The world has been reeling from numerous heat waves this summer, bringing far above normal temperatures from places ranging from Argentina, to Russia’s Far East, and Greenland. While AN regularly covers climate change topics as they relate to the built environment—whether that be in relation to demolitions, legislation, embodied carbon, and the marketing of low-carbon projects—we’ve rounded up heat-related news and additional coverage of the ongoing climate crisis that AN’s editors have been reading.
Heat levels have been disastrous this week
Temperatures in California’s Death Valley reached almost 128 degrees, slightly below its 134-degree record. Phoenix has gone over two weeks with temperatures above 110 degrees. Other parts of the world also saw staggering levels of peak heat measurements, including China (125.9 degrees), Sicily (114 degrees), and Spain (113 degrees). Last week also saw a wave of deluges, with at least 46 people dead in South Korea in an event that has already turned scandalous, floods across India that have killed over 100 people since June 1, and smaller, but still locally devastating rainfalls like the one that killed five people in Pennsylvania last week. Many regions are also facing prolonged droughts, which stifles the already-tumultuous current state of agricultural production.
June 2023 was the hottest on record, topping a previous high set only four years ago. As many have noted, the rate at which heat and other climate records are being broken shows no sign of slowing. Phenomena like El Niño are contributing to this year’s brutal conditions, and may continue to do so for the next few years. The 1.5-degree celsius level that climate scientists and some policymakers had hoped to limit climate change to in the 2015 Paris Agreement may arrive by 2027 now.
The crisis creates an impetus to manage both larger-picture climate concerns like carbon emissions, whose lowering would require massive investments in energy research and grid conversions, among a litany of other factors, and responding to more localized, critical climate emergencies. While the New York City subway has been unbearable the past two weeks, over 60,000 Europeans are estimated to have died of heat-related illnesses last year, and 43,000 people in Somalia alone died from conditions brought on by drought last year.
Yet there are changes that can be made, and require a mass scale of mobilization given the scale of the crisis, certain states and municipalities are pushing forward building and otherwise heat-related responses amid heightened alarms in a wild weather year.
Cities are painting roads to make them cooler
Los Angeles and Phoenix have recently touted road-painting programs that they say will significantly reduce surface temperatures. Taken for its word, this does not feed into larger GHG reduction or carbon-cutting goals, but it does improve the bearability of people standing on asphalt.
Los Angeles has painted some roads in a reflective gray color, which the city estimates can reduce surface temperatures up to 15 degrees. The pavement absorbs less heat and reflects heat back faster, the city says, resulting in temperature reductions that compound throughout the day compared to unpainted asphalt, which absorbs heat throughout the day. The city is also planting trees to provide shade coverage across the city, though this will take years to materialize at a large scale (and presents the obvious issue that too much of the city is paved roadway for day-to-day comfort in the heat).
In Arizona, Phoenix has been the largest city subjected the temperatures above 110 degrees for extended periods of time. The city compares its Cool Pavement Program to “sunscreen for the road,” which applies a reflective coating to roadways to reflect heat. During peak hours, this lowers the pavement’s temperature by 10.5 to 12 degrees, with a 4.8 degree average throughout the day.
While these programs provide temporary relief, if they are rolled out across other cities, there is an obvious question: are the trucks being used to spray the pavement running on gas? Using fossil fuel to cool the street is ironic at best, and, frankly, disappointing.
Canada’s carbon tax is pushing cities to cut building-related emissions
The 40 percent number—that is the overall proportion of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that are linked to the construction and maintenance of buildings—has been thrown around so much within the architecture community that it feels like a cliche. At the same time, it shows the unignorable role of AEC industries in fueling the climate crisis.
Canada passed a federal carbon tax in 2019 that set a minimum tax level for provinces that did not meet what the Trudeau Administration deemed adequate. The carbon tax will increase annually until it reaches $170 per ton by 2030, and in short, creates a financial incentive to consume less carbon. The City of Winnipeg is seeking to reduce its GHG emissions in buildings through retrofits in order to save money on carbon taxes with the city council seeking to identify 15 buildings, or CAD$80 million in costs for retrofits. The city government is looking to 1960s and 1970s buildings as potential candidates—an era of buildings known for notoriously inefficient envelopes—in the cold weather climate where envelope efficiency is all-the-more important. As GHG emissions are the primary driver of climate change, and given the role of buildings in carbon emissions writ large, creating incentives for public bodies to reduce their building stock emissions can be an important larger goal of addressing the drivers of the conditions of the past few weeks.
Cambridge, Massachusetts will force mid- and large-sized commercial building owners to achieve net zero
The Cambridge City Council passed a resolution requiring buildings between 25,000 and 100,000 square feet to achieve net zero by 2050, and buildings over 100,000 square feet to achieve net zero by 2035. Residential buildings are exempt from these requirements, but the changes will impact 1,100 buildings within the city.
The city estimates that just under 80 percent of its emissions are produced in building construction and operations, far outpacing global averages. The city further estimates that commercial buildings over 25,000 square feet and residential buildings with over 50 units contribute 60 percent of its emissions.
While Cambridge’s data is skewed compared to other cities (ie. the lack of industrial buildings), by placing pressure on the largest offenders within building emissions, the city is showing a move to make larger-scale action rather than small-scale interventions. While a 2050 timeline may feel laughable at the current moment, it is unfortunately the scope that many cities and countries are working on for net-zero targets. That also begs the question of what to do in the immediate: while questions of food distribution in drought zones are beyond the scope of architects—and should be—that does not excuse those working to reduce building emissions from only working on lengthy timelines.
Other climate stories that have caught AN’s eye:
- A good prospect (The Drift)
- How an era of extreme heat is reshaping economies (Financial Times)
- Concrete built the modern world. Now it’s destroying it (Noema)
- The man in charge of how the U.S. spends $400 billion to shift away from fossil fuels (The Guardian)
- The Inflation Reduction Act (and the Federal Reserve) debate (Chartbook)
- Solar Ambitions (Phenomenal World)
- UK poised to drop plans to replace home gas boilers with hydrogen alternatives (The Guardian)
- How climate change has supercharged the left (Foreign Policy)
- A global subsidy war? Keeping up with the Americans (The Financial Times)
- Hydrogen is the future—or a complete mirage (Foreign Policy)
- China says it can work with U.S. to fight climate change as John Kerry visit ends with “frank conversation” (South China Morning Post)