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12.30.2011
Editorial> Time Passing, Temperatures Rising
Despite of green efforts, carbon emissions surge, fueling climate change.
A refinery in southwest Chicago.
Darius Norvilas / Flickr

With constant news of economic uncertainty at home and abroad and ever escalating levels of absurdist political theater gripping state and federal governments, one hair-raising piece of news should not get lost in the din. A new report by Global Carbon Project released in early December shows the largest spike in carbon emissions in a single year since the Industrial Revolution. Dangerous, dirty emission rates climbed nearly six percent, reversing a slight dip the previous year, which had been attributed to the economic downturn.

The implications of this news are hard to overstate. Without a drastic rethinking of energy use, transportation, and settlement patterns, we face devastatingly severe weather and other destructive consequences of climate change in coming decades.

For those of us tracking sustainable design and smart growth the news is at once demoralizing and cause for some head scratching. In the decade since Chicago’s City Hall Green Roof opened—a powerful symbol of urban sustainability that signaled a new compatibility between city governments and green design agendas—countless green projects, retrofits, and tools have been deployed across the country and around the world. Technologies and theories have moved from the fringe of the green design world to the mainstream, or at least much closer to it: compact fluorescents, LEDs, green roofs, white roofs, photovoltaics, geothermal systems, hybrid cars, car sharing, bike sharing, smart growth, New Urbanism, Landscape Urbanism, soft infrastructure, the list goes on and on from small scale to region-wide interventions. While the spreading of these tools and technologies is heartening—and shows a degree of willingness among the general public to accept change—one has to ask if these kinds of modest steps are meaningful at all. And is there honest discourse about the degree of change needed to mitigate the crisis?

While China recently surpassed the U.S. as the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the U.S. still holds the lead per capita—by a long shot. That we use—and waste—so much energy should be of no surprise, given the energy intensive landscape we built following the Second World War. Naysayers argue that for every hybrid car or compact fluorescent U.S. consumers purchase, the effect is eliminated by a Chinese consumer buying his or her first car. While this acknowledges the reality that carbon emissions are hazardous regardless of their country of origin, it also ducks the West’s responsibility for the century of pollution that created the current crisis. The U.S. has so much room for improvement that we can still make a very significant impact on our emissions. This will give us greater credibility when making the case to the Developing World to not repeat our mistakes.

This won’t happen without noisy calls for action and bold leadership. These consumer-based scenarios, and local and state level initiatives are no substitute for bold government-led standards and incentives at the Federal level. We must stop fiddling at the margins while the planet burns.

Alan G. Brake