The world is facing twin unprecedented challenges of global warming and biodiversity loss. According to the recent report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) we have only 12 years to change direction on greenhouse gas emissions before we reach a situation where global warming becomes irreversible. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has stated that we are currently in the midst of the sixth mass extinction on planet earth. The need to face up to these crises lies primarily with the industrialised countries of the world, but most of Africa will have to adopt policies of both adaptation and mitigation as they undergo a process of rapid urbanisation and economic growth. An holistic approach to sustainable building design is one way in which the worst consequences of these crises can be avoided.
Any more than a 1.5C increase in average global temperatures will significantly worsen the risks of drought, flooding, extreme heat and poverty.
The landmark report by the IPCC released in October 2018 stated that urgent and unprecedented changes are needed to reach a target of no more than 1.5C increase in average global temperatures. They warned that any more than this amount could have catastrophic consequences for the planet, affecting hundreds of millions of people.
Much of this crisis is caused by extraordinarily high levels of greenhouse gas emissions from industrialised countries. It is difficult to blame East African countries for any part in this problem but as economies develop, CO2 emissions do tend to rise. There is a hope that development in East Africa could be disassociated from an increase in carbon emissions, and that East Africa could leapfrog the industrialised world by investing in and implementing sustainable policy from the onset.
Comparative carbon emissions in tonnes of CO2 per capita for different countries around the world. Data source World Bank Open Data Portal.
Buildings contribute approx. 40% of overall global CO2 emissions, both through their construction (embodied energy) and through energy in use (operational energy).
The construction of buildings means using materials which generate carbon dioxide during their production. The typical materials used to construct school buildings - concrete and fired clay bricks - both have relatively high embodied energy; the former because of the release of CO2 during the production of cement, and the latter because firing bricks is a significant driver of deforestation.
Buildings also usually require energy in operation, although in East Africa this requirement may be minimal. If the electricity used is generated from burning fossil fuels then there is a consequent carbon emission, while solar pv and other renewable energy technologies can be considered carbon neutral. Firewood used for cooking results in net carbon emissions unless it is sourced from a sustainably managed forest or plantation.
Global CO2 emissions by sector, showing that the building industry is the most significant contributor. Data source World Bank Open Data Portal.
Loss of Biodiversity
The accelerating loss of biodiversity has untold consequences for humanity: we are undermining the bedrock that enables our health and well-being.
It is generally acknowledged that the world is going through a potentially irreversible process of species loss, caused primarily by climate change, pollution and habitat loss. Reduced biodiversity leads to reduced ecosystem services that ultimately creates a danger for food security. The IPBES reported in May 2019 that there was a desperate need to conserve enough space for terrestrial and marine ecosystems to continue to function.
In many parts of East Africa, rapid population growth and demands for agricultural land are causing unprecedented levels of deforestation and habitat degradation. The loss of forest has been satellite monitored by Forest Watch for the last 20 years; if deforestation is translated into carbon emissions then per capita CO2 emissions in Uganda would almost double, while Madagascar’s emissions would become comparable to many European countries.
Comparative carbon emissions in tonnes of CO2 per capita including emissions from deforestation and habitat degradation. Data source World Bank Open Data Portal and Global Forest Watch.
Every person should have the resources they need to meet their human rights, while collectively we live within the ecological means of our planet.
Currently the world’s population is hugely divided by social and economic inequality. At current population levels our planet can provide 1.6 global hectares (gha) of biologically productive surface area per person.
Yet people in the USA have an ecological footprint of 8.1gha, compared to those in Uganda with 1.06gha and Rwanda with just 0.76gha. Rich countries are consuming resources on a vast scale and creating epic amounts of waste and pollution, while poorer countries suffer a lack of food, energy and resources.
In her book ‘Doughnut Economics’, Kate Raworth from Oxfam has developed an economic theory which places humanity’s 21st century challenge as ensuring people’s needs are met without overshooting the Earth’s ecological limits. The ‘doughnut’ of planetary and social boundaries is an approach to framing that challenge, inspired by the social aims of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
The safe space for humanity exists between the ceiling imposed by environmental limits and the social foundation ensuring basic human rights for all. Adapted Raworth, K. (2017). Doughnut economics
The destruction of nature and the devastating consequences of climate change demand an alternative and holistic approach to design.
Regenerative design is an approach which seeks to go beyond minimal impact to the natural environment, and aims to develop restorative and equitable systems that create positive benefit for humans and other species. The focus is on building capacity through a radically particular and respectful design process. This is achieved through participatory design and the mutual development of people and place. A whole systems approach to design improves the way we manage and restore degraded ecosystems and can transform economic and business models, as well as consumption and production patterns. When building a school, it is important to consider the production of food and waste and ensure that these are dealt with on site as part of a natural circular economy. Resources such as rainwater and solar energy should be part of an holistic approach to the management of the site.
The trajectory of environmentally responsible design; from conventional to sustainable to regenerative systems. Adapted from Bill Reed 2007, Regenesis Group.