San Francisco governance

Posted on November, 12 2013

Setting an example for urban sustainability

Setting an example for urban sustainability

As one of the finalists in WWF´s Earth Hour City Challenge 2013, San Francisco distinguishes itself for its broad and institutionalized environmental action. It is famous for a number of innovative solutions which have since spread to other cities, such as its ban on plastic bags and GoSolarSF, the first local US subsidy program for solar PVs. And with ambitious commitments such as zero waste by 2020, 40% GHG emissions reductions by 2025 and citywide carbon free electricity by 2030, it is setting a strong example for urban sustainability.

San Francisco was awarded the title National Earth Hour Capital in Earth Hour City Challenge 2013

Keywords: governance, solar city, climate action plan, green electricity, toxics reductions

San Francisco is one of a handful of cities worldwide, along with Vancouver in Canada, Curitiba in Brazil and Freiburg in Germany that appears to be going through a paradigm shift after decades of activity on environmental issues and the subsequent development of a comprehensive sustainability strategy. What might have started out as a marginalized activity has now become an integrated concern.

For San Francisco’s city council, environment is now an overarching principle, integrated in all city work. This is reflected in the development of SF Environment’s own website and the establishment of the Commission on the Environment, a seven-member body appointed by the Mayor, which sets policy for the Department of Environment and advises the Mayor, Board of Supervisors, and other City Departments on environmental matters. By cooperation with the business community in the Business Council on Climate Change and a number of other public outreach programs, the city's sustainability agenda is also permeating the local community.

Pioneering pays off
As a result, San Francisco has become a pioneer in a range of urban sustainability initiatives, many of which have spread to other cities. And it pays off: just in the last few years, the city has been awarded as Most Walkable City, Top Solar City, Top Clean Tech City, Top City for Green Jobs, Best Role Model in Green Building Policy and Most EV-ready Community in the US. Aside from awards, the city’s programs also generate business and jobs, driving the clean tech market and spurring other emerging green businesses - in 2012 alone the programs were responsible for 2 198 green jobs.

As shown in other articles here, San Francisco has been an innovator in food policies, waste management, and nature conservation. But these are just the start: the same can be said about the city’s work with climate change, energy, green buildings, transportation, toxics reduction, green purchasing and more.

Integrated climate action
San Francisco’s Climate Action Plan is integrated into the operations of all 54 of the city’s departments and agencies, which report their carbon footprint and sustainability metrics annually, in a process managed by SF Environment. The city has some of the most ambitious and detailed goals for city-wide GHG emissions reductions: 20% reductions below 1990 levels for 2012, 25% by 2017, 40% by 2025 and 80% by 2050. In 2012, the emissions were 14.5% lower than 1990 levels - not quite meeting its target, but very low compared to other US cities, and an indicator that the policies have an impact, especially considering that the city’s population has grown substantially. The city also succeeded in reducing its operational carbon footprint by 12% in 2012 from a 2005 baseline.

San Francisco is one of the top 5 solar cities in the US, with a tremendous increase in solar PV installations in recent years, driven partly by a number of policies introduced by the city. The most famous is GoSolarSF from 2008, the first local subsidy program in the US. Other examples are a web-based solar map for the public, and programs for targeting commercial property owners, addressing multi-tenant barriers to going solar, facilitating residential solar group purchases and implementing innovative financing mechanisms, including solar group buys with local businesses and schools. In 2012, according to the city, the number of solar PV installations had reached 3,500 with a combined capacity of 21 Megawatts (see also San José).

City-wide green electricity
The solar programs are one part of the city’s efforts to reach its 100% city-wide renewable electricity generation goal by 2030. In the program CleanPowerSF, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is already reaching out to residents, offering the option to choose clean electricity. The municipal government’s own operations, including all buildings, are already run on hydroelectric power.

San Francisco has intensified its work with buildings, both old and new. The city has one of the largest energy-efficiency programs in California, including for example its EnergyWatch and Boiler Replacement Program. And the long-term goal of its Green Building program is to ensure that all new and existing buildings match green standards such as LEED.

With the Clean Transportation program, San Francisco has started to tackle what is usually the greatest challenge for US cities. Its goal is to reduce GHG emissions from the transport sector to 20% below 1990 levels and enhance the city's liveability and air quality. The program includes initiatives to encourage mass transit commuting, improve public transport and cycling conditions and install electric vehicle charging stations, and has already received recognition for reducing petroleum consumption.

Precautionary principle
San Francisco bases its environmental policies on the precautionary principle, and was the first city in the US to require the city government to choose the safest alternatives in its decisions. This is now implemented more specifically in the Toxics Reductions Program through green purchasing and hazardous waste collection.

In 2012 the Zero Waste program (described separately) achieved, with the help of the Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance, the milestone diversion rate from landfill and incineration of 80%. The program is a continuation of the city's innovative efforts in waste management, which includes its famous ban on the procurement of single-serve water bottles and the ordinance on plastic bags. Over 50 cities around the US have since adopted plastic bag bans of their own.

Worldwide Fund for Nature, ”Earth Hour City Challenge 2013”,

Earth Hour City Challenge, People’s Choice, San Francisco,
carbonn Cities Climate Registry, Earth Hour City Challenge,

SF Environment

The Department of the Environment, City and County of San Francisco, ”Annual Report 2012”

Solar America Cites, 2011, "San Francisco, California", from Solar in Action: Challenges and Successes on the Path toward a Solar-Powered Community, U.S. Department of Energy,

Cleantech Group, ”Cleantech Group Recognizes San Francisco as 'Cleantech Capital of North America'”, March 2012,

Forbes, ”The Top 10 Cities For Green Jobs”, July 2012,

Sustainable Building Advisor Program, ”San Francisco awarded WorldGBC’s 'Best Green Building Policy'”

Text by: Martin Jacobson

Solar PV downtown San Francisco
© Photon Magazine
San Francisco governance
EHCC-awarded 2013