Climate Science Demands a Post Carbon Landscape Architecture

steve austin
Sep 16, 2019 · 9 min read
Image © Steve Austin Used with permission

By Steve Austin, JD | ASLA | Clinical Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture, Washington State University

Right now, landscape architects face the most critical challenge in the history of the profession: how to fully and finally respond to the reality of the climate crisis. Climate science shows the crisis intensifying and accelerating, while making it clear how to avert the worst of it. To do so, humanity, including landscape architects, must halve fossil fuel use within 10 years, and zero them out within thirty years. This is because the carbon dioxide (CO2) released by burning fossil fuels is increasing earth’s greenhouse effect, which is rapidly heating the planet and causing the climate to change in terrible ways.

That’s it. That’s what climate science tells us. That “ rapid, far reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society “ are needed to salvage a livable future. That our future must be “post carbon.”

Right now, it is not at all clear that landscape architects are prepared to accept this. While there are plenty of platitudinous statements about landscape architecture’s ability to be a positive force, there is currently no plan in place for a post carbon version of itself. There is no plan for the time when the work of landscape architects will be more needed, but when fossil fuels will be unavailable for construction, material production, transportation, and maintenance. It is as if the profession is in a trance, hopefully reaching for every possible alternative besides the stark, but only, one offered by climate science. Landscape architecture won’t get a pass because of good intentions. At this point, well meaning but incremental actions will only increase the damage.

The good news is that, while a post carbon future will change the profession dramatically, it should not change it fundamentally. Nothing that landscape architects do inherently requires fossil fuels. So while making the transition to the post carbon era will entail enormous challenges and impose harsh physical limits, ultimately landscape architects will only be bound by courage and imagination.

Where things are now

It is rapidly getting hotter. The earth has already warmed by nearly two degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial era temperatures. 20 of the last 22 years have been the hottest on record, and the heating over the past four years has been “exceptional.” Further, it appears that global surface temperatures in 2019 are on track to be either the second or third hottest since records began.

Earth’s oceans are also swiftly heating, which will further amplify surface heating. Recent research shows that heat waves are sweeping the ocean “ like wildfires,” killing sea life and destroying life support systems. In the Arctic, white ice once deflected the sun’s rays, but that ice is melting into dark water that is now absorbing more heat. This is creating a new weather dynamic, where warmer Artic seas deflect the jet stream in ways that can bring mega storms, droughts, and flooding to lower latitudes. One example is the bomb cyclone that hammered the Midwestern US in March 2019. This storm, categorized by the National Weather Service as one of “ historic proportions,” was amplified by unusual jet stream behavior consistent with Arctic Ocean warming. It appears that abnormal jet stream is implicated in the terrible storm and flooding episodes in the middle US in May 2019

Warming air and seas are leading to “ extraordinary” melting of earth’s ice. Ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland are melting six times faster than in the late 1970s, which could raise sea levels to the extreme end of projections made just a few years ago. This year Greenland’s ice was observed melting even in the middle of winter. This melting also threatens to negatively alter the warm ocean currents that provide habitable winters in the northeastern US and Canada, as well as northern Europe. It is ironic that in a warming world, some places might become too cold to live in.

A hotter planet is introducing new concepts into our culture. Megafires and megadroughts, superstorms and superfloods, climate famine and climate wars, all are here now. The climate crisis is destroying lives: more than 1.5 million child deaths per year are attributed it, and millions are already refugees. It is also disrupting human progress: schools are being destroyed by weather events, health threats are arising in places where they previously have not occurred, food is becoming less nutritious, and money is being spent for disaster recovery that could be used for development. Even more ominously, global warming is but one human cause in the accelerating decline of the Earth’s life-support systems, threating the collapse of nature. It is so bad that Jane Goodall heartbreakingly asks: “How come the most intellectual creature to ever walk the earth is destroying its only home?”

Climate science and the future

In October 2018, in the face of this bleak evidence of the rapid and devastating increase in global temperatures, the UN released a landmark report whose implications will reverberate for decades. This report offers definitive proof of the destructiveness of fossil fuels and marks the first time they’ve been given a firm expiration date. Climate science is unequivocal in that to keep temperature rise to a barely tolerable increase, global annual carbon dioxide emissions — primarily from fossil fuels — must drop by half by 2030 and then be at zero by 2050.

But leveling off at a higher temperature isn’t enough. To restore a more stable climate by reducing temperatures, humanity must work to draw down excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This will require relentlessly protecting and restoring carbon sinks such as forests, wetlands, and soils, as well as adding biodiverse afforestation in all possible areas. Advocating for reducing carbon instead of zero carbon is not compatible with this needed drawdown; achieving only a balance of emissions and sequestration would still leave the atmosphere with an excess of CO2, thus continuing the damage already occurring.

Unfortunately, the path we are on right now will lead us to reach the absolute upper temperature of civilization’s safe operating zone within the next 30 years. This will expose millions of people to greater heat stress, water and food scarcity, sea level rise, and climate related poverty. It will also make large swaths of the planet uninhabitable, leading to a massive increase in climate refugees. These migrations are likely to result in frightening geo-political instability, leading to more wars, as confirmed by a 2019 Pentagon study. In order to not cross this last temperature rise boundary, we must completely stop burning fossil fuels not long after 2050 anyway. Thus, there is no scenario in which we can continue as we are without risking apocalypse.

Yeah, about that. Global carbon emissions rose significantly in 2018, following a rise in 2017. If this continues, the earth is on a path to be as much as seven degrees Fahrenheit hotter by the end of this century, within the lifetimes of humans born this year. This “ would constitute the end of civilization as we know it,” according to climate scientist Michael Mann.

Even worse, that increase means that there is the possibility that large areas of permafrost will thaw and rapidly release vast stores of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, potentially leading to a runaway greenhouse effect. This is the nightmare scenario, leading to conditions beyond our ability to adapt. It is that serious.

The Post Carbon Era

In response to climate science, important shifts pointing to the post carbon world are underway. In May 2019, the UK’s House of Commons became the world’s first bipartisan national body to declare a climate emergency. At the same time,that government’s chief climate advisory agency recommended for the first time an accelerated plan to cut the country’s carbon emissions to zero by 2050. Soon thereafter, the parliaments of Canada and Ireland followed suit in declaring a climate emergency. They have been joined by hundreds of local and regional governments around the world.

In the US, climate science is front and center of the growing idea of a Green New Deal to help the country with the post carbon transition. And around the world millions of students — all future landscape architects, clients, and users — are participating in “school strikes for climate,” aimed at bringing awareness of the need for the end of fossil fuels into everyday life. This is Generation Z, the largest generation in global history, and they are very concerned about their future prospects. They are also future landscape architects, clients, and most importantly, users of landscape architecture.

Perhaps most remarkably, in April 2019 the Network for Greening the Financial System, an organization representing 34 central banks comprising most of the largest economies on the planet (including the central banks of England, France, Germany, Japan, China and the European Union — but not the US) issued a reportbased on climate science, with a dire warning:

“Carbon emissions have to decline by 45% from 2010 levels over the next decade in order to reach net zero by 2050. This requires a massive reallocation of capital. If some companies and industries fail to adjust to this new world, they will fail to exist.” (emphasis added)

Read that again. Central bankers, a group not known for being keen environmentalists, wrote that. They are announcing the end of fossil fuels as a business proposition.

Post Carbon Landscape Architecture

As stated before, ending the use of fossil fuels and working to draw down excess carbon dioxide will change landscape architecture dramatically, but not fundamentally. The goals of landscape architecture can be achieved without fossil fuels. For example, the ASLA defines the work and outcomes of the profession this way: “Landscape architects analyze, plan, design, manage, and nurture the built and natural environments. Landscape architects have a significant impact on communities and quality of life. They design parks, campuses, streetscapes, trails, plazas, and other projects that help define a community.”Wonderfully, none of these things requires fossil fuels and all have great drawdown potential. Fossil fuels definitely make those things easier, but they are not necessary, as the history of the profession shows.

As importantly, the ASLA asserts that the work of landscape architecture requires “a license …necessary to safeguard the health, safety, and welfare of the public.” With what is now known, can there be any other response but to acknowledge that the profession’s continued use of fossil fuels violates that mandate? Landscape architects can safeguard the public without fossil fuels.

These are a solid foundation upon which the profession can move into the future. Now, for the more difficult part. Assuming the profession will accept climate science, what would post carbon landscape architecture look like?

Most fundamentally, there will be significantly less energy available. Fossil fuels currently make up 80% of the energy supply. Even an enormous increase in renewables will no t come near to making up the difference. This will introduce hard limits to vital projects, requiring new angles of creativity to accomplish needed goals.

As significantly, current landscape architecture construction and maintenance methods, material creation, and transportation are highly dependent on fossil fuels. It is wishful thinking to assume there are easy substitutions. Instead, landscape architects will need to relearn ways of addressing all of those needs without fossil fuels.

Dealing with those conundrums, as well as providing for drawing down excess carbon dioxide by profuse planting of trees and other vegetation, will require new design approaches. All of that, in turn, will challenge educational frameworks, and point toward needing evolved ethical values. Aesthetics are obviously implicated in this transition as well: what is a beautiful post-carbon landscape?

At this point, a reasonable response is: “there has to be an alternative.” Unfortunately, there does not appear to be one. There is no scalable technology on the needed time horizon that will allow us to continue to use fossil fuels without consequence.

Nor is hoping to use plants to offset a project’s carbon emissions the answer. Landscape architecture soaked in fossil fuels will take decades, if ever, to become climate positive through the sequestration of carbon dioxide by a project’s plants. The crisis doesn’t allow us that much time. And loading additional CO2 into an already overfull atmosphere is irresponsible. Instead, to meet climate science, post carbon landscape architecture must start with as little carbon emissions as possible, and then let plants work to drawdown existing excess CO2 from there.

Moving Forward

It will take great imagination and a phenomenally collaborative and fast effort to shape post carbon landscape architecture. Most immediately, a plan to halve the profession’s fossil fuel use over the next 10 years is needed. At the same time, landscape architects, in both academia and practice, should begin visualizing what it will take to create fossil-fuel-free projects. This will involve investigating zero carbon materials, experimenting with new construction and maintenance methods, and working with suppliers and contractors. Accountability is also vital; the climate footprint research being done by Pamela Conrad, ASLA and others is needed to provide an honest assessment of the impact of the profession. All this must be shared and critiqued widely, in appropriate zero carbon ways, and with a great sense of urgency.

Right now is the moment of decision for landscape architects. It is clear that delay in acting to end fossil fuel use is the same as denying there is a problem; both exacerbate the crisis. Either, or both, will do great injustice, not only to our fellow humans but also to all life on the planet. To paraphrase writer Alex Steffen, from now on, landscape architects will be working in the time of planetary emergency. What will be the response?

Originally published at on September 16, 2019.

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steve austin

Written by

teaches landscape architecture, urban planning, and construction law at Washington State Univrersity. explorer of the post carbon world.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

steve austin

Written by

teaches landscape architecture, urban planning, and construction law at Washington State Univrersity. explorer of the post carbon world.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

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