“Climate change is the result of breakdowns in the carbon cycle caused by us: it is a design failure,” McDonough said in a press release. “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.”
In the same way that the Cradle-to-Cradle movement taught movers and shakers in the sustainability sphere to rethink the way we make things to reduce, or even obliterate waste, McDonough’s new carbon language is designed to help us model human designs on the “life-giving carbon cycle, and to perceive “closed-loop flows of carbon nutrients” as an asset, rather than something to demonize.
The three new categories of carbon replaces negative terms such as “zero carbon“, “low carbon” or “negative carbon” with more positive language.
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 like 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 industrial agriculture and urban development
McDonough also identifies new strategies for tackling climate change, as follows:
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
McDonough also launched an understandable blueprint for this new carbon language. “The Carbon Positive City integrates agriculture, regenerative land management practices and urban design at a regional and international scale,” according to the firm. In this way, wastewater treatment facilities become “fertilizer factories” while agriculture can be seen as “solar orchards” that provide clean energy, food, water, and jobs.
Images via William McDonough + Parters, Wikicommons