As rescue workers conclude their efforts to find survivors in the wreckage of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that convulsed Turkey and Syria last week, attention is now shifting to the millions of citizens who no longer have homes to call their own, or even functioning cities to live in. According to Syrian and Turkish authorities the death toll has surpassed 40,000, and the Turkish Enterprise and Business Confederation, in a report quoted by Reuters, has put the cost of repairing homes, businesses, and infrastructure in Turkey alone at $70.8 billion.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, facing an election this summer and already buffeted by accusations that his government overlooked the lax building standard that resulted in widespread death and destruction, pledged to complete housing reconstruction within a year, while preparing a program that would “make the country stand up again.” Instead of just standing Turkey up again, maybe he should think about standing it up stronger—particularly in the face of worsening climate impacts.
Turkey’s use of outdated building methods in one of the most earthquake-prone areas of the world all but guaranteed devastation when the quake hit, and the new construction will have to reflect the region’s seismic reality. But those are not the only risks. In its 2021 report, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that Turkey will experience higher temperatures, heatwaves, drought, and rising sea levels as the world warms. Any new construction will have to keep that future in mind, says Hélène Chartier, the director of urban planning and design for C40, a global consortium of mayors dedicated to helping cities adapt to and combat climate change. “Trying to rebuild after an earthquake without considering climate risks would be a big mistake. Turkey should already be thinking of how to rebuild without reproducing a model of construction that is part of the problem, not just for earthquakes, but for climate risk across the world.”
Read more: The Failure of Turkey’s Earthquake Response
It may seem insensitive to focus on climate resiliency in the wake of so much non-climate-caused destruction, says Remy Kalter, the head of public affairs at the Solar Impulse Foundation, an organization that promotes climate based technological solutions, but it’s important to think about it now, before pressure mounts to rebuild quickly.
Construction is one of the biggest contributors to climate change—13% of global emissions—and decisions taken now will be locked in for decades. Kalter cites Europe’s post World War Two building boom as an example: hastily built “temporary” structures that still stand today, inefficient, poorly planned and shunned by all but the most desperate, perpetuating social divides and poor urban integration. “You don’t want a building that 50 years from now is unlivable because it didn’t take future needs for air conditioning into account,” says Kalter.
The earthquake was devastating, but this moment of tragedy could also present an opportunity for thinking about what kind of future Turkey and Syria want. Done right, new or reconstructed buildings can be tailored to better withstand local and future weather conditions by utilizing insulation, keeping sun exposure in mind, incorporating reflective roofs, and installing treated windows. If solar panels are integrated into new construction, it would help create a more resilient electrical grid. Cities could be redesigned to include more pedestrian areas, parks, and tree cover to reduce the urban heat island effect while helping absorb water runoff in the event of floods.
“There is an opportunity to not just rebuild, but to develop a new way of building that promotes livability,” says Chartier, who is also working on a climate resilient, post-war reconstruction plan for Kharkhiv, in Ukraine. “We need to think about what makes a good, sustainable neighborhood, and then build that.” The technology already exists, she says. All it takes is a brief pause—maybe an extra month or two—to develop a plan before plunging headlong into a reconstruction blitz. “It’s just taking the time to do it well, rather than recreating what was there before. The biggest climate mistake we could make is rebuilding super quick, creating a situation that is supposed to be temporary but that lasts.”
The biggest battle for Turkey, says Stephen Richardson, the Europe director for the World Green Building Council, will be combatting the perception that building back better is significantly more costly and time consuming. While the upfront capital costs may be slightly higher, the investment pays back over the lifecycle of buildings that cost less to power, cool, and heat.
On Feb. 9, the World Bank pledged $1.78 billion in assistance to Turkey to help in relief and recovery efforts. In the coming months, it, along with other development banks, will likely provide additional funding and loans for reconstruction. If those institutions make reconstruction funding conditional on sustainability efforts, it will have a huge global impact, says Richardson. “It provides the carrot for the government stick. If you tie finance to demonstrating certain performance levels, whether it’s environmental performance or earthquake resilience, then you have a really powerful combination of drivers.”
That wouldn’t just help countries and cities emerging from the wreckage of disasters, it would push the construction industry as a whole towards more sustainable practices as newer technologies gain ground, reducing the global emissions from construction and the built environment. “The innovation that we need is not in technology,” says Kalter. “It is in the regulatory and financing mechanisms. That’s the game changer.”
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