Our Journey from Paris COP21 to Net Zero

As the dust is settling from Paris COP21, I want to gaze back into that whirlwind, where I was pleased to participate as a speaker and delegate on behalf of Autodesk.

Warren Karlenzig presents on Autodesk's Impact 360 and Rapid Energy Modeling at the "Getting to Zero by 2050" event at the French Building Federation in Paris, on December 9, 2015

Warren Karlenzig presents on Autodesk’s Impact 360 and Rapid Energy Modeling at the “Getting to Zero by 2050” event at the French Building Federation in Paris, on December 9, 2015

Architecture 2030 organized a well-attended Paris symposium during COP21, “Getting to Zero by 2050: How to Decarbonize the Built Environment,” where I presented Autodesk’s new Insight 360. I described how this whole-building analysis, cloud data and building information management model simulation, in conjunction with Revit or Formit Pro, can enable easier Architecture 2030 building energy standard adoption. The 2030 standard is 70 percent below national median rates for building energy use.

Impact 360, through optimization of the architectural, engineering and construction design cycles, ultimately moves the industry toward its net zero goal for operational energy by in essence game-ifying whole building systems designs, including passive and active solar, heating and cooling, and design forms.

My presentation concluded with a demonstration of how Autodesk’s Insight 360 and Rapid Energy Modeling (with compatibility on the InfraWorks 360 platform) is advancing the capacity of smart, sustainable city planning and analysis. One example included the capability for “touch-less” single-building energy efficiency analysis in New York City. I also highlighted district-scale energy renovation planning and prioritization in Washington DC’s Central Business District. After the presentation, Terri Wills of the World Green Building Council adeptly moderated our panel.

On this tenth day of the climate summit, with an international deal hovering, Ed Mazria, founder and CEO of Architecture 2030, laid out the global roadmap for built environment decarbonization in clear, compelling imagery and charts. Other speakers, including the World Bank Group’s UN Climate Envoy, Rachel Kyte, called for a “cleaner, more inclusive future” before she was off to another round of negotiations at the official UN site in the suburban aerotropolis of Le Bourget.

Ed Mazria, CEO of Architecture 2030, and Warren Karlenzig of Autodesk, after the Paris COP21 event "Getting to Zero by 2050"

Ed Mazria, CEO of Architecture 2030, and Warren Karlenzig of Autodesk, after the Paris COP21 event “Getting to Zero by 2050: How to Decarbonize the Built Environment”

Chen Zhen, secretary-general of China’s lead architectural alliance, who recently presided over an accord with Architecture 2030 and dozens of design firms, highlighted the necessity for carbon reductions through ratcheting up planning and design standards, including green building certification.

The need to develop better energy efficiency investment models and tools dominated the wish list of “Getting to Zero” symposium chair Benoit Labot, executive director of the International Partnership of Energy Efficiency Cooperation (IPEEC), but was likewise invoked by Mazria and Peter Sweatman of Climate Strategy Partners.

Despite the recent Paris tragedies, acknowledged with public shrines at the attack sites—and random street sorties by the French army–the city was vividly alive.

Private pageantry, global diplomacy, spirited philosophical and technical discussions, and of course Week 2 champagne flourished throughout the City of Light. From the heavily guarded, elegant medieval-era Hotel de Ville (City Hall), where hundreds of mayors met and celebrated a decarbonization pledge, to the postmodern Le Bourget airplane hangar (a modern-day Le Corbusier?), to the resolute street-side cafes of the Left and Right Banks, Paris was an ever-refined and dignified impresario.

Paris Hotel de Ville (City Hall) external security on December 4, 2015 during COP21 Global Mayoral Summit

Paris Hotel de Ville (City Hall) external security on December 4, 2015 during COP21 Global Mayoral Summit

Global mayors celebrate Mayoral Summit at COP21 in Paris Hotel de Ville (City Hall) on December 4, 2015

Global mayors celebrate Mayoral Summit at COP21 in Paris Hotel de Ville (City Hall) on December 4, 2015

Yes, retailers in the Champs-Élysées and other fashionable districts groused about a marked disruption of prime holiday shopping caused by the passing motorcades and security gauntlets. Nevertheless, most of the city and its vast suburbs, even the now-notorious Saint Denis, were accommodating and gracious.

In terms of big picture, the best test of success can be evidenced in the reaction to the Paris Climate Agreement, which may have already produced a number of market and policy outcomes:

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Will Urban Green Infrastructure Help Mitigate Megadrought?

Nanyang Technical University, Singapore

NASA’s new report on the likelihood of megadrought in the Central and Western United States is a harsh yet timely wake-up call for cities and the need for green infrastructure. It’s ironic but those taking the earliest green infrastructure leadership–such as Philadelphia, Portland and Copenhagen–have historically had adequate rainfall and water supplies. Meanwhile, Los Angeles and other global cities in extreme drought such as São Paulo and Beijing that at least partially depend on aquifers for drinking water, are now exploring how green infrastructure can be part of a climate-change resilient city’s main arsenal in water retention or conservation.

The joint NASA-Cornell and Columbia universities report forecasts that if we continue on our current path, climate change will fuel multi-decade droughts for the Central and Southwest US on an order of magnitude not seen for 500+ years and worse, with intensity far beyond what has already been experienced during the past several extreme drought years in California, Colorado and Texas.

On a recent 70+ degree January day–historically warm even by Los Angeles standards but becoming the norm during the state’s multi-year extreme drought–the sustainable city group from Autodesk and I met with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office along with top water officials at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), the nation’s largest municipal utility. We explored how green infrastructure analytical and capital planning technologies developed by Autodesk (a client of my consultancy) and partner company, Impact Infrastructure, can model economic, environmental and social benefits. These would include recharging aquifers and preventing localized flooding in LA’s San Fernando Valley and other city districts. Autodesk is also preparing to work with Washington, DC and Atlanta on district and metro area green infrastructure modeling and prioritization approaches.

Impact Infrastructure, meanwhile, helped develop Autodesk’s new AutoCASE automated triple-bottom line project analysis software, which has been successfully used to model the costs and benefits of green infrastructure in arid cities such as Fort Worth, Texas and Tucson, Arizona. AutoCASE calculates economic, social and environmental benefits of green stormwater infrastructure, including flood prevention, reduced urban heat island impact, reduced greenhouse gases, increased public recreational values and improved air quality.

According to John Parker, Chief Economist of Impact Infrastructure, “Tucson is teaching the world that water is a scarce and precious, but undervalued, resource that is going to get scarcer and more valuable: because of its many benefits, nature’s green infrastructure is often the best way to deal with problems of water scarcity, quality, flooding, and urban heat islands.”

Megadrought and Megacities

Globally, the need for integrated development and water planning is just as urgent. In Beijing overuse of underground aquifers has caused ground subsidence–sinking–inducing cracking pavement, roads and buildings. Fresh water is rapidly being withdrawn from metro-area aquifers that have been the primary source of drinking water for the city of 20 million (full-time) to 30 million (including part-time) inhabitants. Major climate change-exacerbated drought and industry-induced water shortages have forced the city to import water long-distance (like Los Angeles does) from a national South-North water diversion project.  Indeed, Beijing is currently perhaps the most water-starved megacity in the world, but there are other cities poised to achieve that dubious status.

In 2013, Common Current advised the Beijing metro government on methods by which to systematically capture and reuse its stormwater, which often falls as rain during July and August in torrents that overflow the streets and wash off pavement into stormwater outflow systems. As the climate has been warming, much of the rest of the year is now almost devoid of major precipitation. Besides banishing the lawn for use in landscaping, (especially when used as pure decor in office parks, on freeway embankments, and around retail developments), Beijing needs to use urban planning, standards and new technologies to make low-impact development the guiding and enforceable rule so it can recharge its vanishing aquifers with fresh water, while also controlling its sometimes-deadly seasonal flooding.

Superstar Soil

Green infrastructure uses Low-Impact Development (LID) such as permeable pavement, bioswales, filter strips, rain gardens, green roofs, catchment basins and planters designed as part of the built environment to naturally filter precipitation and run-off through soil, gravel, sand, compost and other absorptive media, instead of letting pavement or rooftop run-off wash straight into storm drains.

Pollutants are naturally filtered by green infrastructure through its main component, healthy soil. Native trees or plants can be major ingredients of green infrastructure, but healthy soil is the main component of most redevelopment projects or engineered systems. Healthy non-compacted soil, in even in cities with poor soils, can be improved through the use of low-cost practices including composting,amendments and mulching. Of course trees–where they are appropriate–and native perennial plants tremendously boost soil’s water retention and carbon sequestration, while adding shade, wildlife habitat and more pleasant overall environs.

São Paulo, another megacity on the precipice of global climate-change water crisis, is facing a growing water supply shortage where taps are running dry and some of its 23 million citizens might be soon forced to abandon the city. I moderated a panel last week in the Silicon Valley with Marcelo Ignatios, Superintendent of São Paulo’s sustainable infrastructure programs, who outlined the programs the city has developed to incentivize green infrastructure with tax credits, air development rights and other innovative programs. The city has produced a sophisticated map of its soils and types of water retention qualities (see slide 13) in order to limit runoff and restore aquifers and creeks feeding reservoirs.

A biological inventory of São Paulo state concluded that 48 percent of its surface was covered by impermeable surfaces or completely devoid of vegetation. At the time of the survey, forests still covered 21 percent of the state, but they are rapidly vanishing to development. The city now is realizing that its fate is tied up with its forests and vegetation as much as are the fates of endangered local inhabitants such as the howler monkey or the red-breasted toucan: forests, vegetation and healthy soil retain water, cool cities and recharge aquifers. Indeed, recent research has posited that the ecosystem services of forests, vegetation and green infrastructure may help stabilize regional water cycles.

Singapore  “Global Hydro-Hub” Model

Nowhere else is urban green infrastructure planning and design combined with other water reuse and conservation approaches more successfully and artfully than Singapore. Originally lacking a sustainable fresh water supply as Singapore’s population grew, it was forced to import water from Malaysia, an agreement that terminates in 2060. Building upon the foundation of a visionary 1972 water master plan, Singapore launched a bold campaign about in the early 2000’s to become the world’s foremost knowledge and practicing city center for green infrastructure, smart city water management technologies and wastewater reuse. Singapore’s Utilities Board markets a bottled “New Water” product that comes from triple-membrane filtrated sewage treatment plants.

The crowning glory of Singapore’s water savvy is the engineered surface of its city, much of it designed or retrofitted in green infrastructure. Two thirds of the city–rooftops, parks, medians, sidewalks, roadways–capture rainwater and convey it via microprocessor controlled channels or tunnels to 18 reservoirs. LID in Singapore contributes 35 percent of the city’s water supply, with much of it integrated into innovative architecture as well as landscaping for pedestrian or recreational amenities. Eventually, the city has plans to turn ninety percent of its surface area into rainfall catchment.

Singapore not only demonstrates for the world the design and engineering potential of urban water reclamation through green infrastructure, but it shows how doing so can create an international center of excellence that can result in substantial economic returns in water-sensitized forms of urban planning, architecture, engineering, information technology and green infrastructure innovation (Singapore’s 2014 International Water Week event alone resulted in $11.2 billion USD in announced deals or contracts).

The rest of the water-challenged world–that includes or will include most of our cities–should take careful notes, and get very busy.

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