US environment guru William McDonough: Let's reconsider how we tackle climate change

Here for the launch of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, the US architect says our attitudes towards carbon must change

The new Ford Motor Company Rouge Center's 10.4 acre living roof, as
seen June 11, 2003, on top of the Dearborn truck plant final assembly
building. Planted with a drought-resistant groundcover called sedum,
the living roof is the largest of its kind in the world. Covered with
creeping grass and growing water runoff, the greenroof will save money
by helping to regulate the factories temperature. The new facility, set
to open next year with the production of the new F150 pickup, sits next
to the massive Rouge Industrial Center opened in 1927 by automotive
pioneer Henry Ford. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

Powered by automated translation

In the ultimate combination of art, politics and science, officials from over 150 ​governments​ who are visiting Abu Dhabi for the annual assembly meeting of the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) will gather Sunday evening at Manarat Al Saadiyat for the unveiling of a new exhibition, Visions of Sustainability.

The star of the show is a major new work by the veteran US conceptual artist Bill Fontana, a multimedia installation that consists of digitally-augmented recordings from renewable energy sites all over the world that's been commissioned by Irena to help draw attention to issues of sustainability and future energy.

To accompany the launch, which also serves as part of the opening ceremony for Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, Fontana will be joined by the pioneering solar aviator and explorer Bertrand Piccard and the US architect William McDonough, each of whom will be interviewed by the CNN news anchor, Isa Soares.

Fontana will talk about his new installation, which he has described as revealing the beauty of renewable energy and “the immense natural power of our planet”.

Piccard will not only talk about his role in the record-breaking circumnavigation of the earth in the solar-powered plane, Solar Impulse, but will also discuss the work of the World Alliance for Efficient Solutions, an NGO he established with his co-pilot, Andre Borschberg, to promote green energy and sustainable technologies.

McDonough’s talk will be different. The 66-year-old architect will not be talking about his work on Nasa’s Sustainability Base at the Ames Research Centre in California, his design for the world’s largest green roof, built in 2000 at Ford’s River Rouge factory in Michigan, or his role in helping to improve the environmental credentials of the Clinton-era White House. 

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 14:  Founder, the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, William McDonough (L) and model Frederique van der Wal attend the Fashion Positive Launch event at Gotham Hall on November 14, 2014 in New York City.  (Photo by Gary Gershoff/WireImage)
William McDonough counts US presidents and Hollywood stars among his supporters. Gary Gershoff / WireImage

McDonough will not mention his authorship, with Professor Dr Michael Braungart, of The Hannover Principles, commissioned by the City of Hannover as the official sustainable design guidelines for the 2000 World’s Fair and presented by the city at the 1992 UN Earth Summit. 

Nor will he discuss his role in founding Make It Right, the initiative he established in 2006 with the Hollywood actor Brad Pitt to provide homes for communities devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

In fact, McDonough will not discuss architecture at all.

Instead, he will use his speaking opportunity to call for a change, not in how we design, manufacture, build or recycle, but in the way we understand carbon, a substance that is now seen as one of the most problematic issues of our time.

“There’s nothing wrong with carbon and the element is not the enemy, so let’s not demonise it. We are [made of] carbon and it’s a critical component of life itself,” the architect insists, arguing that carbon’s current reputation involves misconceptions that are not only unscientific, but which also have far-reaching implications for the fight against global warming.

"The problem of carbon in the atmosphere is not carbon's fault. Climate change is the result of breakdowns in the carbon cycle caused by us. It is we who have made carbon toxic — like lead in our drinking water or nitrates in our rivers," he says. "In the right place, carbon is a resource and a tool."

When seen in this way, McDonough suggests, the notion of reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere by a certain date makes as much sense as reducing the amount of toxins in our drinking water. Not only is it the wrong approach, it involves a misunderstanding of the scale and nature of the problem in the first place.

The architect points to waste-to-energy generating plants as an example of an approach that, in burning waste to create electricity, merely exacerbates the issue of climate change.

“Some people even call them renewable, which is difficult to imagine, because all they do is send more carbon into the atmosphere. Instead of wasting energy burning plastics, which is crazy, we need to look at them as reusable materials that need to be re-designed so that they can be re-used,” McDonough says.

“Compostable packaging can be recycled with food and go into soil restoration and to restore the carbon balance and a great place to accrue carbon is in the roots of trees and plants but it’s amazing how some materials aren’t recyclable, or are highly problematic,” he adds. 

A Fisherman cleaned up plastic waste that was netted along with a fish catch on a beach in Lhokseumawe on October 10, 2017 in Aceh Province, Indonesia.
                        Indonesia is committed to reducing plastic waste on land, coastal and sea Up to 70 percent by the end of 2025. Joint United Nations Program (UNEP), initiated a campaign to clean up plastic waste from the sea in Nusa Dua, Bali. in February.PHOTOGRAPH BY Fachrul Reza / Barcroft Images (Photo credit should read Fachrul Reza / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
Plastic waste that was netted on a beach in Lhokseumawe in Indonesia. Fachrul Reza / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

In seeking to reframe the way we understand the element, McDonough proposes a new, tripartite definition that distinguishes between what he describes as carbon that is fugitive, durable and living.

“If we burn carbon, we get atmospheric carbon that is fugitive, its escaping,” the architect explains, comparing this with the ‘durable’ carbon that is locked in plastics.

“They last, and when we want them to last they can last across generations like a wooden beam in a monastery or a plastic bottle that’s been recycled or like a mountain of limestone that’s sitting there quietly,” he suggests.

“But, if that plastic gets into the oceans - and we expect that the weight of plastics in the oceans to equal that of fish by 2050 - that means we have allowed durable carbon to go fugitive because we have put it in a place where it is having a negative effect.”

Finally, ‘living carbon’ describes the carbon that occurs naturally in plants and other living organisms, much of which ends up in the soil thanks to the process of photosynthesis.

McDonough’s definition also includes what he describes as corresponding types of negative, neutral and positive ‘carbon behaviour’.

“Carbon negative behaviour involves putting more fugitive carbon up into the atmosphere. Then there is carbon neutral behaviour, which includes renewable energy, solar collectors and recycling and finally there’s carbon positive behaviour, which would involve sequestering carbon in biota,” he explains.

“So in terms of design, wouldn’t we rather be designing things to be durable carbon or living carbon and why would we design anything that becomes fugitive carbon? Why produce a liability when we could be producing assets?”

Such an emphasis on the language, terms and the framing of issues is typical of McDonough’s intellectual approach, not just to the buildings he designs but also to the influential books he has written with his collaborator and business partner Michael Braungart, a chemist who was also a founding member of Germany’s Green Party.

“Einstein famously said that if you gave him an hour to save the planet, he’d spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it,” the architect explained at the start of a recent talk.

In 2002, Braungart and McDonough used Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make things to call for a for a completely different way of "taking, making, using and consuming in the world", a third industrial revolution in which all manufactured goods would be designed with the intention that they will either be recycled back into the soil or into some future product, for "next use" rather than "end-of-life". 

This was followed in 2013 by The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability--Designing for Abundance, in which the architect and the chemist not only questioned current notions of recycling but also challenged the assumption that being green was inexplicably bound up with limitations that are inimical to growth.

Gently-spoken, white-haired and almost always sporting a bow tie, McDonough appears the very epitome of a respectable Ivy League-educated architect. 

He studied architecture at Yale in the 1970s and currently serves as an adjunct professor at Stanford University. He was Dean of Architecture at the University of Virginia and has lectured and taught at Cambridge and Yale. Thanks to his books and speaking appointments he has achieved a guru-like status in the US.


Read more:

Sustainability will top the agenda next week, and with good reason

Abu Dhabi to host to large Chinese delegation on renewables

More renewable projects in the pipeline for GCC countries in 2018


As well as being the recipient of three US Presidential Awards: for Sustainable Development in 1996, the Green Chemistry Challenge Award in 2003 and the National Design Award in 2004. 

McDonough's former client and ardent supporter, Bill Clinton, wrote the foreword for the 2013 book and the architect has accrued fans and collaborators that include Hollywood A-listers such as Susan Sarandon, and Tom Ford. In 1999, Time magazine described the architect as a "hero of the environment", but he has also been called a utopian and a communist, charges exacerbated by McDonough's preference for statements such as "Why can't we be better, all of the time, not just less bad?"

The architect quotes the 17th century German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz when describes himself as somebody who lives in the “world of the possible” but what he describes as his “designer’s optimism” doesn’t cloud his assessment of the threat posed by climate change or the scale of the challenge it poses, locally and internationally.

“We are trying to be less bad by not burning fossil fuels and that’s a stipulated ambition here [in the UAE]. The second ambition is to go renewable, but I think the other issue, which is yet to be figured out, is what happens if we are not burning oil but when it is still being sold in a market where people do burn it.? We really haven’t solved the core issue which is that we are burning up.”

‘Visions of Sustainability’ opens at Manarat Al Saadiyat January 15 and runs until January 20. Sunday evening’s discussion with William McDonough is by invitation only