Bill McKibben is the co-founder of 350.org, and an author and educator around sustainability and climate change reduction. He offers unique ways of looking at all of the impacts and considerations necessary to a true and transparent conversation around climate change. In his newest article (Global Warming's Terrifying New Chemistry), McKibben makes the claim that unforeseen (at least publicly unforeseen) methane emissions from fracking may completely offset any and all CO2 emission reductions from increasing natural gas use for powering our country. In 2014, his article (Global Warming's Terrifying New Math) posited that our biggest challenge to industry transformation is the billions dollars of future investments in fossil fuels still in the ground. His insight and ability to see the whole picture, make McKibben extremely valuable for understanding the reality of environmental awareness and a path to a sustainable future.
I find this particularly enlightening - if we don't consider the full scope of a decision or solution, and solicit expertise from the best minds in each area, we'll never understand the total impact we might have, whether restorative or destructive! It is imperative to at least consider, in a thought exercise or hopefully something more impactful, the potential web of connections that might happen once we move forward. In addition to broadening our planning and analysis, and bringing in appropriate expertise, it's always best to have measurable metrics to inform whatever progress might happen. As the old adage goes, we can't manage what we don't measure. It becomes clear that true success requires a clear picture of all impacts, as well as defining key metrics and goals for monitoring ongoing performance.
What this means at the Building Scale: In the green building industry, we talk about the Integrative Process as a "holy grail" of project design, construction, and operations. How can we make a decision about fine-tuning the sizing of an HVAC system, if we don't understand the building envelope (how much conditioned air will seep out of the building, or outdoor air will seep in)? The intent of the Integrative Process is to align industry professionals and their expertise; which can result in interconnected building systems that operate most efficiently together, and are appropriately sized (and also priced); and finally to result in a building optimizing its site, climate, and surrounding culture - all in a way that bests serves building occupants. This also requires us to set appropriate metrics, to define and measure "value" to occupants, and define and measure intended building performance in all areas.
What this means at an industry scale: Looking at the green building industry itself, as mentioned above, integrative process and design have been the focus of new approaches for diverse teams to reach unified and optimized performance goals. Integrative Process is a buzzword in the sustainability industry, has a credit in the LEEDv4 rating systems and represented in the Living Building Challenge, as well as a frequent topic at conferences like GreenBuild and Living Future. However, without a clear picture of how the building design, construction, and operations industries work - we won't know any future opportunities or barriers to adoption of the integrative process as a general practice. One example is the idea of a 'shared liability clause'. This allows project team members to operate "out of their comfort zone", by understanding that the whole team shares liability on whatever is delivered, and making the project a safe place to specify strategies that are not general practice. At this scale, we can understand interactions within the building, examples of new strategies, and develop templates for charrettes and integrative process - but until we consider how this will be adopted and who will be impacted, we can't expect anything to be used.
What this means at a Global Scale: The example from McKibben's article demonstrates why it's even more important to paint a broad picture at a global scale. Proponents of natural gas extraction (primarily through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking), have latched onto the idea that we can bring jobs and economic success back to the US, along with a 'bridge' fuel that releases less CO2 emissions than coal-fired power plants. Additionally, advances in engineering reduce the cost of extracting this fuel. However, it has recently been discovered (as mentioned in McKibben's article) that methane leakage from natural gas will offset any greenhouse gas emission reductions, and that fracking would in fact be more harmful as a system to climate change, than originally thought. Without a defined goal and specific metrics, and without a whole picture of all impacts and an integrative approach - we would never know that our 'clean natural gas' strategies have in fact had more negative impact on climate change than good.
A little bit of background, and more about the two mentioned McKibben articles:
A few years back, Bill McKibben published an article with the Rolling Stone called "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math", which added a new lens to the climate change reduction movement of truly understanding the economic factors involved in the fossil fuel extraction industry. Specifically, as we seek to implement readily available energy technologies and positively disrupt the energy generation framework in the US and globally, we'll at some point have to address the fact that the top 5 oil companies in the world have already invested billions of dollars in futures related to oil still in the ground. While I feel (somewhat harshly) that these companies made a big gamble, and if the market drives a different direction, well, too bad - we as a society can make the transition more pleasant and all-inclusive if we can find an innovative way to address these investments and keep fossil fuels in the ground.
Most recently, another lens was added, this time to fracking for natural gas. McKibben's new article published in the Nation, "Global Warming's Terrifying New Chemistry", tackles the issue of methane leakage from fracking processes and sites throughout the US.
For a moment, let's set aside the social and ecological (and geological) concerns over fracking. The fact that fracking is happening in close proximity to low-income or tribal nations, is extremely harmful for groundwater quality, creates a huge risk in the storage and conveyance of a combustible fuel, and is still a non-renewable resource, aren't part of this new lens on climate change. Instead, McKibben looks at the risk of methane emissions from fracking and distribution. Cornell researchers took it upon themselves to ask this question, and have proved that a 3 percent leakage could completely offset any CO2 emissions reductions from the use of natural gas. Additionally, he mentions that there was no data available from fracking companies, so these researchers had to measure using satellite data and expected methane release. Unfortunately, measured leakage is higher than 3%, and thus it becomes crucial that we begin measuring at all fracking sites.
Where this conversation goes next I am excited to see. Hopefully, armed with metrics and a holistic and broad-based understanding, our decision-makers and general public can make more informed decisions about our country's energy future, and it's various impacts.
[ ASIDE - The issues listed above about fracking, set aside for this conversation, are however the main reasons why a triple bottom line approach is necessary in all economy for a sustainable future (socially equitable, financially profitable, and ecologically responsible). I am personally motivated by the fact that solving issues addressing climate change can also solve ecological health, social equity and health, and national security issues. My hope is that all the incentives aligned around a logical path for growth will create enough momentum to make things happen on the scale necessary. ]
Thanks for listening,
Ravi Bajaj, Education Manager