Former vice president Al Gore
Tipper Gore, from Our Choice/Rodale Former vice president Al Gore

PHOENIX, Nov. 11 — The theme of this year’s Greenbuild conference may be “Main Street Green,” but the feeling during tonight’s opening plenary—headlined by Al Gore and singer Sheryl Crow—was decidedly global. “The green revolution affects everyone and everywhere,” USGBC president and CEO Rick Fedrizzi told the crowd of thousands at the Chase Field baseball stadium. “The solution must be global.”

Over the course of the event, 11 representatives from USGBC’s international chapters addressed the crowd to emphasize the growing importance of sustainable building practices around the world.

Each country’s needs are different and each is at a different point in its sustainability initiatives. In Australia, for example, the focus is on the continent’s dry climate. “Green building is providing a solution to conserve precious water,” said Romilly Madew, CEO of GBC Australia and recently named the country’s businesswoman of the year.

In nearby New Zealand, where the environment is faring well and the lifestyle is laid back, the focus is on putting investment into higher quality homes; South Africa is working to simultaneously address environmental needs and social issues such as poverty and a backlog of housing.

One theme that resonated: the reality that green building is necessary—and the optimism that it can be achieved.

“In Canada, LEED is going mainstream,” said Thomas Mueller, CEO of the Canada Green Building Council. “We believe that every building can be green.”

In Germany, the focus is on the 80% of the housing stock built before 1980. Sustainable construction is already economical today, said the chairman of the German Sustainable Business Council, and it will become the way we build everything worldwide.

Indeed, “We’ve reached the point where green building no longer needs to be proven, just implemented,” Fedrizzi said. “The current time is one of great upheaval and at the same time one of mind-blowing opportunity.”

Three elements—natural disasters, wars in the Middle East, and powerful leaders articulating the consequences of our actions—have created a perfect storm for the need for real policy change. “From this day forward, we can demand no less from our leaders because the stakes are just too high,” he said.

Fedrizzi’s comments were echoed by the night’s keynote speaker, former vice president and climate advocate Al Gore, who praised the pros in attendance for their leadership while calling on elected officials to enact the regulations and incentives that will drive change and encourage efficiencies in new and, in particular, existing buildings.

“We are in a time where we have to make big changes,” Gore said, “and you guys are making big changes.”

Gore noted the close ties between the environment, the economy, and national security. The 2.5 million potential green jobs can help the current financial crisis, for example, while upping our renewables will lessen our dependence on foreign oil and the tension it creates globally. The roller coaster of prices and demand for carbon-based fuels “is headed for a crash, and we’re in the front car.”

“We have all the tools we need to solve three or four climate crises; we only need to solve one,” Gore said. But solving the problem is more than just switching out light bulbs—it requires changing laws.

Outdated local codes, for example, need to be overhauled. On that level and nationally, incentives and legislation must be used to ease some of the upfront costs to homeowners for investing in green building technologies that in many ways help the country as a whole.

Now is the time to challenge our system of democracy and force change, Gore said. Even climate skeptics should be proactively seeking incentives and changes in the name of a better economy and improved security.

“The future is coming at us and we need to accept responsibility for what needs to be done,” he said. “I know in my heart we’re going to solve this. I know that in the United States of America political will is a renewable resource.

Both Gore and Fedrizzi challenged attendees—residential and commercial building pros—to continue to push forward. “The old way of doing things is bankrupt,” Fedrizzi said. “Now is our time and we must lead.”

Katy Tomasulo is Deputy Editor for EcoHome.