INTERVIEW: ‘Hero of the Planet’  Bill McDonough calls for a rethink of carbon in the circular economy

INTERVIEW: ‘Hero of the Planet’  Bill McDonough calls for a rethink of carbon in the circular economy
INTERVIEW: ‘Hero of the Planet’  Bill McDonough calls for a rethink of carbon in the circular economy

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - INTERVIEW: ‘Hero of the Planet’  Bill McDonough calls for a rethink of carbon in the circular economy

Bill McDonough pulled no punches. “It’s a very, very serious issue. The science is clear and the signals are seriously scary. Let’s just face it,” he said during an hour-long Zoom meeting from his home in Virginia in the US.

He was talking about the threat to humanity from environmental pollution and resulting climate change, and he is well-qualified to talk about it. Called “A hero for the planet” by Time magazine, and the only recipient of the US Presidential Award for Sustainable Development, McDonough is regarded as the “father of the circular economy,” the strategy that aims to transform the lives and livelihoods of humanity — before environmental disaster does that for us.

Now McDonough has joined forces with Saudi Arabia to meet that challenge and, in particular, to determine the place of hydrocarbon fuels — the lifeblood of the Kingdom — within the coming energy transition.

“This requires massive heroic behavior. Let’s do something over the next 10 years that will astonish our children,” he said, hammering home the scale of the challenge.

That message would not be out of place in the preachings of many environmental agitators, but McDonough brings to it intellectual pedigree and a track record of pragmatic application. When he says, “I’m going to design buildings like trees,” it is much more than just a slogan.

Born in Tokyo, as a child McDonough pondered big questions like the destruction of Hiroshima by the atomic bomb, dabbling in physics, chemistry and international relations before settling on architecture as a profession.

The concept of the “circular economy” grew out of his work in regenerative building design on the “cradle to cradle” principle — the idea that human constructions should be built with future generations firmly in mind.

International recognition for his work rose steadily from the environmentally aware 1990s until publication — along with Michael Braungart — of the book “Cradle to Cradle — Remaking the Way We Make Things” in 2002.

The principles in the book were adopted by the Chinese government in its 5-year plans and by the World Economic Forum in 2014. In Davos, McDonough built a structure called the ICE House — with the help of SABIC of Saudi Arabia — to illustrate the concept of sustainable design.

That collaboration with the Kingdom was evidence of an increasingly close relationship. McDonough had earlier met Prince Abdul Aziz bin Salman, the Saudi energy minister, and found an enthusiastic listener for his ideas.

“I know this was natural to him, it was all intrinsic to his thinking. One of the most elegant parts of the dialogue is that I really enjoy working with him, talking to someone who has thought as deeply about this as he has,” McDonough said of the prince, who made energy efficiency a keystone of the Kingdom’s energy strategy.

Those conversations made him think more about the role of carbon within the circular model, which had three guiding tenets.


Born: Tokyo, 1951


  • Dartmouth College,  Hanover, NH, US
  • Yale University, New Haven, CT, US


  • Dean of architecture, University of Virginia 
  • Founder, McDonough Innovation
  • William McDonough & Partners
  • Relationships with several leading global universities and the World Economic Forum

Everything is a resource for something else; in nature, the “waste” of one system becomes food for another, either through biological or technical process.

Second, energy should be clean and renewable, with an emphasis on solar sources as well as wind, geothermal and other forms of energy.

Third, celebrate the diversity in local ecosystems in which design is adapted to specific circumstances in an “elegant and efficient” way.

“That is the basis of the ‘cradle to cradle’ approach — waste equals food, celebrate diversity, and use renewables, especially solar. It’s a beautiful thing,” McDonough said.

In a 2016 article in the magazine Nature, he coined the phrase that was picked up by environmental realists around the world, and especially in Saudi Arabia: “Carbon is not the enemy,” which seemed an appropriate rallying cry for a country and an economy that owes its modern development to hydrocarbons in the form of oil.

“I had this revelation when they asked me to work on it, because this is actually super-important. Carbon is actually a material in the circular economy, but it’s also a fuel, which is very unusual, so it deserves special attention. We decided to start working on this with the Saudis,” he said.

The relationship with SABIC went back to 2015, but he found his services much in demand as plans for the megaprojects of the Vision 2030 strategy advanced. He became an adviser to the Red Sea Development Company, the Royal Commission for AlUla, and for the Al-Soudah project run by the Public Investment Fund, as well as a member of the higher council of NEOM, the huge urban development planned for the Kingdom’s northwest.

Earlier this year, McDonough became an adviser and collaborator with the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center in Riyadh, and delivered one of the keynotes for the Kingdom’s Energy Ministry at the G20 energy meeting in March.

His thinking crystallized. “The problem is not carbon — the problem is us. Carbon is an innocent element, and like I pointed out, there is the sun, there is carbon in the atmosphere, and then there is the soil, also carbon. If you say you want to be carbon free, think about it — are you saying to want to decarbonize yourself? Impossible,” he said.

He classes carbon into three kinds, and has an intricate set of slide illustrations to emphasize the point. “Living carbon,” which is an essential ingredient to human life and the basis for all agriculture. “It’s a positive thing to want to make more living carbon,” he said.

Then there is durable carbon, which is also a positive when it is an enduring form, like a building, or a city, or — the example he gave — a piece of paper, which can last for centuries in the form of a book.

Then there is the third kind — “fugitive” carbon — which he called “the big whoops.” This is the form that escapes into the atmosphere during industrial, transportation and manufacturing processes, or is washed up on a shoreline as plastic waste.

“It’s probematic to have durable carbon go fugitive,” he said.

It almost goes without saying that McDonough is a firm believer in the various international accords, especially the Paris agreement on climate change, that seek to limit, and even reverse, environmental damage by controlling output of “fugitive” carbon into the atmosphere, and these limits are built into all his models. “We have to work within those limits,” he said.

The main solution to fugitive is the process known as CCUS — carbon capture, utilization and storage — which has also become a major plank of the Kingdom’s energy strategy. CCUS techniques are implemented by Saudi and in NEOM. “What’s going on at NEOM is phenomenal and magnificent, because they’re planning on running on 100 percent renewable power,” he said. “All of a sudden they’re going to be making hydrogen with electrolysis. So we’re going to have what we call ‘green hydrogen,’ which is a magnificent prospect for the human future,” he said.

McDonough does not like the term “fossil fuels,” which he says encourages the idea that the only use for hydrocarbons is to burn them; nor does he like the phrase “hydrocarbon resources.” “Let’s just call them sources that we get from nature,” he said.

Just as important, fugitive carbon can be transformed into a variety of materials, like plastics and polymers, that are essential for human life. 

McDonough said that the work of SABIC, the Saudi petrochemical group now owned by Aramco, in this regard was “especially important.” 

Nor is McDonough a fan of those on the extreme wing of the environmental movement who say the world should stop using hydrocarbon fuels completely.

“I think the big picture for all of us in terms of social benefit, and intelligent behavior and design is that we do want inexpensive energy for everyone so they can make their lives better. We just don’t want to destroy the atmosphere,” he said.

The challenge is to meet the environmental standards most countries agree are necessary to prevent the warming of the Earth by more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by the middle of the century, and McDonough believes there has to be a unified commitment on the part of humanity to meet this essential target.

McDonough has worked with the US space agency NASA on building design, producing some of the most advanced and environmentally friendly constructions in the world. “President Kennedy famously said we were going to do a moonshot, and within 10 years man was walking on the moon. I’d like to do an Earth shot. 

Let’s put Mars off for a little bit. Before I go to work on the red planet, can I come back to the blue one?” he said.

Does he think humanity can get there by 2050 and pull itself back from the brink of climate catastrophe? “I think so. I think we  have to,” he said.

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