Goodbye 20th century thinking – developing whole systems models for the built environment
November 2021 — Marc Weissgerber is co-founder and partner at Bauhaus der Erde, the international organisation, based in Berlin, focused on transforming the built environment. He has joined the AQ Green TeC advisory board and answers our Six Big Questions: talking about his work, his involvement in sustainability, the role that innovative thinking can play in creating new economic models to help restore our climate balance and his hopes for a future where offsetting has a vital role to play in helping drive CO2e reduction.
1. How did you become involved with sustainability?
I’ve been involved for a long time and from many different angles. I worked as an international executive for a leading energy group and was CFO of one of Europe’s biggest environmental services companies. Then in 2016 I joined EIT Climate-KIC, Europe’s leading climate innovation initiative as Managing Director. I then met Professor John Schellnhuber from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) who asked me to work with him on a number of decarbonisation projects.
The focus then quickly moved to how we change the way we design and develop our built environment. We really need a point of inflection and I wanted to join a group at the forefront of that innovation. As a result, I have become one of the co-founders of Bauhaus der Erde, which launched in April 2021.
2. What motivates you to do more?
The first thing that motivates me is the need for urgent action. We have to act now to bring these issues right into the mainstream. The second thing that motivates me is finding real implementable solutions. There’s a real urgency and the necessary change need to be broad and deep. Up until recently we have focused on just trying to dial down the levels of carbon we consume to deal with global warming, but it’s clear we really need to re-invent whole sectors and be more creative in our thinking and doing. We have to mobilise private capital to ensure climate integrity. One example is, of course, the Bauhaus der Erde. I am excited about how it brings people together from multiple disciplines, different backgrounds and experiences to work on a massive challenge. Sectors, such as mobility, energy, food and agriculture are on the political agenda, but the transformation of the built environment isn’t even discussed broadly and we are far away from a common approach to transform this sector.
3. We don’t have much time to act! What should we focus on … and is 2050 too late?
Trying to change a sector like construction to mitigate climate change requires a combination of a grand strategy and deep, grass-roots involvement at the initiative level. It’s a huge challenge, but we know that initiatives perceived as successful trigger other initiatives that fit with the overall direction and inspire more people to take action themselves. With grass roots momentum everything begins to change, then just scaling current initiatives can solve a large part of the problem. There are so many great initiatives already out there from changing cityscapes to managing food waste to improving transport at the community level, so we’ve made a start. On the other side of the spectrum we need masterplans, aligned political initiatives, agenda setting on all levels including, for example, at the EU and G20.
I find it much more interesting to work on solutions that really work than complaining about what doesn’t work. We can do it. We will do it.
There is huge pressure on our generation, so we can’t lean back, but we can do it. I’m a realistic optimist and I believe we can make this transition by 2050.
4. Why carbon offset?
Carbon offsetting is still small in terms of the impact it has on carbon reduction and on funding additional projects, but it has the potential to grow exponentially. I firmly believe that. It depends very much on the design of how carbon offset is done, the market for offset and the rules.
It’s also important that people understand that compensation cannot replace our efforts to reduce.
I don’t think we have enough time to say you can either compensate or reduce. We must do both, but they have to be clearly separated.
It’s a two-fold strategy and very simple: first, avoid and reduce your emissions. Second, fund new forms of compensation for carbon emissions to scale the impact that additional carbon reduction schemes can have. Measurement will be vital to help prove that offsetting is happening, that it actually removes additional CO2e from the atmosphere to achieve its objectives.
If a corporate says: “We are going net zero”. The very first questions asked needs to be: ‘How much of that is reduction and how much is offsetting?’ Using offsetting to negate your reasons to reduce will not work. Reduction has to come first, compensating second.
We will get it right if the funding can help move us towards whole new solutions for CO2e reduction in the built environment. But we need to find new solutions that fit our future. We can’t continue to do what we know is bad for our planet and just make it a little less bad. We really need to be bold. For example, we know that the internal combustion engine relies on carbon-based fuels so we are moving to electric and other forms of propulsion at the systemic level, as opposed to just trying to make engines more efficient. Saying we can have some electric vehicles and offset the rest, by planting trees to offset, is not the right answer.
5. What’s your advice for those working on the climate crisis?
Connect. Inspire each other. We innovate through bringing people together. We are still trying to break out of the complex mindset of the industrial revolution where all our thinking is interconnected as it has been for the past 150 years. Cities have been developed around transport systems led by cars that burn fossil fuel. We are at the point where we need to decompose the industrial system that we have; not return to the pre-industrial, but move forward into the post-industrial era where both industry and technology are embedded within the limits of the planetary system.
We must innovate to develop technologies, systems and behaviours that are adapted and adaptive to the natural context. The ambition of the industrial revolution was to overcome the forces of the natural world. We looked at the cheapest and most efficient ways to extract heat, or the means to generate power from nature. We looked at the efficiency of partial systems, but what is needed is to look at the whole “system”, the planet, to develop integrated solutions. We must innovate and design technologies that are developed in the context of the overall planetary equilibrium.
Related to all this is the circular economy championed by organisations such as the Ellen MacArthur foundation. They have focused on how we reuse the energy, or the value we have already created. Someone once calculated that every person in industrial countries has owns to over 10,000 manufactured things. We have over-production. We are using too many raw materials. We need to think about what we need versus what’s already there. There is so much potential to use existing materials, to use what I call their grey energy, or the grey value from what has already been produced.
6. Are you excited to be working with AQ Green TeC?
I’m very excited about working with AQ Green TeC. They have the drive to think things through, to be innovative and to think across sectors and competences. That is what’s needed. They are also focused on research and we need good research to help develop the thinking as the renewables sector grows and more people become focused on whole systems thinking. We also need apps to help drive consumer thinking. They are investing there too. They are helping pull the pieces together. They are a great example of how the approach to managing climate change is evolving.
AQ Green TeC’s desire to bring employees and consumers more closely into the solution is great and vital as part of whole system thinking. Their AQ Green app will really support one of the adjustments we all need to make. The 20th century was a production century focused on a linear extraction model. We used goods. We didn’t ask where it comes from and where it goes to?
We all have to learn to work with and act on the total cost of use. AQ Green is helping us ask these questions? Where does it come from? What conditions was it produced under? Where does it go when we’ve finished with it?
This is a completely new and exciting world. It will lead the change from a “production paradigm” to a “re-usage paradigm”. This leads to new economic models, new business models, new lifecycle models.
Let’s not focus on existing solutions that would crash the planet, but let’s put effort in developing solutions that would work. It creates a different motivation. I want to know that I have contributed to something that really works and which can be handed over to the next generation.