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.

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Adrian Fenty, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, greenhouse gas, renewable energy, Vincent Gray, washington dc
Exxon Mobil and XTO announced their merger last month.

Exxon Mobil and XTO announced their merger last month.

When Exxon Mobil and XTO Energy Inc. announced their $41 billion merger last month, the news was big enough to penetrate the fog of war in Copenhagen – and to prompt Representative Ed Markey (D-MA), co-author of the House climate and energy bill, to call a hearing on the merger’s impact on U.S. energy markets. Congress and the natural gas industry have a lot to talk about this year, and as the hearing, which took place last week in the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, revealed, concerns over consolidation in the industry will be only a small part of the agenda. 

After their notable absence from the table while the House crafted climate and energy legislation last year, natural gas interests began the new year with newfound momentum. Natural gas caucuses have formed in both the House and Senate, and environmental leaders including Worldwatch Institute president Chris Flavin and former Sierra Club president Carl Pope have expressed optimism about the role that natural gas, which emits less than half as much carbon dioxide as coal when burned, can play in the transition to a low-carbon economy.

In the coming year, Congress will consider the NAT GAS Act (H.R. 1835, S. 1408), which creates and expands incentives for natural gas vehicles. Natural gas could offer numerous benefits over gasoline and diesel as a transportation fuel, chiefly its lower emissions and domestic availability, now thought to be almost a hundred year supply thanks to technological advances unlocking vast reserves of shale gas.

The natural gas industry will also have an opportunity to redefine its role in the national discussion of climate and energy legislation. As the cleanest fossil fuel, natural gas stands to gain in the power and transportation sectors – if Congress succeeds in putting a price on carbon. 

At Wednesday’s hearing, Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon-Mobil, and Bob Simpson, XTO’s Chairman of the Board, proved that they are polishing their message. In virtually identical language, each declared that their companies’ merger would “support our nation’s economic recovery, strengthen our nation’s energy security, and help meet our nation’s environmental goals.” These sentiments were echoed by congressmen on both sides of the aisle, who expressed interest – and in some cases, outright glee – over the jobs the merger might bring to their state, and the supply of abundant and relatively clean energy that the companies could unlock in American shale gas formations. Nevertheless, hydraulic fracturing, the controversial technique driving the shale gas boom, quickly emerged during Wednesday’s hearing as an area of concern for congressmen on both sides of the aisle. 

Representative Joe Barton (R-TX) lamented congressional attempts to restrict hydraulic fracturing.  “If we can prevent the Congress or EPA from mucking around in hydraulic fracturing,” Barton noted, “this merger should go through….Because you have a codicil in your pending merger agreement that if Congress passes legislation then I guess either party has the right to call the merger off.” 

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Climate Change, energy security, natural gas, washington dc
Photo courtesy of Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

As a former Minister of the Environment turned Chancellor, Angela Merkel had already proven those wrong who surmised that environment positions are a dead end to high-rising political aspirations; now she became only the second German politician (after Konrad Adenauer, the first head of a German government after the Second World War, in 1957) who received the honor to address the U.S. Congress; and as a widely respected leader on environmental issues who is, at the same time, the leader of a conservative party, she would be well positioned to appeal to cautious Republicans when talking about climate change and energy reformation—at least I had hoped so in a recent interview with Reuters.

Angela Merkel in her speech on Capitol Hill yesterday, just weeks after her reelection for a second term (this time as a leader of a center-right coalition) was moved by the honor and the standing ovations she received from U.S. lawmakers even before she had started her speech. Following up on her promises, she spent a good portion of her talk on climate change, urging Congress and the Obama administration to take bold steps to address the issue, in her view one of the “great tests” of the 21st century. “We all know we have no time to lose,” she said.

But her remarks did not resonate with most Republicans. While Merkel’s remarks were met with passionate applause from Democrats, almost the entire Republican side—including key swing voters, such as Independent Senator Dick Lugar from Indiana and Republican Senator Olympia Snowe from Maine—remained silent. When the Chancellor pointed out that reducing greenhouse gas emissions would spur economic and jobs growth worldwide, the same partisan gulf occurred.

Already earlier in the day, Republicans had refused to attend the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s markup of Senators John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) and Barbara Boxer’s (D-Calif.) important climate bill (Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act). The only one out of seven Republican Senators on the committee who showed up for the meeting was Sen. George V. Voinovich (Ohio) who briefly expressed the Republican opposition to the committee’s proceedings. In their view, the Environmental Protection Agency has not done enough economic analysis of the Kerry-Boxer bill. Democrats, however, accuse their opponents of pure gamesmanship pointing out that the Kerry-Boxer bill is modeled after the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, which passed the House side of Congress earlier this year and underwent intense economic scrutiny, including from the EPA.

Angela Merkel can tell a great success story about green jobs creation in Germany. The country—home to Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Opel, and Volkswagen—is on track to have more people employed in the environmental technology sector than in the automobile industry as early as 2015. It has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 20% since the beginning of the 1990s. But it seemed yesterday as if only half of the U.S. representatives were ready for Merkel’s optimism—one that has often been echoed by President Obama in the past.  Regarding the Copenhagen UN climate summit, Merkel said: “I’m convinced, once we in Europe and America show ourselves ready to adopt binding agreements, we will also be able to persuade China and India to join in ….No doubt about it, in December, the world will look to us, to the Europeans and to the Americans. ” Thus far, only half of America looks back.

American Clean Energy and Security Act, Boxer, China, Climate Change, Copenhagen, Democrats, economic analysis, emissions reductions, EPA, Germany, green jobs, India, Kerry, Lugar, Markey, Merkel, negotiations, Obama, Republicans, Senate, Snowe, transatlantic relations, U.S. Congress, Voinovich, washington dc, Waxman

Before coming to DC to witness climate and energy discussions, I had been warned, of course, that big business is trying to protect its interests and the status quo while undermining progressive regulations, like elsewhere in the world. But I was also looking forward to a strong other side of the debate in this city – creative politicians and innovative businesses bubbling over with new ideas, trying to shape the energy future. To be frank, during my first week in the U.S., I saw a heavy representation of the former overshadowing much of the latter.

A case in point was the Climate Change Conference 2009 by the CQ-Roll Call Group at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center on Tuesday, October 20, at which senators, business representatives and other stakeholders debated climate policies and possible solutions for the energy sector. With only a few exceptions, two paradigms were particularly prevalent in the discussion. The first one sounded something like this: ”We need to continue using coal and capture and store the emissions, although this is going to be very expensive, we do not know when technology will become available and whether it will be safe.” The second one went along the lines of ”We should use nuclear energy even though it is expensive and risky and nobody wants it in their backyard.” Following these paradigms, climate legislation of course seems like maybe a necessary, but definitely unpleasant, burden. Following these paradigms also means failing to see the opportunities in climate change mitigation and changing the way we produce and consume energy.

david-and-goliath-sumos2[1] Why should it be so obvious that America has to rely on coal? Just because the resource is domestically available? And why should citizens bear the enormous direct and external costs of nuclear energy? Just because it provides constant output, so called ”baseload-energy” (unless there is a maintenance problem?) Renewable energy resources are abundant in the country, too. The technologies are readily available today and further progressing rapidly – and they come without destructive mining practices, cause virtually no emissions, and do not require expensive and potentially unsafe end-of-pipe carbon capture and storage technologies. At the same time, energy efficiency technologies and savings measures can slash the need for power, heat, and transport fuels, while cutting costs and creating jobs (see for example the Greenpeace/EREC Energy [R]evolution Scenario for the United States.)

A cost-effective and efficient renewable energy supply would in fact move away from inflexible “baseload” production. Instead, it would balance various renewable energy sources against each other and across regions, while at the same time using sustainable biogas or concentrated solar thermal power (which can be ramped up and down as needed), storage technologies liked pumped hydropower storage and smart demand-side management to provide robust and reliable supplies. This, of course, would require businesses and politicians to think beyond just adding an expensive end-of-pipe technology or trying to revive a technology that, for good reasons, nobody has volunteered to invest in for decades here (the last U.S. nuclear power plants were ordered in the 1970s.) And it presupposes that the strong representation of backward-looking industry does not drown innovative and truly sustainable developments in the United States.

As for my second week in DC, my wish is simple:  Creative politicians and innovative businesses, enter the spotlight!

carbon capture and storage, coal, lobbying, nucular energy, washington dc
Demonstrators form a Circle of Hope in front of the White House

Demonstrators form a Circle of Hope in front of the White House

I was in Lafayette Square—the park in front of the White House—and the rain seemed to be hitting me from every angle. A couple of event organizers from the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) and I were setting up a stage and a sound system, preparing for the arrival of demonstrators who were marching from the Climate Action concert and rally up the road.

Although the weather had been clear and warm for most of the day’s events, the rains swept in just as the march to the White House was beginning. The CCAN folks worried that much of the crowd would disperse back to their warm, dry homes rather than join the march. But lo and behold, as the police escort arrived at Lafayette Square, followed by a big green Solar Bus, we could see an impressive mass of umbrellas following behind a banner that read: “Stop pollution and poverty – 350 now!!”

The demonstrators rolled into the park, chanting and waving rain-soaked banners. The inclement weather had clearly united them beyond their common cause: to bring public attention to the climate goal of a 350 parts-per-million concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Rally chants ranged from “Three, Five, O!” to “We’re here, we’re wet, it’s no sweat!” The demonstration culminated in the forming of a big “0” in front of the White House.

Across the world on October 24, demonstrators formed the numbers ”3,” “5,” and “0” in settings that included the pyramids in Egypt, the steps of the Sydney Opera House, and the face of a cliff in New York. These actions have been in the works for more than a year, coordinated by the international group and implemented by millions of local activists.

In Washington, D.C., the events of the International Day of Climate Action were spearheaded by a special partnership between CCAN and the Hip Hop Caucus. The rally banner reflected the partnership’s dynamic: “Pollution and Poverty.” Thus, the D.C. action focused especially on the linkages between climate change and environmental justice. The mission of the Hip Hop Caucus is: “to organize young people in urban communities to be active in elections, policymaking, and service projects, as a means to address and end urban poverty for future generations. Many of their rallies include performances by popular hip hop artists, bringing their messages to large, urban, and sometimes unengaged crowds.

Climate activists, too, can be disengaged in their own ways, focusing on broad global goals such as 350 ppm and forgetting that climate resiliency also means building the capacities of local communities—especially the urban poor—to adapt to changes that are already unavoidable. Michele Roberts, with Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, was met with cheers when she spoke in front of the White House saying “Mr. Obama, we must remember that we have our own communities right here at home that are vulnerable to climate change.”

The Hip Hop Caucus brought a stellar lineup of D.C. musicians to the stage on Saturday. A CCAN organizer commented that it was some of the best music that has ever accompanied a climate rally in the nation’s capital. One rapper performed songs with explicitly environmental lyrics and had the crowd chanting “There’s no such thing as waste” and “reduce, reuse, recycle!”

This elaborate fusion of media and messages reminded me that getting to 350 will require a movement much more robust than one of high-level professionals working to reduce carbon emissions. It will require the engagement of all sectors of society. And for many of those sectors, especially the wealthiest, it will require a transformation of culture. The rally in D.C. showed me that we’re on our way—and that even in bad weather, we can’t be stopped., Climate Change, climate effects, climate justice, demonstrations, environmental justice, equity, Obama, washington dc