Paris shmaris

Sep 11, 2017

Good old American ingenuity is what we need to save the planet, not a cumbersome set of rules and regulations.

A great deal has been written, and there has been significant handwringing, about America backing out of the Paris Climate Agreement. But, more than any other country, America – thanks to forward-thinking companies, professionals in our industries, and consumers – has made enormous progress in reducing our environmental footprint. And the Paris accord has had nothing to do with it.

There’s more to this progress than a blind championing and adherence to a worldwide climate accord. It’s called leadership. And America has done a very good job through several noticeable constituencies to reduce our environmental impact. There’s been peer pressure among and between corporate CEOs to consider energy and material conservation, along with recycling and waste reduction. There’s been pressure from prospective employees, relentlessly quizzing companies about their environmental programs, as well as customer/client pressures about an enterprise’s environmental approach to the manufacture of their products.

Why has this happened? Certainly, the drumbeat of global warming (which, in my opinion is still not settled science), has made the public aware of potentially disastrous changes to our planet. But there’s so much more to it than CO2 in the atmosphere. Our concern and response regarding our planet must include elimination of toxins in the environment and the development of renewable energy sources being realized in the advances in solar and wind energy. In Nevada, NV Energy, for example, is now able to build a solar power generation array, and they’re doing it at a lower cost per kilowatt hour than a gas-fired turbine. Many wind generators in the United States are producing power below the cost of more conventional oil, gas, or coal plants. Material conservation and recycling are big considerations. Let’s face it, there’s only a limited supply of petroleum, aluminum, steel, copper, zinc, and many other substances, so recycling has become a strong mandate.

The U.S. Green Building Council, with their LEED certification programs – along with Energy Star and other metrics that provide tools to the design and construction industries – have done much to help us respond to our serious concern for conservation. And there’s competition in the market to build net zero energy buildings, as well as other such programs, throughout the country. Together, we’re doing this through public awareness and increasing peer pressure, which is much more effective than making rules and demanding adherence. I contend we should spend more time searching out and elevating those who truly embrace the objectives of reducing the use of complex hydrocarbons and toxic materials, and weeding out those who can’t or won’t. Here are some examples:

  1. BP has renamed itself “Beyond Petroleum.” And that’s not just a carefully-crafted marketing line. BP is a major wind-energy producer and, for a while, they were manufacturing photovoltaic panels, the first batch of which went onto my house in San Francisco in 2001.
  2. Ray Anderson, then the CEO of Interface Carpet, wrote a wonderful book titled Business Lessons from a Radical Industrialist. The subtitle is, How a CEO Doubled Earnings, Inspired Employees and Created Innovation from One Simple Idea. The simple idea? We must be completely sustainable for our planet to survive and be a place I’m proud to have left to my grandchildren.
  3. Our West 2nd District project here in Reno, a high desert and very dry environment, will have its own waste treatment/water recycling system, using 50 percent of the water a conventional building here would use. We’re building a central heating and cooling plant that will reduce energy in the district according to our current projection by 34 percent. We’ll also have several photovoltaic panel arrays, and we’re exploring generating electricity from vision glass. I was the champion of sustainability at Gensler for many years. We made believers of our colleagues and our clients as we created proof statements about the value of what we were doing. In most cases, the cost was lower to start, and the long-term operational savings were impressive.

And all of this is without a Paris Climate Agreement, a carbon tax on top of complex rules and regulations. People are doing these things because of public education and peer pressure. Invigorated by the great American Spirit, people are doing this “because it’s the right thing to do, not because someone is shoving it down my throat.”

I challenge you to get out there and publicize your success stories and those of others. Spend more time leading and guiding others to embrace what you’re learning. I believe this will be 10 times more effective than any rule generated by the Paris Climate Agreement.

Ed Friedrichs, FAIA, FIIDA, is a consultant with Zweig Group and the former CEO and president of Gensler. Contact him at

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