To meet climate change goals, San Francisco tries networking

Climate change is an extraordinarily complex phenomenon that no one sector of society can hope to address alone. As a result, network approaches have become more widespread in recent years, with people and organizations being tapped to coordinate solutions across different groups. This has proved particularly effective at the city level, which affords the opportunity to test ideas and partnerships that can then be scaled up to the regional or national stage.

I witnessed this coalition-driven change in action as a Climate Action Fellow with San Francisco’s Business Council on Climate Change (BC3), which serves as a convener between the municipality and the private sector. I recently caught up with the group’s executive director, Michael Parks, for Doggerel.


When and why was the Business Council on Climate Change formed?

It came about initially in 2005, when San Francisco hosted World Environment Day. That’s a United Nations initiative. Essentially, the UN Global Compact put a challenge to San Francisco to come up with an interesting approach to addressing a pressing environmental issue.

The discussion around climate change was really just getting started on a national level at that time. Early 2006 was when climate change was on the cover of every magazine — that was the year An Inconvenient Truth came out. So San Francisco responded to the UN challenge by putting together a pretty open-ended forum to discuss what it should do about climate change. People from the City spent time working with stakeholders to figure out what meaningful action would look like. They decided that a place for government and business to work together on climate issues would be really useful.

Early on we had a diverse membership of large and small businesses. We’ve gone through several iterations since then. For the past four years or so we’ve focused on working with the larger corporations in town.

We’re looking for opportunities for businesses to collaborate with each other or with the City on projects that are ahead of the curve, versus simply trying to get them on the curve.

Partnership facilitation is very important. I spend a lot of time fielding phone calls and emails from people who are working in powerful institutions but have no idea who’s across the aisle in city government or at a different company. This is a big problem — there are so many aspects of San Francisco’s climate goals that you really can’t tackle with just government alone, or just the private sector, or just the nonprofits. It’s really important to have a platform that helps these groups look at different issues and say, “What are our respective roles in this? What are the areas where we really need to work together to get some traction?”

I spend a lot of time fielding phone calls and emails from people who are working in powerful institutions but have no idea who’s across the aisle in city government or at a different company.

Has it gotten easier to bring companies on board over time?

Definitely. One thing that’s happened since 2005 is that most of the companies we work with now have at least one in-house sustainability professional. In many cases, they have whole sustainability teams. That makes collaborative action much easier.

Since I’ve been here over the last three and a half years, many of the businesses involved in BC3 have gotten a lot more comfortable with the idea of San Francisco as a leader in sustainability.

That’s really where the experiment is. We’re trying to convince employees and management of multinational corporations headquartered here that they have a responsibility to give back to the city in this way. The message that’s getting to people both in business and in the city government is that San Francisco is a global leader in innovation. It’s a global leader in progressive politics, in taking early stances on moral issues. We’re trying to convince companies to use San Francisco as the lab where they do things related to climate change first.

What does this look like in practice?

The things that are working well for BC3 are about aggregation of some kind — aggregating voices to support municipal policy. We’re aggregating through a program that gives discounts on residential solar and electric vehicles (EV). It’s called SunShares. We pooled together cities and companies, and they all committed to conduct outreach to their employees and residents. The number of potential consumers on this list was massive, so we were able to approach the solar and EV industries and request discount programs. We also held educational workshops all over the Bay Area that provided neutral technical assistance for people thinking about going solar or buying EVs. So that’s a case where the businesses we work with see the program as an incredible employee benefit that also addresses climate issues.

We’re also looking at things like aggregating corporate demand for renewable energy. Large corporations can get great prices on renewable energy deals, but smaller companies can’t. Can we aggregate those smaller companies to act like a big company and get more renewable energy deals on the market? There’s value in people banding together for these kinds of things. You can change the economics of the game.

We’re always hearing from companies with new ideas. The challenge is figuring out how to prioritize and take action on the right ones to support the City’s official climate action goals.

What are those goals?

The City’s recently taken all of its previous work and boiled it down to three numbers and a word: 0, 50, 100, roots.

Zero stands for zero waste. We have a goal of sending no waste to landfills by 2020. Fifty stands for a 50% reduction in single-passenger auto trips — getting people out of cars and onto public transportation, bikes, et cetera. Embedded within that goal is the idea of electrifying the remaining cars. One hundred stands for 100% renewable energy. Roots is about enhancing the Bay Area’s capacity to act as a carbon sink by planting trees. It also speaks to restoring habitat and looking at new topics like improving carbon sequestration in regional rangelands.

San Francisco’s Sea Cliff

San Francisco’s Sea Cliff

BC3 was initially a feedback mechanism for telling the City what the business community thought about this framework. Now that it’s been vetted, we use this framework to have discussions with our members about projects they’d like to work on.

Questions or comments for Michael Parks or Andrew Wade? Contact or

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