Outgoing D.C. Mayor Fenty Releases “Climate of Opportunity,” Details Government Climate Action

Incoming Mayor Vincent Gray will have to implement Mayor Fenty's proposals

He may be on his way out of office, but Adrian Fenty, the Mayor of the District of Columbia, is hoping to shape the city’s growth far into the future. Earlier this month, Mayor Fenty announced his Climate Action Plan for the District of Columbia, which would reduce the D.C. government’s greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent by 2012, 30 percent by 2020, and 80 percent by 2050 (relative to 2006 levels).

The District’s 2006 emissions totaled 10.5 million tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent (CO2e), or 18 tons of CO2e for each resident. This puts D.C. below the national per capita average but far above other major cities, such as Philadelphia (11.4 tons per person) and New York (6.4 tons).

The District government was responsible for roughly 720,000 tons of CO2e emissions in 2006, 6 percent of the D.C. total, so even the proposed 80 percent reduction would only slightly lower the District’s overall footprint. While the government accounts for only a small fraction of the city’s emissions, government actions can often have significance beyond their direct impact because of their visibility and their ability to create precedents and markets. So reducing the D.C. government’s carbon footprint as Mayor Fenty proposes could mean far more than just a reduction of 280,000 tons of CO2e by 2020.

D.C. government emissions come largely (59 percent) from the many buildings the District owns and leases; similarly, a large fraction of the emissions reductions will come from buildings as well. The government buys its electricity through the Municipal Aggregation Program (MAP), a reverse auction system created in 2000 that is also open to individual consumers. Since January 2010, District agencies and D.C. Water have shared a joint contract that calls for renewable energy to comprise 50 percent of total electricity purchases, up from a previous level of 10 percent. While the plan assumes no further increase in this renewables share, the city’s embrace of renewable energy alone accounts for roughly half of the proposed emissions reduction by 2050 and well over one-third of the decrease relative to the 2050 business-as-usual value.

Large emissions reductions also come from improving energy efficiency in government buildings and other infrastructure. Almost $24 million in federal funding from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) (otherwise known as the stimulus bill) will go toward completing energy audits—and a hoped-for 10 percent consumption drop—by 2012 and achieving a 25 percent decrease in energy use by 2020. Other emissions-reducing actions in the building sector include modernizing District of Columbia Public School (DCPS) facilities to meet LEED Silver  requirements and retrofitting public housing to increase energy efficiency. In most cases, however, improvements in DCPS buildings merely bring them in line with the District’s existing Green Building Act standards, and efficiency retrofits for public housing have been ongoing since 2004.

Improvements will have a meaningful effect in other sectors as well. Wastewater treatment accounted for 23 percent of D.C. government emissions in 2006 and will similarly account for 23 percent of overall reductions by 2020. D.C. Water has already installed a more efficient diffuser at its Blue Plains facility that facilitates aeration and therefore treats water using less energy. D.C. Water also plans to install an anaerobic digester at Blue Plains that will further break down biosolids and sludge, in order to reduce the volume of waste that must be landfilled and to capture enough methane to generate at least 10 megawatts of electricity. District of Columbia Human Resources is working to reduce single-occupant driving among government employees through a suite of transit incentives, flexible work schedules, telecommuting options, and enhanced bicycle-friendliness.

However, many of the “proposed” actions already seem to be in place. There is nothing wrong with this, and ignoring actions that Fenty’s administration has already taken would be unfair, especially when comparing the District’s progress with that of other cities. For example, New York City has an emissions reduction target of 30 percent by 2030 (relative to 2005 levels), and Seattle and Boston have targets of 80 percent by 2050 (relative to 1990 levels).

The District and Fenty should be applauded for the actions they have already taken. The city’s Green Building Act was the first in the country to require LEED certification for private as well as public buildings, for example. But to call Climate of Opportunity a Climate Action “Plan” seems somewhat of a misnomer. It is largely a review of the District’s successes (in policy if not yet in implementation). Hopefully, however, this will just be the beginning of a larger discussion of both how the D.C. government can continue to push the envelope to reduce its emissions and how it can engage the entire community to reduce the city’s carbon footprint.

To his credit, Fenty includes a lengthy section at the end of the Plan about the ways in which the District can reduce its emissions as a whole and promises a community engagement process that will set emissions targets and identify the best ways to meet them. But that process will have to be carried out by Fenty’s successor, Vincent Gray.

Mayor Gray, elected with the support of mostly poorer, African-American voters, will—with good reason—have many immediate economic priorities that will likely supersede action on the District’s emissions. On the other hand, Gray was elected on a platform of community engagement and dedication to inclusive decision-making, the lack of which Fenty was often criticized for. So there are reasons both to worry and to be encouraged about the future of D.C. climate policy under the new administration.

Climate of Opportunity lives up to its title in that it illustrates both what a committed government can do to reduce its own footprint, and the many ways in which it can drive emissions reductions throughout society. It will be up to Gray to build on Fenty’s accomplishments and generate momentum among the entire D.C. community to cut emissions citywide.

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