DC wants to be "the healthiest, greenest, most livable city in the nation." As it prepares to revise its sustainability plan, the District government is asking residents to define what sustainability means to them.
Following President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, a framework for nations to report greenhouse gas reductions and avoid the worst impacts of climate change, DC's Mayor Muriel Bowser expressed her continuing support for the agreement and continued action at the local level to meet the U.S. pledge.
The mayor is coordinating her action through a group called Climate Mayors. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is leading another group of mayors, governors, universities, and businesses, and negotiating with the United Nations to treat local greenhouse gas reduction pledges along with those of the nations that signed the agreement. But what can states and cities do?
States (and the District) generally have the power to regulate activity within their borders, including the three main sources of greenhouse gas emissions: electricity generation, some parts of transportation, and energy use in buildings and factories. Cities' power is limited by the states, but they include regulating land use, which has an impact on transportation and energy use in buildings, as well as regulating these two sectors directly. By exercising these powers, states could meet the Paris targets without the federal government, and the District (and Maryland and recently Virginia) are on their way.
For the past four years, the District government's actions have been guided by the Sustainable DC Plan, which commits the city to various environmental targets, while providing jobs and improving health. Specific actions in the plan include increasing recycling and composting, growing the transit and bicycle networks, and improving building efficiency. So far, District agencies have completed a quarter of planned actions and even surpassed some of their goals, such as the number of trees planted annually.
But what about greenhouse gas emissions and the Paris Agreement? The Sustainable DC Plan seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2032 and 80% by 2050, relative to 2006. So far, the District has reduced its emissions by 24%. That's on track to surpass the former U.S. Paris commitment of a 26 to 28 percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2025. Continuing to support the Paris pledge therefore seems like an easy goal. Can DC go further?
What's next for Sustainable DC?
As the plan turns five years old, the District Department of Energy & Environment (DOEE) is reaching out to residents to see what sustainability means to them and what to prioritize. DOEE held two open houses on May 31 and June 4 to speak with residents and will hold more over the summer.
I attended the June 4 open house and was surprised to not see poster boards or elaborate planning exercises. Dan Guilbeault, manager of DOEE's Sustainability and Equity Branch, explains that was by design. Rather than starting the conversation with the environment, DOEE is asking for input first, and will "map sustainability onto what they care about," says Guilbeault, appealing to people who may not "come to a meeting on sustainability."
Once the input is in, DOEE will organize working groups by topic to develop specific goals and actions to meet them. In the first iteration of the plan, these groups addressed transportation, energy, food, nature, waste, and water. A overarching goal will be to better integrate sustainability with the way District agencies operate. To do that, Guilbeault says it will be crucial to involve them in the development of the plan.
Broad feedback so far
Residents have provided broad feedback during the open houses, but Guilbeault sees a focus on waste and composting, as well as jobs and "affordability and equity." The latter topics make sense when considering the broader definition of sustainability as social, economic, and environmental. Sustainability should be about preserving what really matters for future generations. Having little environmental impact is a necessity, but so is making a living. How can you preserve the future if you cannot see a future for yourself and your family?