In San Francisco last week, international businesses leaders, governors, and mayors, stepped up their commitments to combat global warming at the Global Climate Action Summit. The event signaled to the world that although the Trump Administration has disdained any formal response to climate change, American cities and states remain focused on the challenge. California Governor Jerry Brown started the week by announcing California would accelerate its conversion to 100 percent renewable energy by 2045, improving upon the previous mandate of 80 percent renewables by 2050.

A 35-foot-tall polar bear by artist Don Kennel stood outside the Ferry Building in San Francisco during the Summit.
Photo © Russell Fortmeyer

In many ways, the event operated like two conferences, with the formal summit commencing September 13 at the Moscone Center, while most of the negotiation, agreements, and action took place off-site all week during officially recognized affiliate events, many of which were open to the public. To receive an official summit invitation as a delegate, Brown required cities, private sector companies, and organizations to pledge reductions in emissions and help meet national obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement. The 2016 accord, regardless of Trump’s statements, is technically still in effect in the U.S. until 2020.

And while much of the activity focused on large sector emissions, such as energy generation and transportation, several affiliate events turned the spotlight on architecture’s role in climate change, including the Carbon Smart Building Day, organized in part by the University of Washington’s Carbon Leadership Forum (CLF). The event highlighted the broad range of people needed to address the challenge of decarbonizing the economy, while also aligning on public health and equity issues. “It’s not just Architecture 2030 and the AIA; it’s cities and organizations around the world committing,” said Kate Simonen, director of the CLF, referring to a summit announcement that 22 international cities and regions would require all new buildings operate at net zero carbon by 2030. These jurisdictions, including eight U.S. cities, also pledged to institute policy that would help ensure that existing buildings operate at zero carbon by 2050. Offering one roadmap for achieving these goals, Architecture 2030 shared its Zero Code, which builds on existing efficiency standards like ASHRAE 90.1 and provides guidance for incorporating on-site or off-site renewable power.

Several Carbon Smart speakers went beyond operational carbon. They discussed embodied energy—the carbon associated with the full supply chain and lifecycle of buildings—as the last frontier in a broader consideration of climate impacts. Microsoft previewed a tool in development with the contractor Skanska that would simplify the modeling of embodied energy of buildings, but the tool isn’t expected to be released for public use for another year. On September 12, another event, Buy Clean, addressed embodied energy head-on, kicking off with a discussion of California’s 2017 Buy Clean California Act. The law, which takes effect on January 1, 2019, will require contractors bidding on state infrastructure projects to document emissions associated with major building materials, except concrete, with Environmental Product Declarations and comply with state-determined maximum thresholds. Similar policies are in development in other states, as well as in local jurisdictions. The goal here is not to create a boutique, LEED-certified bridge or highway, but to get the manufacturers to measure their own environmental footprint, said Matt Henigan, California’s Deputy Secretary for Sustainability.

Many of the affiliate events targeted larger planning topics, such as Wednesday’s C40 Cities4Climate event at San Francisco’s City Hall. Google announced a new online tool, the Environmental Insights Explorer, which is in beta development as a simple platform for cities to develop their own climate action plans. The New Climate Institute released a report, Climate Opportunity: More Jobs, Better Health, Livable Cities, which ties climate action to economic development and more equitable cities—two topics addressed by all of the global mayors who spoke at the event. Jenny Durkan, mayor of Seattle, addressed the elephant in the room, calling out “one silver lining” of the current administration’s stance: “It instills a sense of urgency among mayors that if we don’t act, it will be dire consequences.”