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Between 2011 and 2013, China consumed 6.6 gigatons of concrete – more than what the US used in the entire 20th century. Since the integration of China in the world economy, the consumption of materials in general and construction material in particular, has been driven by the growth of China’s economy. An indicator of this growth is the consumption of cement. Since 2010, China’s consumption has increased from 2.05 billion tons per year to 2.35 billion tons with a high of 2.7 billion tons in 2014. In the same period, the world consumption of cement has increased from 3.64 billion tons to 4.65 billion tons. How can the construction industry green itself?

Interestingly, the global consumption has remained more or less unchanged from around 2014 (including China) with a reduction in China’s consumption being made up by the increase in developing countries. Cement is mainly used in making concrete, which requires about 8-10 times more raw materials in the form of sand and aggregates. Thus, the consumption of 4.65 billion tons of cement implies mining, transportation and use of around 33 billion tons of aggregates per year. This makes concrete by far the most used material at about 35-40% of all material consumption by mankind, second to water. Global consumption of cement is expected to double by 2060 as per a 2018 OECD report, which has significant environmental implications. 

Economic Contraction Due to the Pandemic

Hong Kong just declared its second-quarter figures which show a contraction of the economy of 9.1%, matching that of the first quarter’s contraction year-on-year. Most of the developed countries such as the US, the UK, Japan, Australia and the members of the EU are projected to undergo unprecedented double-digit quarterly contractions in the current calendar year compared to pre-COVID-19 2019. The International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) latest projection for the annual growth rate of world GDP is around -4.9%. The projection for 2021 is 5.4% year-on-year which barely makes up for the overall contraction due to the pandemic.

Besides tackling the immediate health sector demands, the first challenge of the pandemic for governments everywhere was to provide support for those who were affected by lockdowns and lost their jobs. The next task was to kickstart economies. Very early on in the pandemic, many people realised that it presented an opportunity to rebuild the world economy to be more resilient and sustainable. 

After every major disaster, we try to rebuild in such a way to make societies less prone to the damages from similar or worse future shocks. In the case of the pandemic, every country should be looking to invest in its public health system to prevent or mitigate the effect of future events. Clear links have been established between the emergence and spread of new pathogens and anthropogenic causes. 

Therefore it makes sense that actions to address risks of future pandemics take into account those needed to address the climate crisis as per recommendations of experts such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

GDP is Inadequate

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) measures the monetary value of all goods and services produced by an economy. It has become the universal measure of the economic prosperity of a country and even the world since after the second world war. 

In a recent article, Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz proposed a dashboard of customisable indicators to guide the economic policy of nations based on his work since the great recession of 2009. He quotes American senator Robert Kennedy who once said “GDP measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile.” A poignant illustration of how badly flawed GDP is as an indicator of social well-being is illustrated by the abject failure of the US in managing the pandemic compared to countries such as Vietnam and New Zealand, both with much lower GDP per capitas. The fact that it doesn’t measure sustainability, the value of community-led non-profit initiatives or wealth inequality makes GDP a deeply flawed measure of overall social wellbeing which is far more important than just income and wealth. 

Stiglitz’s dashboard proposes that indicators can be different for different countries by emphasising the issues most important for the people such as health, education, employment, environment and sense of security, similar to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals identified by the UN. While GDP would be one of such a group of indicators, environmental sustainability would have critical importance as this has a much larger impact on what happens on a planetary level.

Risks of Inaction and the Opportunity for Building Back Better

The World Economic Forum in its 15th Global Risks report highlighted two stark facts. One was that for the first time since the survey started being conducted in 2005, climate change-induced extreme weather, natural disasters, biodiversity loss, climate action failures and man-made environmental disasters were the top five global risks in terms of likelihood. In terms of impact, climate action failure, biodiversity loss, extreme weather and water crises were among the top five risks. The only other non-climate risk was weapons of mass destruction. None of these climate-related events featured in the top global risks a mere 10 years ago in the same survey. 

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construction industry green
A figure of a Global Risk Landscape that shows the Impact versus Likelihood of a given risk factor on a scale of 1 to 5. The higher a given risk factor measures on each axis, the worse it is. In the latest survey, Climate Inaction and Extreme Weather events top the charts (Source: Global Risk report by WEF)

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” said Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s Chief of Staff in November 2008 at the beginning of the Great Recession. For some, the pandemic becomes an opportunity to profit while for others it is humanity’s chance to make a strong beginning towards a resilient and sustainable future. EffortsIt will need something akin to the ‘New Deal’ implemented by President Roosevelt after the Great Depression or the ‘Marshall Plan’ implemented to rebuild Europe after World War II will be needed, but with a green agenda that puts sustainability at the heart of all decisions. In the current context, the proposed ‘Green New Deal’ on a global scale will fit that bill.

Green Construction should Lead the Industry

An effective way for economies to create jobs and recover growth is to revive and accelerate the building and construction sector, particularly public-funded large infrastructure projects. This brings us back to the question of the consumption of materials like cement and aggregates and their large carbon footprint and potential damage to the environment. 

The UK has declared a climate emergency and has mandated by law to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, however a Construction News of UK report says that the construction industry is still using conventional ‘dirty’ concrete instead of available low-carbon ‘green’ alternatives. The government must enact regulations and set an example through public infrastructure projects that use these alternatives. 

The existing carbon credit system and a low carbon tax of 16 pounds per ton don’t seem to be incentive enough to get contractors to switch from high carbon ordinary Portland Cement to, for example, blended cement. While a landfill tax and aggregate levy has been beneficial, concrete construction requires the use of low-carbon quotes (estimates used in the tendering process to give bidders who use low-carbon alternatives a chance to compete), Environmental Product Declarations, standard measurements for the carbon in a building, a higher carbon tax, and whole life cycle design for sustainable construction practices to take root. With trillions of dollars being invested in the form of stimulus packages, there couldn’t be a better time to enforce these changes on a global scale that would have profound long-term effects.

Every sector of the world economy holds such opportunities to address the climate crisis.The world is at an important inflection point – a fork in the road. A lot rides on the decisions that are made by policymakers, leaders and the corporate world this year. Building back better led by a more green construction industry and frameworks that measure social welfare and health instead of GDP is the best way not only to get out of the current crisis but create a resilient and sustainable future.

Sustainable cities are a puzzle of intelligent solutions in different areas: From urban planning, to the agriculture that feeds the city, to waste management and the mobility of its residents. In this article we show films from exactly these areas. Paths to a green and smart future for the world’s cities.

Examples of Green Cities

The Human Scale (2013)

The UN predicts that by 2050, 68% of the worlds population will live in cities. Most cities as they stand now were built around industry, cars and economy – not with sustainability in mind. Smart and green cities are designed for life quality, low environmental impact, city ecology and an efficient use of resources. Information and communication technologies can be used to improve traffic flow, water use and energy supply. Further considerations include public access to green spaces, air quality and sewage management.

“The Human Scale” is a great introduction to these concepts and the problems, solutions and potential for urban development. This film centres on the visionary work of Jan Gehl, a Danish architect and city planner. His work has transformed hostile urban environments full of congestion and pollution, into havens of pedestrian living for real human interactions over his impressive 40 year career. The film examines cities around the world, from the 30 million strong population of crowded Chongqing – to Copenhagen with the worlds longest pedestrianised street, and asks how we can improve the life quality for citizens of large, congested, lonely and fast paced cities through better urban planning.

Watch excerpts of the “The Human Scale” here

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10 Billion (2015)

In this century alone the world population will grow to 10 billion people. Where do we produce enough food from for everybody? How do we distribute food fairly? And how do we stop mankind from destroying the very foundation of its food source? In “10 billion” every level of the supply chain of the agro-industry is explored, and we are introduced to fascinating novel technologies concerning the future of food. An exciting and varied documentary covering everything from the organic movement, commercial scale slaughterhouses, artificial meat producers, and even those that advocate insects as the staple food source of the future.

Concerns over food security, food production and food quality are the some of the most pressing of our time as human populations continue to boom and suffer the effects of malnutrition. Related to this are all the wider implications of the environmental effects of toxic pesticides, loss of wild spaces to agricultural land, concerns over genetically modified organisms, and run off from intensive agriculture into water systems.

When it comes to food, we are all capable of making a direct difference: Vote for the future every-time you go to the store or the local farmers market by choosing the right things to eat.

Stream “10 billion” on Demand on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and many more

Racing to Zero (2014)

Imagine the amount you consume, and material you throw away daily, scaled to the level of 8 billion people. Of plastic alone every year another 8 million tons are dumped into the ocean, these plastics take thousands of years to break down – and when they do it is simply into smaller fragments that are likely to be ingested by animals. The current model of simply forgetting about our waste and sending to landfill is not the right path towards green cities – a complete rethink is inevitable.

“Racing To Zero” is an inspiring and positive documentary that presents new solutions to the global problem of waste. The film advocates a complete rethink of what “garbage” is; although waste may create garbage, garbage is in itself a resource full of potential. The film follows the journey of San Francisco’s commitment to achieve zero-waste by 2020, with conversations with experts in composting and archaeology, government officials, and the very enthusiastic and proud citizens leading the country in already keeping 78% of their waste out of landfill.

Watch “Racing to Zero” as on demand

Revenge of the Electric Car (2012)

A sequel to the critically acclaimed “Who killed the electric car?”, which explored how the development and adoption of electric vehicles was originally slowed and discouraged in the United States; “Revenge of the Electric Car” follows entrepreneurs fighting to bring the electric car to market in the 21st century.

Director Chris Paine takes us behind the closed doors of Nissan, GM, and the then start-up Tesla Motors to document the story of the global resurgence of electric cars. Staying fully autonomous from any foreign oil, the documentary argues this new generation of car is the United States’ powerful and clean future. The race to develop clean electric cars is just beginning.

For motor and business enthusiasts the film is a must see, with access and unprecedented interviews with CEO and President of Renault and Nissan Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Tesla Motors Elon Musk, Former Vice Chairman of GM Bob Lutz and EV do-it-yourselfer Greg “Gadget” Abbott.

Stream “Revenge of the Electric Car”

Power to Change (2016)

Energy is arguably the most central question on the path to green cities and a sustainable planet. Over 90 percent of energy used today still originates from coal, gas, oil and nuclear energy. These conventional energy sources are not able to satisfy the world population’s energy demand without seriously threatening the planetary ecosystem. The production and consumption of these energy sources do not only increase the greenhouse gas emissions, fuelling global warming, but also lead to the destruction of natural landscapes, corruption, armed conflicts and radioactive contamination.

There are already numerous alternatives at hand and currently we are faced with the decision to radically revolutionise the means with which we power our societies. Wind, solar, biomass and water energy will lead to a more decentralised energy system, more energy democracy, better life quality and a more sustainable relationship to our environment. When it comes to managing a sustainable relationship to energy, we need changes to happen from the grassroots to a global scale, it It is argued that a future focused on environmental justice, will also bring with it a fairer social and political justice.

For an overview of these issues we recommend “Power to Change”, a German production available with subtitles in english. Germany is often quoted as the worlds first major renewable economy, with its share in gross electricity consumption growing from 3.4% in 1990 – to 36.2% by the end of 2017. Whats more, the renewable energy sector is providing germans with over 370,000 jobs (doubled since 2004). The film is fascinating, packed with information and accurate science, as well as captivating with personal stories from individual activists, entrepreneurs and critics who have taken personal responsibility for their energy supply in what they call an “energy revolution”.

More information, including on how to watch

Singapore: Biophilic City (2012)

A great introduction to how the future of our cities could look – this documentary follows Professors and Masters students of Urban design for a week learning about different projects underway in Singapore, one of the worlds most biophilic green cities. Greening of the city began over some 50 years ago now, under the concept of the former prime ministers vision for a “Garden City”.

We speak with architects, landscape designers, CEO’s and  teachers, who all testimony for the improvements to quality of life that come from schemes such as roof top gardens – which provide comfortable public spaces, reduce heat, reduce CO2, and even can provide local food.

Singapore won the Smart City Expo World Congress Award last year, and is top of the list for money spent on smart city technologies in initiatives of public heath and safety, smart transport, efficient energy and infrastructure. In fact Singapores outstanding reputation for such efforts has it recognised as the worlds first “Smart Nation”.

Watch “Singapore: Biophilic City” here.

Gaming the Real World (2016)

For a truly imaginative and innovative story – go watch “Gaming the Real World”. This beautiful and wacky film follows three gaming companies, “Minecraft”, “Cities: Skylines” and “Block’hood” as they take on the challenge of real life urban planning! The film touches on the idea of democratisation of city planning, as citizens voice their needs from their urban spaces, and discusses how cities can be better planned to cope with increased growth and energy demand.

Find out more here.

The Rise of Vertical Farming (2017)

The most obvious and immediate question concerning life in green cities would be of course how to provide food for its citizens. Increasingly our methods for food production are also being forced to adapt and become more intelligent under the great demand. Shipping food thousands of kilometres around the world is ineffective, often socially and politically damaging to those further down the supply chain, and has a hugely negative environmental impact.

Many cities are experimenting with alternatives, to provide locally grown food for its citizens from within the city itself. “The Rise of Vertical Farming” is a great documentary on this concept of smart urban agriculture. These techniques make efficient use of small space by placing the field into a third dimension, and growth chambers can control the exact temperature, lighting,  CO2, humidity, nutrients and water supply to plants to allow for a vast away of products to be produced in any location. The doc follows various companies as they navigate the market on a variety of scales as they try and reinvent the model of food production to cities. The film also stands for a great example of activism through entrepreneurship, as many of the companies come from grass roots initiatives of local people wanting to take greater control over the source of their food.

Watch “The Rise of Vertical Farming” here.

This article was originally published on Films For the Earth, written by Kai Pulfer, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 

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