Clip-on Architecture: Climate Crisis Causes & Solutions

Deforestation “is not a recent phenomenon; it is as old as the human occupation of the earth, and one of the key processes in the history of our transformation of its surface.” (Williams, xxi) The desire to expand ever outward, the thirst for the frontier, the unconquered lands, the uncharted waters, thus seems to be a fundamental part of being human. What follows summarizes research into tropical deforestation and some sustainable solutions being applied in the developing world. But first, read about some ways we can combat the effects of tropical deforestation in New York here.

Altering the landscape

“Every newly planted tree seedling in the tropics removes an average of 50 kilograms of CO2 from the atmosphere each year during its growth period of 20-50 years, compared with 13 kilograms of CO2 per year for a tree in the temperate regions” (Brown, 167).

“Market regulations take many forms, but the most effective are those based on financial incentives that motivate individuals to choose voluntarily what is in their short-term economic interest” (Killeen, 74).

Even in its earliest days, it appears that human alteration of the landscape was a bottom-up event, rather than something centralized and disseminated from the top down. Is there some fundamental pattern at work, somehow hardwired into our systems as human beings that makes us repeat the same tragic steps over and over?

Whatever the local cause, it appears that many of the cause of climate change – such as deforestation – finds its larger origins in the tragedy of the commons (Diamond, 428). Underlying the tragedy of the commons is the premise that individuals benefit in the short term from the overharvesting of commonly harvested resources, but suffer collectively in the long term when they are depleted (Diamond, 428). As deforestation and environmental degradation are strongly linked to patterns of individual short term self interest, the question becomes how we can work with rather than against these interests in order to promote a different outcome?

Wouldn’t it be great if we could just turn on a carbon vacuum cleaner and clean up the whole mess?One solution is for those who share the resource to recognize their common interests and collectively agree to police themselves. This tends to work best in smaller and more isolated homogeneous communities where there is some stake in a common future and the boundaries of the resource and those who exploit it are well known (Diamond, 429). The government can also enforce quotas, though this may be impractical as the cost of policing the resource may be high. A third solution is to privatize resources, making individuals custodians of them; this practice can be something that emerges from the top down as a governmental initiative. It can also be bottom up as in the case of farmers in Niger who, in the 1980s, noticed that the soil was more fertile and there was reduced erosion when they planted acacia trees in their fields. This practice spread and now there are around 120 million trees on Nigerian agricultural land: “The key to this success story was the shift in tree ownership from the state to individual farmers, giving them the responsibility for protecting the trees” (Brown, 158).

The solution, then, would appear to have something to do with examining the factors at play which encourage environmentally destructive behaviors, and setting out to change them. While it is obvious that some top down decision making is involved in creating the conditions which have fostered the dire circumstances in which we now find ourselves, much of what happens afterwards would often appear to be the workings of many individual decision makers. Current economic models sadly do not take into account the services provided by forests. As in the case of the destructive flooding of the Yangtze River in 1998, which caused an astonishing $30 billion dollars worth of damage due to landslides, these services may be worth far more money than the lumber in the trees. After the destruction, the Chinese government paid loggers to replant the trees, noting that the flood control service of trees was worth three times the value of cut timber (Brown, 86, 166).

How tropical deforestation affects the rest of the world

Hadley Circulation: The long-distance effects “of Amazonian deforestation are modulated by a phenomenon known as the Hadley circulation in which warm air rises at the equator, moves toward the poles, descends at higher latitudes, and returns toward the equator along the surface of the earth…” According to climatologists, as deforestation increases, precipitation will be reduced and temperatures will rise in the Amazon. As a result, these impacts will cause climate change in other parts of the world and global warming will continue at a faster rate (Killeen, 60).

Impact Zone of the Amazon Rainforest: Deforestation in the Amazon severely reduces rainfall from Mexico to Texas and into the Gulf of Mexico most notably in the spring and summer growing seasons when rainfall is essential for agriculture. Similarly, the deforestation of lands in Central Africa affects precipitation in the upper and lower U.S Midwest, while deforestation in Southeast Asia was found to alter rainfall in China and the Balkan Peninsula most strongly. It is important to note that such changes primarily occur in certain seasons and that the combination of deforestation in these areas often increases rain in one region while reducing it in another (NASA).

An urgent deadline

“…we do have a short time left to cut back emissions in order to avoid a ‘dangerous’ level of warming and can still aim for a ‘safe landing’ within the one to two degree corridor. This window of opportunity is very nearly closed, however. … we have less than a decade remaining to peak and begin cutting global emissions. This is an urgent timetable, but not an impossible one”(Lynas, 270).

Though a few degrees Celsius of warming may not seem all that severe, here are some chilling examples as food for thought. The last Ice Age, which occurred some eighteen thousand years ago, saw average world temperatures about six degrees colder than those of today (Lynas, 17). A world six degrees warmer would be something akin to Dante’s Sixth Circle of Hell, a world subject to powerful storms far beyond what we are currently able to imagine, including hurricanes able to circumnavigate the globe, and methane explosions which “would dwarf even the most severe modern battlefield weapons” (Lynas, 257). How can we become more efficient and, moreover, how can all that excess carbon be absorbed? Wouldn’t it be great if we could just turn on a carbon vacuum cleaner and clean up the whole mess?

Tree as vacuum cleaner

Well, we already have carbon vacuum cleaners, of a sort. They’re called plants and trees, and they do the opposite of what we do when we breathe in oxygen and breathe out CO2, or when we take a trip by car to the supermarket. They also have the potential to absorb much of the CO2 we emit year after year, when combined with other sustainable strategies. Not every tree absorbs the same amount of carbon, and trees in the tropics absorb more CO2 than temperate trees. However, on average, a tree absorbs approximately 3 kilograms of carbon dioxide from the air per year. Scientists have pointed to the importance of forests in carbon capture:

“…a heavily forested region in northern Michigan could store more than 350,000 tons of carbon per year. With the area population emitting about 573,000 tons of carbon annually, the forests would sequester approximately 62 percent of the region’s human-caused carbon emissions – the equivalent of yearly emissions from about 225,000 cars” (Science Daily).

Many cities around the world are adopting environmental initiatives independently of their national governments and are participating in the Cities for Climate Protection campaign (Dow & Downing, 78). Certainly the idea of reforesting for the purpose of carbon sequestration is a worthy one. However, another untapped resource for the application of strategies of efficiency and carbon capture remains the structure and fabric of the city itself. Like the urban clip-ons described in the accompanying post, the schemes below envision retrofitting an existing infrastructure (in this case, highways through the tropical rainforest) to lessen the damage our built environment causes our climate.

Amazon Barrier Road with Clip-on Solar Panels: While it would be better not to construct roads through the rainforest at all, IIRSA is forging ahead. Here we envision a potential compromise solution to the roads proposed by the IIRSA project. If the problem is that roads increase access, it may be worthwhile considering the development of road systems which limit access or have access at specific entry points which are controlled. A barrier of the type shown here still provides a view of the surroundings, and also provides an infrastructure upon which can be mounted solar panels, wind belts, and other sustainable energy generating devices.

Amazon Elevated Road: Elevating roads makes access by human beings to pristine forest areas more difficult, and yet still allows animals to migrate and move freely beneath the road surface. While not ideal from a conservation standpoint where leaving such areas entirely alone is best, this represents a compromise solution, given that road construction projects are already planned for the area.Animal overpasses and underpasses have been used very successfully in Canada: “… Parks Canada has upgraded portions of the highway. This includes dividing and twinning the lanes and installing fencing and wildlife overpasses and underpasses. These crossings allow animals to pass safely over or under the highway. The system has reduced collisions with wildlife by more than 80%. By monitoring the wildlife crossings, Parks Canada has learned that 10 species of large mammals have used them more than 60,000 times since 1996.”

Amazon Barrier Road with Green Strip: The roads in the Amazon, or any other road for that matter, provide an opportunity for planting, thus giving back a bit of the surface area taken up by the road. Here a simple underground tunnel allows access by wildlife to the two sides of the road. A barrier which discourages human interventions in the forest also prevents animals from being killed on the road. Wind belts and other technologies can be incorporated into roads, which represent a vast amount of surface area which could be used to generate energy sustainably. It is our belief that we should view all surfaces, whether infrastructure or buildings, as potential sites for the deployment of green strategies. Electric cars at their current level of development can be used for day to day travel and commuting, thus reducing a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Road with Animal Bridge: Similar to the concept of the fish ladder, a device used to aid fish migrations over dams, the animal bridge provides a connective link between the otherwise isolated parts of the ecosystem on either side of the road. This diagram is envisioned as a limited access road with checkpoints, and so has a reduced need for side barriers preventing access to the forest.

Sustainable solutions

In addition to the ambitious retrofits proposed above, many low-tech options are currently being developed for and by developing countries. Notably, in many cases it takes a relatively small investment to make a huge difference. USAID is working in Kenya to distribute 780,000 solar cookstoves which, as they are more efficient, require less wood, relieving some of the pressure on local forests as a source of cooking fuel (Brown, 154). Non turbine windbelts are being developed for the market by a team from MIT which, in 2004, got the idea as they were working to solve the energy needs of the local Haitian population in Petite Anse. The belts function by converting the vibration caused by the wind passing over them into energy. Other pole-mounted wind turbines have also been developed at a scale that is more readily deployable within the confines of the city, and able to harness wind energy coming from all directions. Rooftop solar water heaters in China have made a big splash and, at $200 each, they are widely being used in villages which do not yet have electricity. There are around 40 million of these heaters being used in China today (Brown, 246).

Special gutters are now available for the collection of rainwater for passive heating and cooling, or for the generation of electricity via waterfalls. There is great interest in the potential of algae, which can be grown almost anywhere, and is faster growing even than bamboo. Certain types of algae may be as effective in capturing CO2 as trees, and algae is currently being used in a pilot project at MIT where it absorbs 40% of the CO2 emissions from a power plant and is then converted into biofuel. In-stream turbines for rivers allow for the generation of electricity without the expense and environmental damage that can be caused by large scale dams. The Spiteri Water Pump in Malta, a machine which generates electricity when immersed in a body of water by harnessing its latent electrostatic energy, does not need any fuel to operate. It has low operating costs and generates energy 24 hours a day. Geothermal energy is another, virtually limitless supply of power from the earth’s core that is presently used to heat over 90% of the houses in Iceland, and constitutes more than one third of the country’s energy usage. About half of the world’s geothermal capacity is concentrated in the United States and the Philippines, with other countries bordering the ring of fire in the Pacific not far behind (Brown, 253-54).

Lightweight soil substitutes such as Pafcal are being developed which will allow for roof planting without the heavy loads associated with soil. Greenscreens have been developed which can allow vertical gardens to grow up the facades of existing buildings. Urban farming, which could take place in buildings within the city limits, thus drastically reducing the travel distance for foodstuffs, is being explored. Indoor farming does not require fossil fuels for plowing fields and driving harvests to market, nor does it require fertilizer or pesticides, and plants can be grown 24 hours a day. Indeed, “a 30 story farm that covered a city block could feed 50,000 people year round” (Fischitti, 74). Solar modules are being designed that can be attached to light fixtures, or which come in rounded tubes and are able to collect more energy from the sun than traditional solar panels, converting direct, diffuse, and reflected sunlight into power. So it would appear that Socolow and Pacala are correct in their assumption that all or most of the technology needed to reduce carbon emissions to stabilized levels already exists. So the challenge is how to implement these strategies. Maybe a good first step is to try to clip-on some of these solutions to a city block in New York. Here’s how.

Research Team: Fay Alkhalifa, Marcus Brooks, Graziela Gimenes, Akiko Hagiwara, Anna Obratzsova, Gabriela Rodriguez, Allison Schwartz.

This article is adapted from “Clip-on Architecture: Reforesting Cities and Potential Solutions to the Climate Crisis” by Vanessa Keith, a PDF of which can be downloaded here, and the bibliography here.

All images by Studioteka.

Vanessa Keith, AIA is a principal at Studioteka. She is a registered architect who received her Master of Architecture degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Master of International Affairs from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, graduating with a concentration in Economic and Political Development and a focus area in urban planning.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.