Image by United Nations Development Programme and CIS licensed under Creative Commons.

Earlier this week, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser and Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe said they’d honor the Paris climate agreement despite Donald Trump having announced the United States’ withdrawal. If they truly want to mitigate the damage their constituents do to the environment, leaders should support transit and dense housing.

The Paris accord, in a nutshell, is an agreement between countries across the world to bring down their greenhouse gas emissions. The United States signed in 2015, but last Thursday Trump said the country is pulling out because, in his view, its restrictions are far too stringent.

Political and business leaders across the nation immediately voiced their disapproval, saying the United States must remain committed to curbing the damage it does to the environment.

Once the news about Bowser and McAuliffe emerged (Maryland governor Larry Hogan has yet to say much of substance), our contributors discussed how two things we talk about on this blog all the time—transit and housing in denser urban areas—do a lot for that effort.

Stephen Hudson noted that traveling by transit rather than by car brings a person’s carbon footprint down significantly:

Transportation is the second biggest source of greenhouse gases in the US. The American Public Transportation Association estimates a single commuter could reduce around 4800 pounds of CO2 by switching from a car to transit, which would amount to about two out of the 16 metric tons of CO2 per year of per capita that the US currently emits.

Payton Chung said the same, but also added the caveat that when the urban environments where transit is more common restrict who can live there-- by, say, implementing zoning laws that make it very difficult to build new housing-- the benefits get cancelled out:

One UC Berkeley report found that generally, urban-core households have half the average ecological footprint, and exurban households twice the average. Since more compact cities usually have more sprawling suburbs, the average washes out -- but what if we let more people choose cities?

A 2009 report forecast an 11% decline in CO2 emissions from transportation if 75% of development were infill. Another 2017 Berkeley report modeled what a 100% infill scenario would look like.

Cheryl Cort, the policy director at the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said, "We modeled five transit-oriented developments in DC and found that these types of mixed use projects cut average daily driving roughly in half and greenhouse gas emissions even more."

Jared Alves put it all quite simply:

We sometimes get lost in the new efficiency fad without realizing that simple, denser development can have a far smaller carbon footprint because it enables people to walk, bike, and take transit to their destination. By design, urban homes tend to be smaller and often share walls with neighbors, yielding a consistently smaller carbon footprint (and that's without considering transport, which makes suburban homes even worse from an efficiency standpoint).

Local leaders can do a lot to help the environment… or they can just talk about it

Transit and housing are issues that mayors, state legislators, and governors work on all the time. And while Trump pulling the United States out of Paris may be globally embarrassing, having elected officials who aren’t willing to fund transit projects or allow new housing is also problematic.

Joanne Pierce noted that Bowser and McAuliffe’s support for Paris don’t actually mean that much:

This is definitely a symbolic move. It doesn't hurt any of these politicians to embrace Paris or continue doing what they've been doing, and it's fuzzy what it all will actually accomplish (which is part of the challenge of communicating about climate change at a local level).

Scott Kaiser talked about how DC can do a lot more to actually show credibility on the issue:

Mayor Bowser is committing DC to Paris accord days after the DC Council passes a budget to pretty much halt streetcar expansion. If mayors are serious about stepping forward to lead the US without the federal government then we need to double down on investments in alternative transportation infrastructure, bike lane construction, affordable housing, and inclusive neighborhoods. It's time to walk the walk.

David Cranor agreed that it’s local leaders who really need to step up:

I heard an interview on NPR of a guy who wrote a book about how the western US avoided running out of water, which seemed like something that would happen by 1920 or something. He said when he was researching the book that what frustrated him was that there was no silver bullet or moment of victory. It was a million little things. And that's how we're going to fix global warming/ocean acidification, with a million little things. Who better to get that done than mayors and cities.

Bowser could announce plans to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, as the Natural Resources Defense Council recommended back in 2007. That's the single best way to deal with GHG emissions in the District since we're already part of the Transportation & Climate Initiative. Everything else kind of falls under that. Another positive step would be to make the targets and requirements for both programs more aggressive. 

David also pointed out that DC recently cut oney for a renewable energy program:

The DC Council did just vote to strip $7M from the Renewable Energy Development Fund (REDF), which funds solar projects that reduce electricity costs for low income households. Bowser cited past initiatives and some ongoing ones, but not any kind of change. Oddly, one thing she cited was Climate Ready DC which isn't a way to combat Global warming, but rather a way to adapt to it. 

Gray Kimbrough pointed to Takoma Park as an example of where talk and action don’t line up:

Takoma Park's mayor was in the first batch of 84 who vowed to uphold the Paris accord. Of course, Takoma Park residents have also fought against replacing a parking lot with housing at the nearby Metro station.

And Canaan Merchant illustrated the same relative to the Purple Line and Virginia’s transportation plans:

The thing is that people really do believe in environmentalism but they still make anti-environment choices. We see that with people honestly thinking that the best way to help the environment in Montgomery County is to not let the Purple Line run along the Georgetown Branch.

McAuliffe is a good example because he recently signed an executive order that goes after coal plants but his transportation strategy leads to road widening and increasing VMT.

I don't think people are being cynical, I do think there is a genuine fear that all progress is bad and that there's no room for anything new. Projects that have short term environmental effects but long term benefits are harmed by this.

Joanne said more about Virginia:

In VA we still have big issues like widening 66, and then ludicrous issues like the very expensive crosswalk in Tysons that has taken three years to build. And Metro is whole other issue. These municipalities, cities, and states are also still widening roads and spending less on non-car transit projects.

Of course, these ideas extend well beyond the leaders mentioned in this post. When any ANC commissioner or county executive votes to fund a new BRT line or give a new housing development the green light, they’re likely helping to cut back on environmentally-damaging sprawl.

Your local leaders may or may not have recently spoken up about the Paris accord. But what do their actions say about how much they actually support it?