Can We Build Our Way Out of Climate Destruction?

Straight talk from scientists is often hard to stomach, particularly when it refers to the destruction of the planet or a global pandemic. But it can also be refreshing and liberating to hear the clear voice of reason in the age of perpetual spin. Especially when that voice offers alternatives to the current doomsday projections.

Celebrated climate researcher, author, and expert on climate change Professor Hans-Joachim (John) Schellnhuber stands out as a lucid voice that calls the shots the way he sees them. As founding director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and former chair of the German Advisory Council on Global Change, Schellnhuber is an independent global authority on climate change and, at 70, has no career ladder to climb or political ax to grind.

The Silver Bullet for Winning the Climate War

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The Silver Bullet for Winning the Climate War

SAP recently invited Schellnhuber to a virtual event and discussion on the topic of climate change and sustainability. Sustainable business practices are central to SAP’s strategy and mission for its own operations, and those of its customers. A 2019 company-wide survey showed that 94 percent of the more than 100,000 SAP employees agree that sustainability is an important business objective.

Software Code Rules, But Nations and Industry Must Act

SAP employees are proud that the business software they deliver can help reduce carbon emissions — 77% of the world’s transaction revenue touches an SAP system. While software code rules the world, it will take the will of nations and industry action to reverse the destructive path along which climate change is already progressing.

This is both a tall order and not a topic for weak stomachs. Schellnhuber began with a ray of hope, announcing results from a soon-to-be-published scientific paper in Nature Communications: During the first half of 2020, there was an 8.8 percent reduction in CO2 emissions globally.

Now for the sobering news: The world would have to reduce its carbon emission by around seven percent every year for the next 30 years in order to keep global warming below the 1.5-degree Celsius limit set by the Paris Agreement. Considering the world is currently at 1.1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, keeping to that goal is virtually impossible, Schellnhuber says.

Even in a pitch-black room, Schellnhuber will always find a light switch. “Reducing emissions by seven percent every year is almost unthinkable, but we have the money and the technology to do it,” the self-professed agnostic says. For example, consumers can reduce their CO2 footprints by sourcing energy from renewable sources, eating less beef, and taking the train instead of the plane, he suggested.

The Promise of a “Cyborganic Age”

The most important factor driving global warming is not the energy industry, agriculture, or transportation. According to Schellnhuber, it is the building industry. Some 40 percent of CO2 emissions results from the construction and operation of homes, offices, skyscrapers, airports, train stations, and other structures. If conventional materials like steel and concrete continue to be used in construction until 2050, this will use up most of the CO2 budget incorporated into the 1.5-degree Celsius target.

As a “silver bullet” for throttling CO2 emissions, Schellnhuber suggests switching to building with wood instead of cement, steel, and concrete, which are extremely energy-intensive in their life cycles by comparison. Wood is more sustainable, because it sequesters CO2 for centuries and acts like a pump, with replanted trees extracting carbon continuously from the atmosphere, he explains. Combining wood construction with new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) could enable autonomous operation of buildings to optimize energy efficiency.

Schellnhuber is calling for a revolution in architecture, the combination of construction with organic materials and intelligence through digitalization to launch the “Cyborganic Age.” Climate scientists like him are pointing to real opportunities to alter the current course of climate change.

It is up to consumers and policy makers to take them seriously and adopt needed changes.