The District of Columbia will be carbon-neutral and climate resilient by 2050, under a pledge that Mayor Muriel Bowser made while attending the North American Climate Summit in Chicago last December. DC now joins 25 other world cities (and Montgomery County) in making similar pledges. Essentially, all of these jurisdictions promise to reduce carbon emissions to almost nothing, although there can be “offsetting” activities like growing trees to absorb a small amount of carbon.
This ambitious pledge is just the start of a long journey ahead. Now DC, which has successfully reduced its emissions by 23 percent between 2006 and 2013, has just 32 years to get all the way to zero.
A necessary step, with far-reaching consequences
Shifting to a clean energy economy will improve public health by eliminating air and water pollution from dirty fossil fuels, and strengthen the local economy by reducing dependence on imported fuels. Most importantly, humans must zero out our carbon emissions over the next generation to forestall the catastrophic effects that climate change threatens to wreak upon the District and the world. Already, rising seas are eating away at the District's shores and threaten to drown large areas of the city. Local summers are becoming even more unbearable with extended heat waves and spreading tropical diseases.
Yet today's unsustainable, fossil-fueled energy system accrued over many generations — from the coal barges that floated down the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal centuries ago, to the gas turbines being installed today at the Capitol power plant. To undertake a shift to clean energy within just one generation's time requires wrenching, disruptive change, writes Bill McKibben:
Not bend the trajectory somewhat, as the Paris accords envisioned, but simultaneously jam on the fossil fuel brakes and stand on the solar accelerator (and also find some metaphors that don’t rely on internal combustion)… Global warming is the first crisis that comes with a limit – solve it soon or don’t solve it. Winning slowly is just a different way of losing.
Or, as David Roberts writes in Vox:
It is genuinely difficult to wrap your head around the scale of action needed to avoid catastrophic changes in the climate. It would mean an immediate, sustained global mobilization of a sort that has no precedent in human history. If something like that mobilization were to happen, it would not be gentle or pretty.
Zeroing out carbon pollution on a District-wide scale, and within one generation, cannot be done just by switching out light bulbs. Instead, getting to net zero carbon will require breaking our reliance upon fossil fuels, changing much about our daily lives and fundamentally re-imagining our communities.
The DC Department of Environment and Energy is creating a Sustainable DC 2.0 Plan that incorporates some of the specific steps necessary to reach the net-zero goal, potentially including a followup plan that would focus specifically on carbon reduction. C40, a group of cities including DC that have pledged to lead on climate, has researched the process more generally, and urges far-reaching changes in four key sectors: electricity, building efficiency, waste, and transportation.
Existing plans are an incomplete start
DDOEE's existing Sustainable DC plan already puts an ambitious climate goal (an 80 percent reduction in emissions) front and center among its key objectives. It then outlines multiple other goals, touching all four sectors that C40 outlines, for other District agencies to incorporate into their plans as ways of achieving the broader sustainability and climate objectives.
DDOEE itself is in charge of managing progress on three of the sectors that C40 outlines (electricity, buildings, and waste) where necessary zero-carbon technologies are both proven and ready to scale, given the right policy measures. DC already has started towards mitigating carbon emissions from the residential and commercial sectors. There are already “net zero energy” houses and office buildings in DC, and the District has published studies about how advanced energy technologies could spread to all buildings, especially as new structures are built or as old ones are renovated.
In addition, carbon emissions from electric generation are plunging nationally, as filthy coal power plants are shuttered and as renewables are becoming the most cost-effective source of power. DC has further to go in achieving its goal of zero waste, but notable near-term plans include curbside compost pickup.
The transportation sector is the single largest source of carbon pollution in the District and nationally: the 1.8 million daily car and truck trips in DC emit more carbon than heating and powering either the District's residences or its commercial buildings. Shifting cars to cleaner fuels like electricity requires decades of sustained investment, given the long lifespan of both vehicles and fueling infrastructure — and even efficient car trips still require tremendous amounts of energy.
Instead, shifting new trips to zero-emissions walking or biking, and energy-efficient transit, is a time-tested way of reducing transportation's energy needs, while also saving valuable urban land and reducing local air and water pollution. That's why Sustainable DC also set twin transportation and planning goals: increasing the District’s population by 40 percent and shifting 75 percent of commute trips out of cars. As then-mayor Gray told the Post at the time, “We’re looking at adding 250,000 people over 20 years. If everyone drives, that’s unsustainable.”
The District Department of Transportation incorporated these baseline goals as the very first goal within its own departmental plan, MoveDC, and has since crafted an implementation strategy to measure progress against the plan.
Alex Block points out that these goals are certainly doable, but it isn’t easy. To do so will require more than doubling transit capacity, almost tripling bike capacity, and cutting car capacity by 7 percent. It would avert over one million VMT every weekday — which (with current emissions factors, which assume today’s technology) would cut 580 tons a day from DC’s carbon emissions, more than three times as much as the reviled Capitol Power Plant puts out.
Yet DDOT can only do so much to cut the transportation sector's carbon emissions on its own. As a recent Transit Center publication notes, “the urgency of reducing carbon emissions demands broader action, including shifting behavior from driving to sustainable modes like public transportation.” It recommends “three key arenas where city leadership could make a sizable dent in transportation emissions: Adopting transit-supportive development policies, charging drivers their fair share, and reducing car trips via better street design.” Only the last two of those recommendations are within DDOT's purview.
Addressing transit-supportive development policies will require remaking the urban fabric, so that people can live and work in locations where those new transit stations and bike lanes are convenient — and where driving is inconvenient. That's a job for the Office of Planning and its Comprehensive Plan.
Cutting carbon means tackling transportation
Other jurisdictions that have embarked upon carbon reductions are also running up against the same challenge. As Conor Dougherty and Brad Plumer wrote in the New York Times,
Although many cities and states are embracing cleaner sources of electricity and encouraging people to buy electric vehicles, they are having a harder time getting Americans to drive less, something that may be just as important.
California has pledged to reduce its carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, and is finding that it's already falling behind its targets for the transportation sector, writes Liam Dillon in the LA Times.
Former state Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), who wrote the 2016 law that set the new greenhouse gas reduction targets, said the most challenging aspect of meeting the state’s climate change goals will be changing development patterns… State climate officials don’t assume that everyone will spend less time on the road, but they’re planning for a significant percentage of Californians to do so — and for many to abandon cars altogether. For that to happen, more people will have to live near where they work or shop, which means more housing in urban neighborhoods and other job centers.
Roberts echoes the sentiment in Vox:
California’s experience shows that decarbonizing the electricity sector is both possible and profitable, but to reach its ambitious carbon targets, the state will now have to decarbonize transportation — which brings a whole new and daunting set of difficulties.
Oregon's recent update on its climate action goals also highlighted the transportation sector as a particular challenge, says Joe Cortright:
The reversal of the recent trend in emissions declines, both in the transportation sector and statewide, likely means that Oregon will not meet its 2020 emission reduction goal.
The difficulty in cutting carbon emissions from transportation is largely because transportation policies are closely tied to infrastructure and urban planning policies, both of which shape the built environment for generations. Zoning ordinances, dating back to 1920, mandate energy-intensive, low-density development patterns across much of DC — assuming that there will perpetually be multi-ton single-occupancy motorized vehicles to access them, and prohibiting more compact, energy-efficient patterns.
Yet unlike California, DC doesn't have vast expanses of deserts and mountains that have to be equipped with electric vehicle charging stations. As an urban center, we can take a time-honored approach to zero-carbon transportation by focusing on walking, bicycling, and transit.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step
Development policy changes must be implemented early on, due to the very long lead time between their adoption and substantive results. Yet DC's existing Comprehensive Plan, which was written in 2006, gives climate only a passing mention. Its update, now being prepared, must place carbon cuts front and center — after all, it's meant to plan the District's future until 2036, just 14 years shy of the mayor's deadline for carbon neutrality.
The Comprehensive Plan could do likewise, perhaps by adopting C40's “climate positive development” framework. “Climate positive” new developments not only commit themselves to net zero carbon emissions but also improve neighborhood connectivity — allowing residents and neighbors alike to benefit from more convenient services.
This requires a completely different paradigm for neighbors: thinking about the opportunities and benefits, not just costs, that new development brings to their communities. Under-development of a site leads to opportunity costs, such as the opportunity to provide more local services and the opportunity to protect more ecologically sensitive sites elsewhere — not just the potential external effects of “over-development.”
Sadly, American zoning codes are based in a century-old legal framework that treats new development as a nuisance to be managed. As such, zoning typically sets only upper bounds on density while almost always neglecting the equally pernicious hazards of low density.
Here’s the perverse twist: Fighting density, even in the name of preserving nature, may also actually block the best chance we have of restoring more natural function to cities!
Stop digging deeper
Building for a zero-carbon future will also require smaller changes to everyday structures. A net-zero-carbon city will burn almost nothing in the way of fossil fuels — so the District should be taking action now to begin phasing out fossil fuel infrastructure, as other cities have started doing.
One obvious way to start is to allow deteriorating fossil fuel infrastructure to phase itself out. For instance, the gas station industry is in a steep, potentially terminal decline, and many of DC's filling stations are more valuable as land than as businesses.
Instead, an antiquated District law seeks to keep the gas pumps going, resulting in both local and global pollution, rather than permitting their orderly closure and cleanup. A filling station (or a bus garage) that replaces its underground fuel storage tanks today will likely be pumping carbon for the next 30 to 40 years — but DC is expected to wean itself off fossil fuels in just 32 years.
The Sustainable DC 2.0 Plan may recommend a followup plan focusing specifically on carbon reduction. But by the time that plan is underway, the Comprehensive Plan update will be well underway or even complete — and not due for comprehensive revision until 2026. Now is the time to incorporate carbon reduction into the city's plans.