Does Washington DC’s new Sustainability Plan “Sustainability DC” really move the city closer to true sustainability, or is it just a bunch of sustainabbable?

Sustainable_DCDeveloped out of inclusive stakeholder deliberations and research into issues surrounding sustainability, the city’s plan lists several goals and steps that might collectively help the city reach  “true” sustainability—or at least get it one small step closer. The plan builds on ongoing sustainability initiatives and strives to help DC overcome challenges presented by the unsustainable American economy, unhealthy food and lifestyle choices, inequity and a lack of diversity, and climate change and environmental degradation. With 2032 as the deadline for its completion, the plan’s most impressive “solutions” for achieving sustainability include: cutting citywide energy usage in half, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50% and water usage by 40%, increasing renewable energy use up to 50%, and requiring “all new building and major infrastructure projects to undergo climate change impact assessment as part of the regulatory planning process.”  Other major aspects of the plan include encouraging increased access for residents to healthier food choices and local-food options, reduced wasteful transportation, water, and garbage use, and the establishment of more wetlands along the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers.

Yet the plan falls into several traps.  Although the plan defines sustainability at the outset and affirms the need for action, the measures with the greatest potential for making DC sustainable are “long-term actions” that may still lack a specific timeline and “may be five to 20 years away” from implementation. Such long term measures include steps to move away from fossil fuels and high resource usage, to enhance the health of the city’s surrounding ecosystems, and to start a District product stewardship program, pay-as-you throw garbage collection, and a bottle-deposit-program. These measures will also “involve active consultation with stakeholders” before implementation to “craft the specifics” despite the urgency of the aforementioned measures’ implementation and the low economic costs some of them carry.  And even if implemented, there is still a good chance of failure because of the plan’s heavy reliance on insufficient “carrots” or “sticks”—such as encouraging individuals to engage in “smarter [and healthier] consumption”, measures that will be implemented by community action alone, and increased efficiency standards and technological fixes—without shifting the structures in a way that will sufficiently foster sustainability.

Capital Bikeshare Bikes in DC

Capital Bikeshare Bikes in DC–definitely part of the sustainability solution but only if nearly all the cars from the streets of DC are removed. (Image courtesy of Jason Tester Guerrilla Futures)

The plan also perpetuates the myth of limitless economic growth, conflicting with the fact that endless growth is physically impossible on a finite planet. If this were a true sustainability plan, regional economic degrowth would be front-and-center (even if DC itself was growing in total population). For example, as Jennie Moore and William Rees note in their chapter, one planet living means an average of 0.004 cars per person. In a city of 500,000, that means DC would be almost completely car-free, with vehicles constrained to buses, emergency vehicles, and a small fleet of taxis and rental cars.

Table 4-1 from Jennie Moore comparing sustainable and unsustainable levels of consumption

Table 4-1 from Jennie Moore comparing sustainable and unsustainable levels of consumption

Without implementing structural and institutional changes, the plan’s measures will hardly make DC a sustainable city. Granted, such changes are, for the most part, out of the city’s control, since it is still considered a taboo to confront overconsumption and unsustainable economic growth. While not realistic to break through those taboos, at the least planners could acknowledge that the complex realities DC faces–i.e. a pluralistic, consumeristic society entrenched in an incremental political system with unevenly shared power; being locked-in to a fossil fuel based energy infrastructure; and so on—make the plan they have proposed at best a roadmap for a “Less Unsustainable DC”.

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