This article was originally published on Common Edge.
To its great credit, the American Institute of Architects recently denounced the Trump administration’s decision to formally withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. This may put the professional organization on the right side of history, but it’s unlikely to sway any hardened hearts and minds in Washington. Obviously, the executive branch is worse than useless on this issue: not just an impediment to change, but a malevolent force for willful inaction. It’s hard to see it as anything less than an enemy of the climate.
Until this odious cast of characters in changes, climate activists must turn their attention elsewhere. Fortunately there’s an under-the-radar lobbying effort underway in California, by the AIA’s state chapter, that holds the potential to totally transform the building sector. In July, the organization’s Committee on the Environment, in collaboration with Edward Mazria of Architecture 2030, persuaded the California’s AIA’s governing board to support the adoption of a statewide Zero Code as soon as possible. The organization sent a letter to the governor in September, co-signed by leading firms, virtually all of the local chapters, as well as the cities of Berkeley, Santa Monica, Fremont, San Luis Obispo, and Culver City.
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If enacted, a Zero Code would essentially mandate emissions-free new buildings almost immediately. (Architecture 2030 defines a Zero Net Carbon building as “a highly energy efficient building that produces on-site, or procures, enough carbon-free renewable energy to meet building operations energy consumption annually.”) Green buildings in California would no longer be about rewarding good intentions or being less bad, no longer be about commemorative plaques or LEED ratings.
Emissions-free buildings would be required by law.
Before we go any further, though, the logical question to ask is the obvious one: Is this even possible? Is it politically feasible? For all of the well-meaning rhetoric swirling around the idea of a Green New Deal, none of it can even begin to happen without fundamental changes in policy, primarily at the state and local level. In California, the adoption of a Zero Code is largely dependent on the strong support of Governor Gavin Newsom, who has not weighed in on the issue.
Mazria initially approached the California AIA with a bolder approach, pushing the idea of an immediate Zero Code adoption via executive order, presumably the fastest route possible. As it turns out, this isn’t an option in California, where energy codes for buildings must be vetted and approved by the California Energy Commission. (The next overhaul will occur in 2022.) The governor, however, exerts a fair amount of control over that body. In two years, Governor Newsom will have either appointed or reappointed a majority of the commissioners on the five-member governing board. If he truly wanted to kick start the Green New Deal, putting his political muscle behind adoption of the Zero Code would be a monumental first step.
In the meantime, AIA California is working on several fronts, pushing and pulling at three different levers of power. “We’re organizing opportunities to enlist Governor Newsom’s active support,” says San Francisco architect William Leddy, who with Mazria helped convince the chapter to support adoption of the clean code. “Thanks to Michael Malinowski, the AIA’s government liaison, we’ve also discovered that there’s an avenue that might be much easier to attempt right now. And that’s to introduce the Zero Code immediately as a ‘reach code’ within CALGreen, which is the California Green Building Standard. We believe this approach doesn’t require the energy commission process. It would give cities around the state the option to adopt the Zero Code now, while we continue to pursue formal statewide adoption through the lengthy code-revision process.”
The reason these considerations are even possible is why Mazria approached the California AIA in the first place. Despite the apocalyptic fires, the rolling blackouts, the somewhat predictable this-is-the-end-of-California-as-we-know-it pronouncements, the state is well under way in its eventual transition to a cleaner future. By next year, 33% of its electricity will come from renewables; the state has set a goal of 50% by 2030, and 100% by 2045. Adoption of the Zero Code would significantly accelerate that process.
California’s economy is, by some calculations, the fifth largest in the world. It shapes and moves markets. It’s why some automakers sided with the Trump administration in the misguided legal effort to weaken the state’s strict emissions standards. California is just too big to write off.
The Zero Code would have similar impact, unleashing innovation in the building sector, inspiring adoption by other states, and, perhaps most important, serving as an important signal to the rest of the world. “Nothing is happening at the federal level,” Leddy says, “so China, India, and the EU are all looking to California to take the next step.”
There would be enormous economic opportunities as well. “Similar to what photovoltaic panels have done, with shrinking costs and exploding efficiency, that kind of thing will happen across the across the construction industry,” says Leddy.
Even the Saudis have gotten the message. The same week that Trump made his climate announcement, Saudi Arabia’s state-run oil company unveiled plans for a public stock offering. According to the New York Times, “Much of the proceeds from the offering are not likely to flow to Aramco’s operations but into the Public Investment Fund, a sovereign wealth fund that is evolving into Prince Mohammed’s main vehicle for shifting the Saudi economy from its reliance on oil.” The world’s largest oil producer is, in essence, cashing out.
The question for all of us isn’t if we will transition into a cleaner future, but when, and how quickly. The time is now. (Actually, the time was three or four decades ago, but fixating on that is a waste of psychic energy). If you live in California, especially, write or call Governor Newsom, urging him to support a renewable grid, a Zero Code, an emissions-free building sector immediately. Tell him: Be a climate hero and resist the intense economic pressures that will almost certainly arise if you’re courageous enough to take this step. Tell him: You can be the most consequential leader of your generation. Tell him: This is what bold action looks like: the right intentions, backed not by plaques and platitudes, but the force of law. Tell him: You are in the unique position of being able to almost single-handedly enact profound climate action. Tell him all these things, and more. You won’t be exaggerating the gravity of our situation.