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COP21 Goes Live: What Will the Green Future Look Like?

By Bryan Hadick, 27 October 2016

Image: thegef.org


It's Official

On 5 October 2016, the UN Paris Agreement crossed the threshold for activation at which at least 55 parties accounting for at least 55% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have submitted their forms of ratification. The banner was broken by the entrance of the European Union, Canada, Bolivia and Nepal, following September's ratifications by the US and China - the world's two greatest economies and largest carbon generators. With 86 parties currently signed-on (and rising!), the Paris Agreement will enter into force on 4 November 2016.


Celebration, and Work to Do

The Paris Accord represents a high point of consensus in the decades-long international discussion on the effects and threats of climate change, as well as a launching point for accomplishing the minimization of such impacts. Politically, it is a moment to be savored while looking ahead. Citing America's strong roles in both international leadership and domestic innovation, US President Obama called the day 'historic' and applauded the path that has brought the international community to this point of environmental action.

President Obama referenced some changes that have already yielded results in the US, such as investments in solar and wind energies, limits on powerplant emissions, and more efficient designs of products, transportation systems, and buildings. He said, "By sending a signal that this is going to be our future - a clean energy future - it opens up the floodgates for businesses, and scientists, and engineers to unleash high-tech, low-carbon investment and innovation at a scale that we've never seen before."


Roadmap to the Green Future

Many cities and countries have already begun rolling out carbon reduction programs, and NYC is leading the way with comprehensive large-scale thinking. In NYC, existing policies enacted prior to the de Blasio administration (2014) have been projected to result in citywide GHG reductions of 30% by 2030. Beyond 2030, however, they are not expected to produce much further reductions by 2050. This trajectory is referred to as the 'Business as Usual' baseline. When recently-enacted policies are considered along with Business as Usual, NYC expects to see 40% reductions by 2030. Still, new planning and developments are needed to achieve the goal of reducing GHG emissions to 80% of the 2005 level by 2050, as mandated by both COP21 and NYC Local Law 66 of 2014. In response, the NYC Mayor's Office has published Roadmap to 80x50, a plan that will direct the city's Energy, Buildings, Transportation, and Waste sectors to achieve the 80%-by-2050 mark.

The Roadmap functions as an overarching guideline for progress, calling for changes to be implemented at all scales, across sectors, and over time. Synergy between sectors can be seen in the plan for Buildings. By 2050, NYC is anticipating a population of over 9-million persons, representing growth of over 1-million persons from the 2010 census. The city will add over 460-million square-feet to its built area during that time, which poses a significant increase in total building energy demands. The performance of buildings, however, is largely dependent upon their energy sources of grid-supplied electricity and on-site heating/cooling/hot-water systems. Thus, significant improvement in the Buildings sector requires both innovative architectural strategies and the availability of clean energy supplies. The Roadmap states that New York's electric generation must become 70-80% renewable. It also describes a "paradigm shift towards design for holistic energy performance," which includes intensive retrofit upgrades for existing buildings and a new Energy Code to begin in 2022 requiring new buildings to consume 70% less energy than those constructed today. Additionally, it's easy to envision how concurrent improvements in Waste and Transportation sectors could contribute positively to the performance of Buildings.

The NYC Roadmap will surely impact upcoming legislative agendas and budgetary allocations, as new regulatory codes, timelines, and investments will be needed to activate 80x50 programs. These alone, however, are not sufficient to achieve 80x50, and the Roadmap makes frequent reference to the need for the development of new technologies in renewable energy, transportation infrastructure, and building design to create higher-performing and more affordable systems. This points to a tremendous emerging opportunity for designers, scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and investors to take part in developing the technologies, products, companies and systems that will define our green future.


Interconnected Achievement

In the big picture, uniformity in progress is both a philosophic and pragmatic basis for success. Just as NYC cannot reach its 80x50 goals without optimizing all sectors, neither can the world achieve carbon neutrality without all nations working together. The prospect of a globalized effort to radically reduce GHG signifies exciting times - the world in the next 50 years may be drastically different both in look and function than it was during the past 50, and under the wing of COP21 it promises to be a direction of increased wellness, justice, and prosperity.

But what will it look like? This is up to us - as researchers, engineers, designers, policy makers, educators, artists, professionals, consumers, voters, and citizens of earth, we have a remarkable opportunity to apply our rich and diverse expertise to attack the climate problem on all fronts, to work collaboratively, and to make the green future our reality.