The shift away from earthen homes is an ’emissions time bomb’

The move away from traditional ‘earthen’ homes is a ‘ticking time bomb’ for emissions, scientists warn. 

Earthen homes are those built from dirt that is packed into smaller blocks or bricks. 

The researchers point out that the move away from natural materials is producing a switch from traditional earth construction techniques with a light environmental footprint to brick and concrete production, which generate substantially greater carbon emissions. 

landscape photography of village

The researchers looked at census data and national statistics from the 26 countries where more than three-quarters of the world’s population live.

They found that although the proportion of people living in earthen homes has dropped sharply, it is still estimated that between 650 – 700 million people still currently inhabit buildings constructed from natural materials. 

The scientists describe this group as a potential ’emissions time-bomb’ if they were to move or ’upgrade’ to brick or concrete dwellings.

They found that as nations have become richer, a lower proportion of the population live in earthen buildings, with modern materials seen as more desirable.

Dr Alastair Marsh, a research fellow in the School of Civil Engineering at Leeds and lead author of the paper, said: ‘The big issue is, how can we ensure the whole world’s population is living in safe, affordable housing in line with UN Sustainable Development Goals as soon as possible and at the same time avoid producing excessive carbon emissions from building houses that will lead to further climate change?

‘We can think of this as trying to have a balanced diet. Just like there’s fundamentally no ‘good foods’ or ‘bad foods’, there’s no ‘good materials’ or ‘bad materials’ – it’s more a question of getting the right balance, of not using too much material overall, and using materials that are appropriate for different regions.

‘Earth materials have excellent environmental performance but have rapidly been falling out of favour in many parts of the world in recent decades. To challenge those negative attitudes, we need to focus on making earthen homes that are healthy, stylish and that people can really want to live in.’

Photo by Annie Spratt



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