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William McDonough Offers a New Language, Framing Carbon as an Asset

Image credit: William McDonough + Partners

Visionary architect and designer William McDonough - founder of William McDonough + Partners and McDonough Innovation, and co-author of the seminal text of the sustainability movement, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things - has proposed a new language of carbon that was published today in the scientific journal, Nature. The new language recognizes the element carbon as an asset, not an enemy, and defines a paradigm for carbon to be used safely, productively and profitably. McDonough will be presenting the new language tomorrow in Marrakech at Emerson Collective’s Elemental Dofest | Fête D'Action, a COP22-affiliated event.

“Climate change is the result of breakdowns in the carbon cycle caused by us: It is a design failure,” McDonough said. “Anthropogenic greenhouse gases in the atmosphere make airborne carbon a material in the wrong place, at the wrong dose and wrong duration. It is we who have made carbon a toxin — like lead in our drinking water. In the right place, carbon is a resource and tool.”

The world’s current carbon strategy aims to promote a goal of zero. Predominant language currently includes phrases such as “low carbon,” “zero carbon,” “negative carbon,” and even a “war on carbon.” According to McDonough, the design and business worlds need to reframe this view of carbon through values-based language; and by building urban food systems and cultivating closed-loop flows of carbon nutrients, carbon can be recognized as an asset rather than a toxin, and the life-giving carbon cycle can become a model for human designs.

“As when he shifted the world’s thinking to how a circular economy is intelligent, economic and just; as when he and his colleagues redefined material science, design and commerce with Cradle to Cradle, William McDonough is once again lighting our path with the most innovative design thinking on the environment at a critical moment in time,” said Andy Karsner, Managing Director at Emerson Collective.

Aspirational and clear, the new language signals positive intentions, leading us to do more good rather than simply “less bad.” It identifies three categories of carbon:

  • Click to enlarge.
    Living carbon: organic, flowing in biological cycles; providing fresh food, healthy forests and fertile soil; something we want to cultivate and grow
  • Durable carbon: locked in stable solids such as coal and limestone or recyclable polymers that are used and reused; ranges from reusable fibers such as paper and cloth, to building and infrastructure elements that can last for generations and then be reused
  • Fugitive carbon: has ended up somewhere unwanted and can be toxic; includes carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, waste-to-energy plants, methane leaks, deforestation, much of industrial agriculture and urban development

Working carbon is a subset of all three categories and defined as a material being put to human use. For example, working living carbon is cultivated in agricultural systems. Working durable carbon is recycled, reused and reprocessed in circular technical systems; and working fugitive carbon includes fossil fuels used for power.

The new language also identifies three strategies for carbon and climate change management:

  • Carbon positive: actions converting atmospheric carbon to forms that enhance soil nutrition or to durable forms such as polymers and solid aggregates; also recycling of carbon into nutrients from organic materials, food waste, compostable polymers and sewers
  • Carbon neutral: actions that transform or maintain carbon in durable Earth-bound forms and cycles across generations; or renewable energy such as solar, wind and hydropower that do not release carbon
  • Carbon negative: actions that pollute the land, water and atmosphere with various forms of carbon — for example, CO2 and methane into the atmosphere or plastics in the ocean

Offering an inspiring model for climate action begins with changing the way we talk about carbon. McDonough’s goal is for all to embrace this new language and work toward a carbon-positive design framework; and in doing so we may together support a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy and just world — with clean air, soil, water and energy — that is economical, equitable, ecological and elegantly enjoyed.

Bringing the new language into a tangible design framework, McDonough recently announced the concept of the Carbon-Positive City. By incorporating broad-ranged regenerative agricultural practices, making use of every surface of the built environment, from rooftops and walls to gardens and swales, and cultivating plants and increasing photosynthetic productivity, the Carbon Positive City allows urban landscapes to synergize with adjacent lands and remote territories and benefit restorative land management practices.


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