Energy Concerns Will Require “Fundamental” Redesign of Buildings, Jacoby Tells MIT/CRE
April 6, 2006
With the world’s population projected to explode from six billion to upwards of 10 billion over the next century, will we run out of fossil energy? And if we do not, will expanded use of fossil fuels destroy the planet?
Suppose mankind were to, collectively, decide to put the brakes on global warming, even as the human population grows by more than 50 percent. What energy sources must we develop if we strive to both serve this burgeoning population and preserve the climate of the planet? Where will real estate development occur to accommodate such unprecedented growth? What will real estate be like? And what technologies will be required in order to fuel the built environment of the future?
Those were the questions posed by Prof. Henry D. Jacoby, co-director of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, to students, faculty and guests attending the MIT Center for Real Estate’s (MIT/CRE) annual meeting on April 6. The day-long conference at 70 Pacific Street, a modern, energy efficient graduate dormitory in MIT’s West Campus, probed the future of increasingly expensive energy and its implications for the real estate industry.
Jacoby’s presentation relied heavily upon the MIT Integrated Global System Model, a complex computer representation of Earth’s natural systems for cycling carbons. The model allows scientists to test various future energy consumption scenarios and project how they might impact the planet’s ecosystem. It was developed as part of a long-term MIT study of how humans might reduce climate change over the next 100 years.
Presenting a primary energy chart, extrapolating from current trends to project 21st century global trends, Jacoby said that without significant efforts to curb emissions of carbon dioxide, the primary “greenhouse gas,” worldwide consumption of oil and coal –
neither of which will run out in the next century – can be expected to grow dramatically between now and 2100 while use of natural gas will level off as supplies dwindle. The projection called for much more modest increases in nuclear power, commercial biomass and non-biomass renewable alternatives.
Noting that such a scenario would likely result in worldwide carbon dioxide concentrations in the range of 800 to 900 parts per million (ppm), Jacoby said, “Current levels are somewhere between 300 and 400 ppm. So, the question is how to think about the risk of such an increase. What will happen if we go forward with no policy about carbon dioxide?”
“Fundamentally” Redesigning Real Estate
What would very likely happen, he said, would be increases in global temperatures by as much as four or five degrees centigrade. Those increases, in turn, would almost certainly trigger widespread climate change and a host of damaging consequences such as profound air pollution, crop damage, and disastrous coastal flooding as polar ice melts.
“In pre-industrial mid-nineteenth century, carbon dioxide levels were around 200 to 300 ppm,” he said. “If, while the world’s population grows very significantly, we could limit emissions to no more than twice pre-industrial levels, a lot of extremely dangerous implications would be less likely.”
But to do that, he said, will call for profound changes in the way we use energy. “By 2050, you will need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from their predicted levels by some six to nine billion tons,” he said. How difficult would that task be? To reduce CO2 emissions by even one billion tons (a gigaton) would require deployment of one million one megawatt wind turbines or doubling the fuel economy of two billion automobiles.
Clearly, no one change in society’s use of energy will be sufficient to produce the required reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. A host of policy changes and shifts in consumer behavior will be required.
But since real estate is the greatest consumer of energy – greater than either transportation or industry – the design of buildings must undergo “fundamental” change over the next 100 years Jacoby noted. “We must make the cost of running buildings so high that new building models become imperative,” he said.
Collectively, he said, what these ominous changes mean for the real estate industry is “great uncertainty.” As the gravity of the energy picture becomes increasingly clear to a world where petroleum prices rose very sharply just within the month following his presentation, real estate professionals can look forward to both economic incentives driven by escalating fuel prices and taxes and regulations driven by climate concerns.
Since the constructed real estate of the world’s major cities is expected to double over the next 50 years to accommodate population growth, there is a high potential for marketplace pressures and conflicts regarding the use of land; not only for development, but also for agriculture and forestry. And, said Jacoby, conflict will also likely characterize the evolution of urban and regional design in the coming years.
Finding ways to create enough real estate to meet the world’s needs over the next century while reining in the emission of greenhouse gases that threaten the planet’s ecosystems is one of the most significant challenges facing real estate professionals in the foreseeable future. Addressing it, said Jacoby, is imperative, but he was also quick to note that, like any cloud, the energy conundrum has a silver lining for real estate professionals with vision. “There will be significant opportunities for those who see clearly,” he said.