Renovation
Climate Change
Sustainability

Carbon neutral San Francisco: Innovating for future sustainability

Susanne Dyrbøl
Susanne Dyrbøl
15 April 2020

Improving the energy efficiency in buildings and reducing fossil-fuel reliance are major strategies for achieving a carbon-neutral San Francisco by 2050.

Big picture city outdoor
Union Square San Francisco. Outdoor, people.

The City of San Francisco is no stranger to environmental challenges. In 1906, an earthquake struck, and the resulting fires destroyed three-quarters of the city. This was the first natural disaster documented in photographs, and the tremors registered as far away as Cape Town, South Africa. In the aftermath of the devastation, city planners seized the opportunity and rebuilt the city within a decade. The new San Francisco, with its logical and elegant design, once again became the crown jewel of the American West.

Fast forward to the 21st century and the city with its surrounding areas have become synonymous with innovation, progress, and resilience. San Francisco has a history of facing challenges head-on and has now redoubled their efforts towards tackling the climate crisis. As one of the world’s cities directly affected by climate change, the mayor is set to take action. He published a new pathway report with a focus on 2030 to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

San Francisco’s decades' long history of fighting climate change

San Francisco is one of the cities on the front lines when it comes to the climate crisis. The 2030 focus report sets out an ambitious plan for improving the city’s energy efficiency, reducing emissions, and investing in green technologies to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

As early as 1996, San Francisco published its first sustainability plan. The board of supervisors adopted the plan the next year, ushering in a new era of initiatives that sought to make the city more resilient. By 2008, the city already used globally accepted protocols to track and report on their emissions.

This gave them a deep understanding of each sector’s contribution to carbon emissions and allowed them to plot two different scenarios for their 2030 future. The first is a business-as-usual assumption and the second a goal-based approach. The two scenarios highlight the potential savings available if they accelerate their efforts for reducing emissions in the building and transport sectors, among others.

Growing a sustainable future for San Francisco’s burgeoning economy

The Bay Area is a bustling economy, attracting the smartest individuals from around the world. It is home to companies like Wells Fargo, Gap, and Salesforce. The larger metropolitan area of northern California has become an incubator for the world’s leading technology firms, with an economy that ranks 19th overall in GDP compared to other nations.

To maintain this growth, the City of San Francisco will need to protect its population against the harsh effects of climate change. It has already recorded extreme heat events, extended fire seasons in the last three years, and a flood due to heavy rainfall. These impacts on both residents and infrastructure require drastic measures to protect their most vulnerable communities and make the city resilient enough to deal with future climate events.

One of the findings in the 2030 focus report is that electricity demand could increase by as much as 94 percent in 2050. The move towards electrification will require the development of cost-effective, renewable energy sources. While these initiatives face financial and environmental challenges, achieving 100 percent renewable electricity will require increased efforts to reduce energy usage with efficiency measures and changing the behaviour of consumers.

The outcomes of the two scenarios plotted in the 2030 focus report show the stark difference between the business-as-usual and goal-based approaches.

With the business-as-usual approach, San Francisco will in 2050:
  • Retain only 64 percent of renewable energy supply to buildings.
  • Increase the amount of waste generated as their population continues to grow.
  • Not gain additional energy efficiency in their new buildings.
  • Still rely on traditional transportation systems that produce 46 percent of the city’s carbon emissions.
The goal-based approach scenario can help San Francisco to:
  • Provide 100 percent renewable energy to the transport and building sectors.
  • Increase their building stock’s energy efficiency by retrofitting 3 percent of existing buildings every year.
  • Achieve nearly 100 percent of energy efficiency in all buildings by 2050.
  • Increase the private use of electric vehicles to 25 percent by 2030.
  • Reduce their waste generation by 15 percent and waste disposal by 50 percent in the next 10 years, despite population growth.

Building sector identified to help reduce emissions in San Francisco by 2030

Since 2004, San Francisco adopted progressive green building codes to improve energy efficiency in the city’s commercial and residential structures. This allowed the city to reduce electricity use by 200 gigawatt-hours and increase its LEED-certified building space to 133 million square feet. Most heating in residences and commercial properties comes from natural gas. This prompted city officials to identify strategic priorities for reducing emissions in the building sector.

The strategic priorities are:
  • Transitioning away from fossil fuels by electrifying space and water heating systems.
  • Improving existing and new building’s energy efficiency with improved insulation.
  • Using only renewable energy to power all buildings in the future.

Energy-efficient buildings are one of the most effective strategies for reducing carbon emissions in a city. Specifically, San Francisco will reduce their reliance on fossil fuels, currently used for heating 49 percent of commercial structures and 80 percent of residential buildings. By aggressively increasing electrification in buildings, the city can reduce emissions by 22 percent. Moreover, improving energy efficiency in existing stocks could gain an additional 10 percent of reductions by 2030.

Moving towards a clean electric grid will happen in phases. By 2022, all commercial buildings larger than 500,000 square feet (or more than 46,450 square meters) will have to procure their electricity from renewable sources. The same will then apply to structures of 250,000 square feet in 2024 and finally, buildings with more than 50,000 square feet in 2030. The plan is to ensure renewable energy production can keep up with the city’s demand over the next 10 years.

The co-benefits for San Francisco in reducing carbon emissions from buildings

Although the 2030 pathway faces financial and environmental hurdles, the plan provides for numerous co-benefits to San Francisco’s socio-economic structures in the future. If the city can successfully implement the initiatives of the pathway, the co-benefits for residents will include:

  • EquityEnergy efficient solutions, like improved insulation, will help maintain a comfortable living environment while reducing heating and cooling costs. Using enhanced ventilation and superior insulation technologies can reduce exposure to air pollution and help reduce energy poverty in poorer communities.
  • Health – Electrifying the heating, cooling, and cooking systems reduce air pollution that could lead to long-term respiratory problems.
  • Environment – By reducing the reliance on natural gas in buildings, San Francisco will also decrease the amount of greenhouse gas emissions like methane.
  • Economy – Constructing and retrofitting structures with energy-efficient technologies will support the economy. Residents can save money on energy bills, which creates more capital and improves the local economy.
  • Resilience – The infrastructure required for distributing natural gas also poses a safety risk. Electrification will reduce the likelihood of a natural disaster leading to long-term loss of supply. Fire-safe insulation technologies, on the other hand, can improve a building’s fire-safety using non-combustible materials.

More and more, the battle against climate change will rely on individual cities enforcing ambitious sustainable development pathways using building regulations. San Francisco’s new pathway demonstrates the city’s commitment to achieving the climate goal of the Paris Agreement. Providing future populations with safe working and living environments will require a global commitment to improving the energy efficiency of the world’s building stocks.

As climate change will increase the risks faced by future generations, keeping populations safe and healthy should be a primary concern for city officials. Energy efficiency remains one of the best strategies available to city governments for reducing emissions, improving air quality, and increasing fire safety in their buildings.