Early morning decarb musings…from the bottom up…join the conversation!

Note: After contributions from a number of fantastic guest bloggers, Katrin Klingenberg makes her return to the Klingenblog to give readers an inside look at her quest to achieve carbon neutrality both in her own life, as well as with her work at Phius.

It is June of 2021. Sipping my morning tea, reflecting. It has been a year of thought and reassessment and remembrance, letting go of the old ways…quiet before the storm…I feel grateful almost …the pandemic was harsh…training wheels for what is to come…are we ready?

In interviews with journalists, I often get asked: what was/is your core motivation? Why did you start Phius?

And my response is always along these lines: “I was looking for carbon neutrality in all aspects of my life; to take personal responsibility in light of a crisis, wanting to do my share, love and respect for the commons, a desire to distribute resources fairly so that all people can live in peace, balance and harmony.”

And then, as an architect, I recognized that buildings represent a big chunk of our global carbon emissions. Phius was my chance to be part of the solution. My professional commitment since 2002: I could no longer continue to add to the planetary carbon bill with my work. That effectively meant setting up every building to be capable of achieving zero and positive energy.

Climate change is an existential crisis that no one will be able to talk their way out of. There are no planet hospitals with a line out the door that impress on us how bad this is, no healthcare providers ringing the alarm. Well, actually…scientists and environmentalists have been sounding the alarm since the 60s. Society stuck its head in the sand and decided on doing fossil fuel biz as usual as if there was no tomorrow (pun intended). Consequently, we are really up against the wall now. We need courageous, superhuman really, political will and global consensus, turning every conventional notion of how things used to work upside down. We need a fast and effective campaign to inoculate our economies against the effects of shifting away from fossil fuels as fast as possible, just as fast and successful as the COVID-19 vaccination campaign.

The good news: Carbon neutrality is within reach. We are so close. That was our goal on our inaugural website in the mid 2000s. The Passive House Institute US declared its mission: making passive building standards code by 2020. 

For all intents and purposes, check! We effectively have achieved that goal in places that matter a lot, not as mandatory code but in the form of programs, incentives, local laws, alternative compliance paths: New York City, the State of Massachusetts, Washington State, Washington DC. And we initiated ASHRAE 227p. So, yes, on our way, check!!!!

And in its 2021 standards update, Phius made a very important decision – the flagship certification, while the zero energy passive baseline still exists – is now the Phius ZERO certification. I am so proud of our team, how far we have come as a community and how patiently we have built this shift together over the last 20 years. It is a marathon, not a sprint — sound familiar?

But we need to pick up the pace. Turning the entire building industry around is only step one. Even if we eventually build all new construction to our proven standards, decarbonize all buildings through deep retrofits, and decarbonize the energy supply, we still urgently need everybody’s help from the bottom up to take action.

That’s really what I’d like to discuss here. Start a discussion about meaningful personal action that can be taken by anyone who chooses to go in on this really important mission.

I’ll go first. Since all this has been a driving force in my entire life really, it has shaped my life path and my choices. Carbon neutrality requires rethinking and changing a few things.

In 2002, I decided that if I truly believed in the commons and fair share of resource distribution for everyone, I would have to walk the walk. 

I tried to determine the standard of living that could be attained by everyone in an equitable society while also meeting the carbon reduction goals required to adapt to and mitigate climate change. That meant reassessing everything in my life: where do my actions and life contribute to the problem and how can I fix it? Once you start thinking about it in this way it really ripples through everything. 

Let’s start with money. We all need to earn money to run our lives. Our economies run on oil. Every dollar in our pocket essentially represents wealth generated in some form by fossil fuels. The more dollars any one of us has, the more emissions you are essentially responsible for in your daily life transactions (carbon footprint by wealth category is another interesting topic, another blog). I decided to limit the money I was going to earn. And I decided to put the money I did earn back into the non-profit Phius to support market transformation toward zero energy buildings. 

I then, step by step, dialed in my living circumstances: how much space I was able to live in to stay within my fair-share space conditioning emissions budget, how much land around my house there should be and how I was going to use it (farming), my choice of car, vacation and travel miles, food choices…all had to be reassessed.

It was a process. But I’m happy to report that in 2021, reflecting over morning tea, I feel good. I feel really, really good about having achieved what I set out to do…at least in my personal life.

Smith House

Smith House

With little money to my name and no job at the time, I embarked in 2002 on building the Smith House like there was going to be no tomorrow if I did not do it. It was scary, but it turns out, where there is a will there is a way. 

The Smith House, 1000 sq ft, meant for three people, was built for being zero energy ready. In 2018, I finally added a 5 kW PV system, taking the house and about 10K electric car miles per year (a car which I don’t have yet) off the planetary carbon bill. 

What I overproduce in Urbana “pays” for my condo living in the city (since I am not using overproduction to drive). I never turn my heat or air conditioning on. It’s a small, but nice and comfy apartment, 30 minutes walking distance from everywhere I need to go. I have not been on planes, trains and automobiles in a long time and if I do get on I am conscious of each mile. 

I changed my diet, essentially vegan plus fish and an occasional egg. Looking at carbon emissions savings from those food choices…turns out they are very significant. I try to avoid the elevator, though, full disclosure, my apartment and office are both on the 14th floor, so that’s a challenge. Down is easier than up, let’s start there.

And…I’d like to deep energy retrofit my condo tower…already have a plan…but that for the time being will have to be done in the future.

What are your stories?

If you are interested in making similar changes, 2000-Watt Society is a great place to start.

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