet.

5) China is undertaking an ambitious reforestation campaign. In addition to rolling out a nationwide system for valuing and protecting vital ecosystem services, China is actively trying to restore damaged forests and plant new ones. China Daily and Reuters report China will plant some 6 million hectares of trees in 2018 alone, covering an area equal to Ireland. The goal is to have 23 percent of China covered in trees by 2020 and 26 percent by 2030, up from 21.7 percent today and just 19 percent in 2000. Some 33.8 million hectares of forest had been planted over the past five years at a total cost of $82 billion.

Moving forward, though, Chinese foresters must plant more diverse tree species. New, monocultural forests have succeeded in reducing flooding and erosion, but they are also reducing biodiversity.

Reuters writes that the Chinese central government is also promoting an “‘ecological red line’ program which will force provinces and regions to restrict ‘irrational development’ and curb construction near rivers, forests, and national parks.”

6) Veganism and vegetarianism are on the rise. In his latest book Drawdown, Paul Hawken ranks the top 100 solutions for reducing carbon emissions. Number four in terms of possible positive impact is switching to a plant-based diet. Ruminants such as cows and sheep, which number in the billions, produce huge amounts of methane — about 1/5 of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Hawken writes: “According to a 2016 study, business-as-usual emissions could be reduced by as much as 70 percent through adopting a vegan diet and 63 percent for a vegetarian diet, which includes cheese, milk, and eggs. $1 trillion in annual health-care costs and lost productivity would be saved.” Producing meat also requires vast amounts of grain, land, and water. Meat consumption is then closely connected with the expansion of agricultural land at the expense of forests.

A recent video from The Economist states that some 5 percent of the world is now vegan or vegetarian. In 2014, just one percent of Americans said they were vegan; today, that number is 6 percent. And 44 percent of Germans now eat a low-meat diet, up from 26 percent in 2014. Just Eats, a food company with 20 million customers worldwide, said demand for vegan and vegetarian foods increased nearly 1,000 percent in 2017 alone.

While these success stories show that much more progress is possible, there are still causes for alarm. The last four years were among the planet’s hottest. After multiple years of flat greenhouse gas emissions, they are rising again. Furthermore, water shortages will increasingly be a cause of worry. According to the World Water Development Report just released by UN Water, some 5 billion people will face water shortages by 2050, because of climate change, pollution, and increased demand. Nature-based solutions — or green infrastructure — is seen as a key solution for improving water quantity and quality, so landscape architects and designers have an important role to play yet.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (March 1 – 15)

Ala Moana Beach Park, Honolulu, Hawaii / John Hook

A Retail District in Houston Reimagines the Strip Mall, One Building at a Time The Architect’s Newspaper, 3/5/18
“Caution and timidity have been the ruling traits of Houston’s commercial real estate market for the past three decades.”

The Future of Honolulu Depends on Its Parks Next City, 3/5/18
“Public parks have emerged as battlegrounds in the city’s response to a changing climate and a growing housing crisis. Could they also hold the solutions?”

Building a ‘Second Nature’ Into Our Cities: Wildness, Art and Biophilic Design The Conversation, 3/7/18
“Given the increasing popularity of this urban design technique, it’s time to take a closer look at the meaning of nature and its introduction into our cities.”

Climate Readiness: Think Big, Act Fast The Boston Globe, 3/8/18
“Until recently, Boston was ahead of other cities in planning for sea-level rise and the effects of climate change before a catastrophic storm like Sandy or Harvey hit.”

In Britain’s Playgrounds, ‘Bringing in Risk’ to Build Resilience The New York Times, 3/10/18
“Educators in Britain, after decades spent in a collective effort to minimize risk, are now, cautiously, getting into the business of providing it.”

The Gateway Arch, a Global Icon, Reconnects to St. Louis CityLab, 3/12/18
“St. Louis’ Gateway Arch once stood in splendid isolation. A new $380-million renovation of its grounds brings it closer to downtown.”

Concrete Jungle Hong Kong to Get Diverse Array of Plants on Urban Streets in Drive to Green the City The South China Morning Post, 3/14/18
“About 20 tree and shrub species can now be found across urban areas but this will increase to 120, with city planners shown how to ‘match plants to places.’”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (February 16 – 28)

“Desert Gardens of Steve Martino,” by Caren Yglesias / Steve Gunther/The Monacelli Press via Associated Press

Can the L.A. River Avoid ‘Green Gentrification’?
CityLab, 2/20/18
“Los Angeles is where it is because of the river that runs through it. Tongva people lived along the river, around what is now downtown L.A., for centuries. The Spanish camped there when they first passed through. Pobladores established a town there. It grew into a city.”

Phoenix Landscaper Brings Desert to Urban Yards The Washington Post, 2/21/18
“When I moved to Phoenix last summer, I was bewildered by all the bright green grass I saw smack in the middle of the Sonoran Desert — in residential yards, on golf courses, at community parks.”

On the Waterfront, Toronto’s Next Great Park Takes Shape The Globe and Mail, 2/21/18
“As central Toronto booms, many people have come to see the need for new open space in the core. But not far away, a great collection of park space is in the works: It will cover 80 hectares at the mouth of the Don River, and you’ll be able to splash in the river within less than a decade.”

The Price We Pay for LivabilityThe Boston Globe, 2/23/18
“Past generations in Greater Boston knew it was their duty to improve the landscape — to build parks and seawalls, subways and bridges — for the benefit of all future residents. In 2018, we can still dream up useful new pieces of civic hardware, such as the cool new footbridge now proposed for the Mystic River between Somerville and Everett.”

Welcome to the Age of Climate Migration Rolling Stone, 2/25/18
“Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas and Louisiana last August, causing $125 billion in damage, dumped more water out of the sky than any storm in U.S. history.”

Promising New Ways to Finance Urban Nature

Charlotte’s urban forest / UNC Charlotte Urban Institute

Companies and organizations are buying and selling billions of dollars of carbon credits every year worldwide. Carbon credits are a financial instrument that packages one metric ton of carbon dioxide into a commodity that can be traded. For example, if a company participates in a required, or even voluntary, cap-and-trade system and has exceeded the annual quota for their carbon dioxide emissions, they can purchase a credit from another organization that has excess credits. Credits sometimes come from carbon offset projects, which are explicitly designed to sequester or reduce greenhouse emissions in a verifiable amount.

Carbon credits and offsets are verified by 3rd party organizations, who root their evaluation in standards and protocols. Registries verify the amounts of carbon bought and sold, as well as the projects actively sequestering or reducing greenhouse gases, and help package the credits or offsets. Exchanges are marketplaces where credits and offsets are traded. Typically, credits and offsets feature renewable energy, energy-efficiency programs, the capture of methane or other pollution, or the expansion or protection of forests.

But now, a few start-up organizations are trying to figure out to how to make it easier for cities across the country to turn the carbon stored in urban forests into credits and offsets. If well-designed, implemented, and monitored, these new models have the potential to provide new revenue streams for strapped urban parks systems, protect existing green spaces from development, and bring more greenery to our cities and suburbs.

These organizations seem to build on the work already being done to monetize the carbon in urban forests in California — which has had an established, required cap and trade system since 2011 — spreading these ideas across states and cities where there are nascent markets. (It’s worth noting: after years of dysfunction but recent success, debate still rages on the effectiveness of California’s cap-and-trade system).

City Forest Credits, based in Seattle, is a registry that has developed a “unique bundled credit” — that goes beyond just packaging carbon. Each credit includes “a metric ton of CO2; stormwater runoff reduction in cubic meters; air quality for O3, NOx, PM10, and Net VOCs; and energy savings in kWh/yr and kBtu/yr.”

City Forest Projects makes the case for their approach: projects are “implemented locally, with visible and quantified ecosystem benefits.” Furthermore, individuals, companies, and organizations can purchase credits in their own communities, keeping benefits local.

They’ve developed their own protocols for measuring the benefits of their credits. And on their website, they claim they have solid leads with a number of cities, including Austin, Texas, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to turn urban forests into credits that can be traded.

For example, “we are beginning to work with urban forest stakeholders in Austin to assess larger-scale urban forest carbon projects that could generate significant volumes of CO₂ storage.” And in Pittsburgh, “a group of conservancy organizations has been working for over four years to preserve from development a large, 660-acre parcel of forested land in the City of Pittsburgh. We have had detailed discussions with the groups as they work to preserve not just the land, but the trees as well. A preservation carbon project could help preserve the trees, generate revenues for maintenance, demonstrate stewardship, and keep the many benefits of trees for the residents of the city.”

While City Forest Projects still seems to be formulating their approach and finding a market for the credits, Urban Offsets, another organization, appears to be farther ahead.

Their model is a bit different from City Forest Project’s. They package already-existing “high quality carbon offsets,” which have already been verified by registries, further evaluate the credits according to more than 50 criteria, and then bundle these offsets with “community tree programs.”

Urban Offsets makes the case for their approach: “Our unique offering involves the bundling of purchased third-party verified carbon offsets with tree plantings in local communities. This methodology presents a one-two punch against the traditional methods of offsets. Our model gives you the best of everything: local trees with proven ROI and positive impact that truly reduce carbon emissions.”

Urban Offsets is now partnering with urban tree planting organizations in New York City, Atlanta, Phoenix, Tempe, Charlotte, Durham, Greensboro, St. Louis, and Fayetteville. In New York City, they are working with Bette Midler’s well-regarded organization, the New York Restoration Project, and in Charlotte, with TreesCharlotte. They state these organizations are ensuring the trees are well-maintained.

It’s important that the trees underlining these urban forestry-based financial mechanisms are in good health. Given the high mortality rates for urban street trees, maintenance needs to be guaranteed to ensure the credibility of urban forests as long-term financial assets.

Much of Urban Offsets’ efforts seems driven by demand from Duke University, and their carbon offsets initiative. The Ivy of the South seeks to be carbon neutral by 2024. To meet that goal, Duke University will need to “offset approximately 185,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent-emissions per year.” Urban Offsets is the “exclusive” provider of urban forestry offsets for Duke.

Boosting both the supply and demand for urban forestry credits and offsets is then critical to creating the market — and ultimately benefiting the tree planting non-profits, conservancies, and park systems that could really use the extra revenue.

ASLA Endorses the Living Shorelines Act

Living Shorelines and breakwaters, Barnegat Bay / SCAPE Landscape Architecture

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) applauds Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr. (NJ) for introducing the Living Shorelines Act, which would provide critical funding to help our nation’s coastal communities develop flood-resistant green infrastructure projects that integrate local ecosystems.

In the aftermath of major hurricanes and superstorms, the United States has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in evacuation, clean-up and rebuilding efforts. The Living Shorelines Act will promote the use of nature-based systems and materials to help coastal communities address climate-related weather events and rebuilding efforts in a more resilient and cost-effective manner. The bill also includes a provision to require communities to monitor, collect and transmit data on living shoreline projects, which will provide critical metrics on the benefits of these green infrastructure projects.

Landscape architects are on the front lines of protecting coastal communities from the destructiveness of storms. They work with nature as they design projects that control flooding, restore shorelines and provide thriving eco-habitats. In designing these environments, they collaborate with local residents to ensure that the infrastructure provides opportunities for recreation and economic and educational benefits.

“The Living Shorelines Act is smart policy for our nation, and gives communities options for their planning toolbox,” says Nancy C. Somerville, Hon. ASLA, executive vice president and CEO of ASLA. “Green infrastructure helps position coastal communities to mitigate the impacts of natural disasters and provides critical services that improve human and environmental health.”

“As a landscape architect, I support this legislation because it will allow communities and design professionals to work together in developing long-term solutions for transforming our coastal communities,” says Kate Orff, ASLA, founder of SCAPE Landscape Architecture and the first landscape architect to receive a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. “Creating a built environment that protects and sustains us must include natural systems. Robust coastal ecosystems are critical next century infrastructure.”

ASLA urges all its members to use the iAdvocate Network to contact their members of Congress about cosponsoring this important legislation that will help protect coastal communities and highlight the critical role landscape architects play in their health, safety and welfare.

New York City Steps Up in Fight Against Climate Change

Mayor Bill de Blasio at press conference / The Nation

Joining 17 other American cities, including Washington, D.C.; San Francisco; Seattle; and Ann Arbor, Michigan, New York City announced its $187 billion pension funds will divest $5 billion of fossil fuel investments. In addition, the Big Apple is joining Oakland and San Francisco, California in suing the five leading fossil fuel companies — BP, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell — for their central role in adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. According to NYC city government, the city is seeking billions to “protect New Yorkers from the effects of climate change” — covering both funds that have already been spent in the wake of Hurricane Sandy to make the city more resilient and expected future expenses, which are expected to be upwards of $20 billion.

At a press conference, Mayor Bill de Blasio said “we’re bringing the fight against climate change straight to the fossil fuel companies that knew about its effects and intentionally misled the public to protect their profits. As climate change continues to worsen, it’s up to the fossil fuel companies whose greed put us in this position to shoulder the cost of making New York safer and more resilient.” A recent report found just 100 companies are responsible for 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, with the five identified in NYC’s lawsuit as the largest historic emitters.

Some argue New York City’s action is important and will lead other major cities to follow the same path.

Bill McKibben, head of, told the The Guardian: “New York City today becomes a capital of the fight against climate change on this planet. With its communities exceptionally vulnerable to a rising sea, the city is showing the spirit for which it’s famous – it’s not pretending that working with the fossil fuel companies will somehow save the day, but instead standing up to them, in the financial markets and in court.”

And Jeffrey Sachs, a leading economist and professor at Columbia University, said: “This is a really big deal. Pension funds of other major US cities will follow, I think. New York is the neighborhood of the very big money managers. It’s a powerful, personal signal to them that they cannot keep funding the sorts of projects they have in the past.”

But business groups like the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) think these “hyper-political” moves are a “fundamental waste of the court’s time and the taxpayer’s resources.”

According to Crain’s New York Business, NAM senior vice president Linda Kelly argued cities can’t sue energy companies for their role in climate change because “a 2011 Supreme Court decision determined carbon-dioxide emitters cannot be declared a ‘public nuisance,’ as the federal Clean Air Act pre-empts such claims.”

However, San Francisco and Oakland, which filed legal actions against oil companies in 2017, have “sought to sidestep the 2011 ruling by pointing to swelling ocean tides, not greenhouse gases, as the relevant public nuisance.” And New York City is also focusing on the impact of sea level rise and increased flooding and the high cost of coastal resilience efforts.

Beyond divesting by city governments, major universities like Johns Hopkins University, Yale University, Stanford University, and the University of Massachusetts have also committed to stop investing in coal or oil companies. And under pressure from students, Harvard University has also agreed to “pause” investment in fossil fuel companies.

Still, US universities are far behind UK universities in their pledges. As of August 2017, Times Higher Education reports that some $112 billion has been divested by universities globally, with more than half of that coming from UK universities.

Best Books of 2017

Drawdown / Penguin Press

Whether you are looking for a unique book to give as a gift or just one for yourself to delve into, we have some options. Here’s THE DIRT‘s top 10 books of 2017, our picks for the best on the environment, cities, and landscape:

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming (Penguin Press, 2017)
Author and environmental activist Paul Hawken assembled hundreds of experts around the world to rank the potential positive impacts of 100 substantive climate solutions. One of the most accessible and informative books on climate change, Drawdown makes clear the vital role of landscape architecture, architecture, and urban planning in finding a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Hawken and his coalition consider complete streets and bicycle infrastructure, walkable cities, green roofs, composting systems, and net-zero buildings as critically important. Other top solutions — like educating girls in developing countries and silvopasture — will cause you to think more about the relationships between population, agriculture, and sustainability.

Be Seated (Applied Research and Design Publishing, 2017)
In his new book, Laurie Olin, FASLA, founder of the landscape architecture firm OLIN and this year’s Vincent Scully Prize winner, brings to life his deep interest in outdoor seating. As he describes: “My interest in public outdoor seating in parks and plazas revolves around two poles: one is related to the fascination that Emerson and other philosophers have shown regarding aspects of the quotidian in our lives and experience, its pressures and benefits; the other is the utility of public seating in guiding our conduct as citizens.” Scattered throughout are evocative sketches and water-colors and well-curated images. If you enjoy trying to figure out what makes a public space great, you’ll love this book.

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (Liveright, 2017)
Richard Rothstein, an authority on housing policy, “explodes the myth that America’s cities came to be racially divided through de facto segregation―that is, through individual prejudices, income differences, or the actions of private institutions like banks and real estate agencies. Rather, The Color of Law incontrovertibly makes clear that it was de jure segregation―the laws and policy decisions passed by local, state, and federal governments―that actually promoted the discriminatory patterns that continue to this day.” As American cities continue to address the legacy of segregation while also dealing with widespread gentrification, this new look at urban history is invaluable.

Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change (Verso, 2017)
Ashley Dawson, a professor of English at the City University of New York, argues that mega-cities, which are most often found on coasts, are “ground zero for climate change,” given they are home to our largest populations, highly vulnerable, and also contribute the most to greenhouse gas emissions. Reviewing Extreme Cities, author McKenzie Wark writes: “Dawson shows how social movements have combined action on disaster relief with forms of equitable common life to produce models for radical adaptation from which we can all learn. This is a brilliant summation of what we know and what we can do to build a new kind of city in the ruins of the old.”

Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design (Island Press, 2017)
University of Virginia professor Tim Beatley’s new book presents everything he has discovered on what he calls “biophilic urban planning and design” — strategies that both boost biodiversity and foster deeper human connections with nature in cities. He brings together the established science, the important case studies, and innovative code and design practices from around the world in one place. Even if you think you already know a lot about how best to incorporate nature into cities, there will be some interesting new facets in this book for you to explore. (Read the full review).

Movement and Meaning: The Landscapes of Hoerr Schaudt (The Monacelli Press, 2017)
This book highlights the depth of work created by landscape architects Doug Hoerr, FASLA, and the late Peter Schaudt, FASLA. From private gardens to lush civic spaces, Movement and Meaning chronicles the major works by the Chicago-based studio, from inception to final installation. The sheer variety of images, drawings, and photography make this book an absorbing overview. (Read the full review).

The New Landscape Declaration: A Call to Action for the Twenty-First Century (Rare Bird Books, 2017)
Last year, on the eve of its 50th anniversary, the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) brought together 700 landscape architects, designers, and planners in a symposium in Philadelphia to forge a New Landscape Declaration. LAF now offers in handy book form 33 speeches that “reflect on the last half-century and present bold ideas for the what the discipline should achieve in the future.” Those ideas are meant to “underscore the need to diversify, innovate, and create a bold culture of leadership, advocacy, and activism.” (Read more about the declaration and symposium).

Paradoxes of Green: Landscapes of a City-State (University of California Press, 2017)
This new book by Gareth Doherty, ASLA, director of the masters in landscape architecture program at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, is a successful hybrid of landscape writing and ethnography focused on the island nation of Bahrain. It presents a portrait of Bahrainis’ rich and evolving relationship with their landscape as well as a model for future studies. (Read the full review).

Transmaterial Next: A Catalog of Materials That Define Our Future (Princeton Architectural Press, 2017)
While we have all experienced the effects of the information technology revolution now underway, we may be less aware of the impact of the new “materials revolution,” argues University of Minnesota professor Blaine Brownell in his new book. Building materials are being transformed to respond to our planetary environmental crisis, lower costs and boost efficiency, and provide new media for creative expression. Given the serious problems facing the Earth, the scale of the ambition is heartening. (Read the full review).

Wise Trees (Harry N. Abrams, 2017)
Landscape photographers Diane Cook and Len Jenshel offer gorgeous full-page photographs of 50-plus wise, old trees, which are accompanied by a brief story about the spiritual and cultural life inspired by each of these natural wonders. With the help of grants from the Expedition Council of the National Geographic Society, the photographers spent two years traveling across five continents to capture these historic specimens.

Also, worth knowing: buying these books through THE DIRT or ASLA’s online bookstore benefits ASLA educational programs. And if you are based near Washington, D.C. we also recommend checking out the National Building Museum’s fantastic book store.

Global Carbon Dioxide Emissions Reach Record High

Protests outside the climate change meetings in Bonn, Germany / Sputnik International

After three years of flat carbon dioxide emissions, the burning of fossil fuels is expected to reach a record high in 2017, increasing global CO2 emissions by 2 percent to 41 billion tons. According to the Global Carbon Project, which published its findings in three scientific journals, the increase is driven in part by rising coal use in China. The report authors note, however, that there are uncertainties in the data, and actual growth figure could be anywhere from 0.8 to 3 percent.

Explained another way: the atmospheric concentration of CO2 was 403 parts per million (ppm) in 2016 and is now expected to reach 405.5 in 2017. PPM levels must stabilize before they reach 450, which is viewed as the very uppermost safe limit determined by the scientific community; safe levels are viewed as 350 ppm.

To keep the global carbon dioxide ppm levels below 450, which corresponds to a 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) temperature increase, countries party to the Paris climate accord agreed to reach peak emissions by 2020 — with China and India given another decade — and then decline to zero emissions by the end of the century.

The Guardian writes: “whether the anticipated increase in CO2 emissions in 2017 is just a blip that is followed by a falling trend, or is the start of a worrying upward trend, remains to be seen.”

China’s emissions, which account for nearly a third of the total, are estimated to rise this year by 3.5 percent, as local governments invested in construction and infrastructure projects to boost economic growth.

On Chinese emissions, Lauri Myllyvirta, Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner, told The Wire: “This year many local governments reverted to the old playbook of using infrastructure and construction projects to create demand and prop up local economies. In many regions that has meant rolling back on the restructuring of the economy and an uptick in smokestack industry output.”

U.S. emissions are down just 0.4 percent, a fall from an average reduction of 1.2 percent over the past decade. The New York Times writes: “Much of the fall in American emissions has come as increasing supplies of natural gas, wind and solar power have driven hundreds of coal plants into retirement. But emissions from sectors like transportation and buildings remain stubbornly high, and with the Trump administration dismantling domestic climate policies, it is unclear how far the country’s emissions will continue to fall in the coming years.”

(Amid the push to deregulate the coal industry and boost fossil fuel production, the Trump administration released and then downplayed the latest National Climate Assessment, but didn’t interfere in the scientific process. The Washington Post writes that the comprehensive assessment, which states that sea levels could rise 1 to 4 feet by 2100, paints a picture counter to administration policy goals: “The report could have considerable legal and policy significance, providing new and stronger support for the EPA’s greenhouse-gas ‘endangerment finding’ under the Clean Air Act, which lays the foundation for regulations on emissions.”)

And EU emissions reductions in 2017 — just 0.2 percent — are significantly lower than the 2.2 percent decline seen over the past decade. This is especially worrying as Europe bills itself as a climate leader.

There are some positive trends though: India’s emissions grew just 2 percent, down from the 6 percent average seen over the past decade. In total, The New York Times reports, “at least 21 countries have managed to cut their emissions significantly while growing their economies over the past decade, including the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Sweden. These countries have steadily transitioned away from energy-intensive industries — or have outsourced manufacturing to countries like China — while increasing investments in efficiency and cleaner energy.”

The signatories of the Paris climate accord are now meeting in Bonn, Germany, to review and hopefully ratchet up the voluntary commitments each country makes to reduce their carbon emissions. Causing protests, the Trump administration hosted a panel promoting coal and nuclear power, which included a delegation of fossil fuel executives. Former Vice President Al Gore and other Democratic senators and governors also staged an “anti-Trump revolt” at the conference, arguing the federal government doesn’t represent all of the U.S., and many cities and states are still aiming to achieve the U.S.’s prior commitments made under Obama.

Meanwhile, Global Carbon Project lead researcher Corinne Le Quéré, a professor at the University of East Anglia, told Wired more countries must follow Britain’s lead if the world is going to reach zero emissions between 2050 and 2100. To do so, they need to enact tough legislation that requires reductions: “The world needs to follow by the UK’s example. The Climate Change Act commits us to reducing our CO2 emissions by 80 per cent of what they were in 1990. If every nation had one of those, by 2050 we will be well on the way to a low carbon economy globally.”

Five Years After Superstorm Sandy, Is New York City Better Prepared for the Next Mega Storm?

Phase 1 Beachfront Restoration in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens / Elizabeth Felicella

Five years ago, New York City began the long task of recovering and rebuilding in the wake of Sandy, one of the worst storms in the U.S. history in terms of physical devastation and loss of life. According to the National Weather Service, the cyclone generated a “worst case scenario for storm surge for coastal regions” in New York and its neighboring states. Today, as severe storms correlated with climate change escalate nationwide, is the city better prepared for the next mega storm? The answer is yes and no.

More nimble than the federal government, New York has taken a tactical, diversified approach to solutions that has some advantages. The NYC Panel on Climate Change 2015 triggered new thinking about human health risks and vulnerable populations and also built awareness that flood risk reduction must account for stormwater in the future.

OneNYC, an on-going mayoral initiative, seeks to strengthen community-based organizations to prepare and respond to disasters.

NYC’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency’s (ORR) climate change resilience guidelines introduced extreme heat and extreme precipitation to the area’s list of natural disasters and moves the discussion away from “protection” to “resilience” of the useful life of a critical infrastructure investment.

And the Department of City Planning (DCP) has recognized that the city’s zoning codes are ossified, opening significant opportunities for designers to produce a more resilient urban realm.

However, with the exception of Build It Back projects, no federally-funded resilience program has been implemented, leaving New York area residents virtually as vulnerable as, and certainly more frustrated than they were immediately after the storm.

More local agencies need to move the needle towards better waterfront planning and design by addressing ecological system benefits and increasing awareness of neighborhood needs. And the city needs to take steps to curb the root causes of climate change in the absence of federal leadership. If nothing else, the many resilient design lessons learned from Sandy have revealed the need for widespread change at the federal, local, and community levels.

At the federal level, most resilience implementation funding is based on stringent Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) requirements, including the reconstruction of a damaged or destroyed property in the same location and elevation and using the same materials. The National Flood Insurance Program requires that you rebuild on affected land even if it is repeatedly flooded. Low-lying areas demonstrate that these approaches are no longer fiscally responsible. Relocation must be considered.

A post-Sandy design team, including Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects (MNLA), McLaren Engineering Group, Garrison Architects, LTL Architects, Sage & Coombe Architects, and several city agencies, worked to address beachfront restoration location concerns in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens by providing modular, elevated lifeguard stations and comfort stations on their own “islands” to recoup area beaches. The team employed integrated wave attenuation and topographic change along with shoreline plantings to mitigate future storms.

Phase 1 Beachfront Restoration in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens / Elizabeth Felicella
Phase 1 Beachfront Restoration in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens / Elizabeth Felicella
Phase 1 Beachfront Restoration in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens / Elizabeth Felicella

Locally, slow decision-making on FEMA-certified projects by operationally-strapped city agencies is being exacerbated by federal and local flood protection data variances. Additionally, FEMA’s maps do not adequately account for sea level rise and rapid rain accumulation, and it is politically challenging to change National Flood Insurance Program maps. Federal agencies should consider local conditions and seek to provide broader solutions on a local basis.

New York realizes that resilience requires a regional response, but action often succumbs to inertia in the face of budget shortfalls and cost uncertainty due to natural and physical conditions related to soils; contamination; utilities relocations; and stormwater collection, storage tanks, and pumps; and other considerations.

Many touched by Rebuild by Design planning and design efforts now feel they are not getting promised ecosystem services and broader community benefits and remain concerned about aging infrastructure, basement and street flooding, contamination, water quality, zoning, and related issues.

Communities are often confused by projects that purport to offer “protection” versus “flood risk reduction.” The elevation of these measures seems guided more by available construction dollars than by intelligent, regional strategies.

In partnership with Civitas, MNLA developed a visionary plan to support growing sentiment that the East River waterfront can serve as a major recreational and environmental resource for East Harlem, the Upper East Side, and all of New York City. We researched and analyzed conditions from 60th Street to 125th streets and conducted in-depth community and stakeholder outreach.

The result is a plan that identifies short, medium, and long-term opportunities that combine strategies to protect neighborhoods from storm surge, improve water quality, create littoral habitat, and expand waterfront recreation. This multi-faceted design approach is an example of feasible design solutions that can restore resilience to a critical link along Manhattan’s waterfront.

East River Esplanade / MNLA
East River Esplanade / MNLA

The key post-Sandy takeaway is that federally-promulgated resilience measures can have negative impacts on communities.

Instead, every dollar must be directed towards projects that provide multiple benefits that fuel future storm resilience.

As designers, we can enhance results through inclusive and comprehensive communications with all of our constituencies during the design process, engaging a spectrum of urban challenges, and proposing multi-faceted solutions for our clients.

This guest post is by Signe Nielsen, FASLA, a founding principal of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects (MNLA) and practicing landscape architect and urban designer in New York since 1978. Nielsen is also a professor of urban design and landscape architecture at Pratt Institute in both the graduate and undergraduate schools of architecture and serves as president of the Public Design Commission of the City of New York.

With Resilient Design, We Can Better Protect Our Communities from Wildfires

Washington state wildfire / Wikipedia

This year, the Pacific Northwest saw an extraordinary fire season, with approximately 35 fires raging in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California by mid-September. While there is an immediate knee-jerk reaction to fires as entirely negative, wildfires are in fact a very natural part of the life cycle of forests. In addition to removing undergrowth so sunlight can reach the forest floor and new plants can grow, some plants, such as the lodgepole pine, even require fire to germinate and sprout.

What is so unusual about this year’s season is how long it has lasted: a full seven months. An unusually dry summer in a region known for rain, combined with a strong ridge high pressure that settled over the Pacific Northwest heating air and blocking storms from entering, resulted in dried-out plants and created the perfect environment for fires. In 2017, we have already spent more in national funds to combat the fires than in any other year on record, and the year isn’t yet over.

Similar to the hurricanes battering the East Coast this season, these events would be considered normal individually, if it were not for the acceleration of their natural cycles, creating increased numbers that are larger in scope. Looking at the total picture, the acceleration of these cycles is where we can see the inevitable consequences of climate change at work.

Living in Seattle, I have seen the effects of these fires firsthand. Getting up one morning this summer after having left the window open overnight, I went into my dining room and discovered that the wind had covered it entirely with ashes. Despite not being exposed to an active fire, the visible effects continued to blanket our city. And it’s not just the visible effects. Ash and smoke particulates in the air can cause breathing problems, especially for sensitive populations including those with heart and lung diseases such as asthma. Though fires may not be blazing downtown, they are have impacted the lives of everyone living in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

Even if you don’t live in the Pacific Northwest, the fires are affecting you too, though you may not know it. The ash and smoke from the fires are not just settling on our cities, but also being lofted into the atmosphere and spreading around the globe. In this map created by NASA, you can see the ash and smoke from the Pacific Northwest fires drifting across the earth, reaching as far as Europe and Northern Africa. And due to their carbon gas emissions, the wildfires themselves contribute to accelerated climate change worldwide. While climate incidents like these can be “out of sight, out of mind” for those not actively experiencing them, the earth is a closed system: climate incidents that impact some of us, impact all of us.

So with climate change here to stay, how can we mitigate its impact to make our cities and dwellings safer? Landscape architecture can provide solutions to some of the problems posed by climate change. For example, better urban design can help reduce the sprawl at the intersection of urban and natural space, which is now in the most in danger of devastation from wildfires. For those already living at these intersections, landscape management of individual properties can help mitigate those hazards.

One such solution is to create a “defensible space” around homes at these intersections. These spaces create a barrier to impede wildfires from reaching homes, room for firefighters to maneuver if needed, and prevent fires in the home from spreading into the wild. Defensible space tactics can include reducing plant fuels around the home, incorporating fuel breaks such as gravel, and ensuring that all trees are cleared to 6-10 feet off the ground.

Careful selection of plants, too, can have an impact at these intersections. Plants that shed minimal amounts of leaves and needles provide less fuel for fires. Trees with low resin and sap content are also considered less likely to burn. Finally, native plants may be more fire-resistant or fire-adapted than non-native species. Over the last 30-40 years, we have gained an increased understanding of the environmental importance of using native plants in landscapes. But with climate change, we must also plan for a “different kind of native,” selecting plants with an eye towards the future, as current native species may not thrive in the environment as it changes.

This is where research and forward-thinking are most critical. Greater focus and funds towards researching the anticipated effects of climate change on an area allows us to plan for “new native” species that will thrive in their changing environment.

We must call on national agencies managing resources to do so with an eye towards the future, conducting research and careful planning to ensure that our natural resources and our built environments are protected. While the effects of climate change are inevitable, what matters now is finding ways to adapt to these new circumstances. You can see great work being done by the National Park Service in this area, preparing our natural treasures to survive and thrive in a world of accelerated natural cycles.

Tackling the problems posed by climate change can be overwhelming, but humans are highly adaptable species, and there are measures we can and should take to protect our future. That’s why the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) has convened a blue ribbon panel of multidisciplinary experts to create innovative solutions that will make our cities and inhabited spaces climate resilient. The report will provide comprehensive public-policy recommendations for using resilient design to combat climate change. Learn more about how we’re developing policy recommendations to safeguard our cities and natural resources for the future.

This post is by Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, immediate past president of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) and a landscape architect with 40 years of experience.