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Urban decay

Updated Wednesday, 6th October 2010

Adjunct professor of Environmental Technology of the Harvard University Graduate School of Design and founder of Transsolar, Matthias Schuler suggests that single environmental buildings will not have the same impact as larger renewable systems in cities. Reducing the carbon footprint does not have to come at the cost of comfort

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Please note: This interview was recorded in a noisy environment, which may affect the clarity of the contributor's words.


Presenter:  My first question, how did you come to be interested in or working on environmental change issues.  Do remember when you first thought about this?

Matthias:  Yeah I’m educated as a mechanical engineer with a different focus, not on renewable energies; it was in micro mechanics.  But then micro mechanics especially which has died out during my study, so I changed and in a certain way the solar system my parents bought on their house was like the starting point.  And then I did some work on them.  I did a study on them, I did my Masters degree on them, and then this led me into this field of renewable systems.

Presenter:  Thanks and what are you working in or concerned by or motivated by right now currently?

Matthias:  Currently, I would say I’m mostly motivated at the moment I would say by my ten month old daughter.  Which in a certain way I see that she has to live in this world for the next, whatever, 70 years or even longer.  So I might be dead in 30 years but she has to go on for longer.  So in a certain way that’s like, okay, you are then even stronger confronted with the future.

Presenter:  So what do you anticipate working on in relation to environmental issues? If you could explain what you might be interested in, in the future, over the next year, and then the same again for the next five years, and then also try and think about ten years in advance.

Matthias:  Looking in the future I am kind of starting to look a bit back because our consulting started mainly on individual buildings, and then we moved in the last years into urban design, into bigger systems, because it’s so obvious if you do a single building it has no big impact in general on the general kind of behaviour of our society.  So in a certain way thinking on more bigger systems on cities, new cities as well as existing cities, I think that’s definitely something we have to move in for the coming years.  And I think it’s like, okay, you would say for the next year we are trying to do this kind of low carbon or carbon neutral footprint cities either in Abu Dhabi, in Toronto or in Paris where we’re kind of trying now to implement what we learned in Abu Dhabi into other climates into existing cities, and I think that’s the exercise for Paris, and this would be definitely as well the approach for the next ten years to learn and to be able to advise cities, urban designers, societies, how we have to adjust our cities to be able, in most of our cities especially if you look in Europe and in America how cities are built, so how we can adjust these cities to fit into a society which has to definitely reduce its carbon footprint.

Presenter:  And you were talking about consumption earlier today.

Matthias:  Yes.

Presenter:  So it’s not so much about reducing?

Matthias:  Yeah, in a certain way, reducing means reducing consumption of, and I think the word I mentioned as well is energy, as well resources, because we often are focusing so much on the carbon footprint and on the climate change which is a consequence out of our energy consumption.  In a certain way our carbon emission is a consequence and climate change is a follow on.  But if you consider it holistically then the way we are living our societies nowadays is living in respect of the resources of this planet is in a certain way so unsustainable because we are not considering what we will consume for tomorrow, we’re just taking it.  And so you take some resources like copper, 80% of the copper resources of this planet are already digged out, they are installed, so there are only 20% left.

So in a certain way we have, and in this respect we had a conference in Columbia like two months ago and there we talked about cities as the future material resource cronies, where you go there and dig it out, out of the old cities, because this is where you find all the valuable materials, instead of digging it out of the ground, and I think this thinking, at the moment the pressure is through climate change into carbon emissions, and this is then connected to energy, but our thinking in an overall picture has to as well focus on all other material resources. And it’s quite interesting that if you take the Club of Rome today, the Club of Rome today mentions that they said resources, if you really value them they should be ten times more expensive than what we pay today for it, and then the system would control it on its own.  Because then the kind of capitalistic system would value them much higher and then suddenly recycling, up-cycling, down-cycling, what we just talked about, would be much more valuable because then it makes much more sense.

Presenter:  So it’s completely rethinking of how we think of energy.  I mean you were talking about nuclear energy earlier.

Matthias:  Yes.

Presenter:  So it’s rethinking in every way how we approach what energies, what resources?

Matthias:  And in respect of energies it’s so obvious that it’s clear, okay, fossil fuels are limited.  If you’re not consider nuclear as fossil, it’s not fossil, but it’s limited resources and kind of the numbers are that this resource will easily run out in the next, if we install all this new nuclear power stations they’re talking about it will run out in twenty years.  So in a certain way there is no way to solve the energy problem of this world by nuclear power.  It’s clear the solution is going into renewable energy sources and mainly into solar energy, and in a certain way the potentials of this planet are so enormous compared to our demand.  Even if we are not going to reduce our demand, which in a certain way is the first step to do, I would say easily 50% just out of, without a big effort you can save 50% of the energy we are consuming today.  Which means this is much cheaper than to install renewable energy systems, but then in a second step then substitute the rest of the demand by renewable systems, which will definitely not happen in the next year but hopefully in the next, I would say in the next decade, with a big portion to have this impact we are asking for especially then in respect of keeping the temperature increase in a certain limit.

Presenter:  I think I might know the answer to my last question already but where do you stand on a sliding scale between optimism and pessimism in terms of humanity’s capacity to make sense of and act on global environmental change as you look over the next decade.  So would you describe yourself as an optimist or a pessimist?

Matthias:  Yes, I’m clearly an optimist.  Which in a funny way some of the information can bring you up to be more pessimistic, but in a certain way I think that’s the big problem we are facing today.  We haven’t reached the people directly and they don’t understand that it’s their own, that they are mainly responsible for this.  In a certain way and this is interesting, I’m teaching in the US so in a certain way I know both societies, and that’s the difference I would say between Europe and the US.  In Europe, we wait for our politicians to decide.  In the US, if you have a problem and you understand it, people start to do it.  This is out of their history because they lived in the woods and there was no government around so you had to solve your problem on your own.  So in a certain way their thinking is more, okay, if they understand a problem they start to act.  Which in Europe we are always like oh we understand, yes but we will be told what to do. So I think that’s the point which we may have to find out that it’s time for us to act now and not just to wait until we are told where to go.





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