On March 3, 2022, I participated in a panel discussion at the New York Build Conference at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City. The panel was titled “A Sustainable Built Environment: Steps Towards Net Zero by 2050.”

In the aftermath of COP 26, the publication of the UN  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, and the advent of climate change and Covid-19, there seems to be more and more agreement on what must be done to rebalance and regenerate our global environment. Much of this agreement hinges on our ability to reduce and, moreover, reverse the effects of climate change as measured by our production and reduction of CO2. 

In considering my remarks for the panel discussion, it seemed that there are indeed several steps to be taken if we are going to reach the goals set for 2050 and, with greater effort, perhaps earlier.

As a starting point and from a design point of view, we must start to look at best practices. Best practices in our time include past time-tested behaviors and processes derived by indigenous cultures around the world as well as the accelerated disruptors emerging today. Such practices must be reaffirmed and explicitly shared for maximum effect.

Additionally, this approach includes concerns for wellness, mobility, and an abiding respect and concern for the public realm.  And last, but by no means least, all steps must address issues and concerns related to diversity, equity, and inclusion, in UN terms, Leave No One Behind.  Leaving no one behind is the central, transformative promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Given this as a preamble, I offer the following ten steps to zero.

Step 1: WILLINGNESS! Getting to zero will be an act of will. We must put policy into action. We need to commit to act. As stated by Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director of UN-Habitat, this is a time for action. Action requires, more than anything else, the will to do so.

Step 2: AWARENESS. We must raise awareness and communicate the challenges and opportunities to all to combat inequalities and generate collective participation. This is an “all hands-on deck” moment. The will to act can not be actualized if all actors of society are not fully aware of both the challenges and goals we recognize.

Step 3: EDUCATE. We must ensure universal education so that everyone can participate in the actions necessary to achieve our common agenda. As the UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutierrez has said, “Education and digital technology must be two great enablers and equalizers.” As Nelson Mandela said, and I quote, “Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.”

Step 4: INVESTMENT. We, nations, corporations, and individuals must invest at a scale equivalent to the challenge and do so equitably around the world. During Climate Week NYC last September, Anita Hauser noted, “We need $4 trillion in investment in climate solutions every year for the next 30 years. That’s what it’ll cost to rebuild the world in a healthy way and stay below the small remaining carbon budget for limiting global warming to 1.5°C.

Step 5: SCALE. We must do this at all scales, from the scale of objects (domestic, commercial, industrial) to cities (established and emerging), to metro regions and conurbations, and the globe (think oceans). The trickling waste of electronics in our homes, the nighttime illumination of unoccupied urban spaces, and the application of microgrids where appropriate all need analysis, evaluation, and regulation. 

Step 6: ENVIRONMENT. We must engage both the real world and the emerging metaverse (See Sarbuland Khan’s column in this News edition). We must attend to issues of biodiversity in the hinterland and the ever-urbanizing environment. According to the American biologist Edward Osborne Wilson, we can preserve the natural environment if we follow the precepts of his Half-Earth Day 2021 lecture: Ecosystems and the Harmony of Nature. Leave half of the earth in its natural state.

Step 7: REUSE, REUSE, REUSE. We must stop wasting. We must stop wasting embodied carbon. We must stop throwing away what can be reused, recycled, and repurposed. We live in a radically oriented consumer society. Our economy is heavily based on obsolescence and waste. This whole circumstance needs re-evaluation and radical change in the circular economy system. Revision vs. demolition has been very successful and should be emulated. 

Step 8.  DECARBONIZE. We must cut carbon production; we must sequester any carbon we produce and find ever more ways of using the carbon we sequester. We must alter our attitude and preserve rain forests, reduce the consumption of red meat that has become both excessive and unhealthy, and look at all the other ways we can alter our behavior and achieve a more sustainable and resilient environment.

Step 9. ENERGY. We must accelerate our production of clean energy using wind, sun, geothermal, hydrogen, nuclear, and other renewable sources as may be developed, economical, and safe. We must do so while avoiding unintended negative consequences as much as possible. According to many experts, we must power almost everything with electricity and produce that electricity based on sustainable energy policies and solutions.

Step 10: SYNTHESIS. We must do all of the above. We need to pursue the interconnectedness of the steps above. Missing steps means missing targets, objectives, and goals. Lack of communication, education, funding, reuse, decarbonization, etc., will undermine the goodwill and commitment necessary to get us to zero! And we must not make war.

Let us go forward now with the steps above and any additional initiatives we can identify. The clock is ticking!

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