No one said the carbon neutral energy transition would be simple. Norman Foster, one of the world’s most renown architects has quit an environmental coalition over the destructive role of aviation in the escalating climate crisis. Matthew Taylor explains in an article on The Guardian website.
Norman Foster pulls out of climate coalition in row over aviation
One of the UK’s most famous architects has withdrawn from an environmental coalition in a dispute about the destructive role of aviation in the escalating climate crisis.
Norman Foster, best known for the Swiss Re “Gherkin” skyscraper and City Hall mayoral headquarters in London, confirmed on Wednesday his firm was no longer a member of the Architects Declare group.
The decision follows a row over Foster and Partners’ work on airports around the world – seen by critics as incompatible with tackling the climate and ecological emergency.
Last week Architects Declare, which was set up two years ago to coordinate climate action in the sector, called on any members not committed to ending “business as usual” to leave the group.
“There remain signatory practices who appear determined to continue with business as usual,” it said in a statement. “This is seriously undermining the effectiveness and credibility of Architects Declare, so we call on those practices to either join the wave of positive change or have the integrity to withdraw.’
The broadside was not aimed directly at Foster and Partners, but the firm, which had already been criticised for its work on airports from Saudi Arabia to Beijing, released a statement on Wednesday saying it was quitting the group.
“We believe that the hallmark of our age, and the future of our globally connected world, is mobility,” Lord Foster said. “Mobility of people, goods and information across boundaries. Only by internationally coordinated action can we confront the issues of global warming and, indeed, future pandemics. Aviation has a vital role to play in this process and will continue to do so. You cannot wind the clock backwards.”
The statement added that zero-carbon flight technology was already a reality and could be rolled out for passengers within the next two decades. “Airbus recently released three concept planes that would be powered by hydrogen rather than jet fuel and which, they claim, could be carrying passengers by 2035.”
Experts have questioned the role of zero-carbon flights in tackling the climate emergency. Claims that they could be up and running by 2025 were described as “a gimmick” last week and experts warn that a focus on zero-emission flights detracts from the urgent need to drastically cut the number of flights and reduce emissions by taxing jet fuel and frequent fliers.
Architects Declare, which has more than 1,000 UK architecture firms signed up, said it was disappointed by Foster’s decision to quit.
“We recognise that addressing the climate and biodiversity emergencies challenges current practice and business models for us all, not least around the expansion of aviation. We believe that what is needed is system change and that can only come about through collective action.”
The group, which was one of a number of similar organisations set up by various professions after a UN climate report in 2018, added: “Our declaration represents a positive vision of how our profession can respond to the planetary emergencies. This involves embracing new approaches and being realistic about what can be solved with technology in the next crucial decade.”
Aviation is seen as a key driver of the climate crisis and its emissions are expanding rapidly. Last month a report found the sector produced 1bn tonnes of CO2 globally in 2018 and is benefiting from an effective $100bn (£75bn) subsidy by not paying for the climate damage. The same study found that frequent-flying “super-emitters” who represent just 1% of the world’s population caused half of aviation’s carbon emissions.
In the past two years Foster and Partners has taken on two jobs designing airports in Saudi Arabia, one to service luxury resorts at the Red Sea, and Amaala – described as being “akin to a private members’ club”.
It has previously worked on international airports including Stansted in the UK, Beijing Capital and Hong Kong.
In July Foster’s involvement in these projects drew criticism from the Architects Climate Action Network (Acan), which demanded an explanation.
“Anything that encourages the expansion of the aviation industry and the associated rise in the burning of fossil fuel should be viewed as being off-limits for architects concerned about the rate at which our planet is warming,” an Acan spokesperson said.
In his statement Foster called for a “sense of proportion and serious consideration of the facts” when discussing aviation’s impact on the climate crisis, pointing out aviation emissions account for 2% of the global total.
He added: “If carbon imprints are properly taxed, then it may mean a reset for fast food and cheap flights but agriculture and aviation are not going to go away and they will both need the most sustainable buildings to serve them together with the architects who can most responsibly design them.”