DC Has More Climate Work to do Than You Think

Written by Nicole Schroyer

Washington, DC is a national icon when it comes to climate action. We don’t always get as much recognition as states but hey… we’re used to that. In December 2018 we officially became one of the strongest national climate action leaders. After years of intense advocacy, coming from actors such as CCAN, DC Climate Coalition, and DC residents, the DC Council unanimously passed the Nation’s most ambitious clean energy law.

The DC Climate Coalition fights for clean energy, 2018.
  • 100% renewable (NOT nuclear) energy by 2032.
  • Emissions free public transportation and privately-owned fleet vehicles by 2045.
  • Strong new energy efficiency standards for new and existing buildings larger than 50,000 sqft (which make up 74% of DC’s electricity driven emissions).

This. Is. Climate. Leadership.

DC’s climate leadership doesn’t stop there. In July 2019, the US Green Building Council released a report ranking the country’s greenest states by LEED square footage per capita. DC didn’t make the top ten list… but not because it isn’t the greenest, but because it isn’t a state. Actually, DC boasts more square feet of LEED certified construction per capita than any state in the US.

AND, this year, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy ranked DC 5th on the city scorecard, which compares emissions reducing initiatives in 75 of the largest cities around the country. 

AND, the District’s median Energy Star efficiency score is 74 while the national average is only 50.

We are setting a top tier example for other cities and states, and for the world. Go us! 

Proposed 2-megawatt solar array, shown in this rendering, that will consist of more than 5,000 solar panels and be located on land owned by the Washington Archdiocese in northeast Washington D.C. (Catholic Energies).

AND, the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, along with others, recently announced a plan to create DC’s largest solar array of about 5,000 panels.

AND, In August, PEPCO, the largest distributor of electricity in the District, reported that 5.4% of the energy they supply to DC is coming from renewable sources. According to the new law, 17.5% of DC’s energy needs to come from renewables by December 2019. This is where RECs (Renewable Energy Credits) come in. Pepco will make up for the 12.1% difference with these credits. When we reached out to Pepco they said they are “on track” to meet the 2020 RPS. 

Sidebar: [However, as Tyrion Lannister once said, “nothing someone says before the word ‘but’ really counts”]

BUT there is more work to be done.

You probably remember that the IPCC has said we have 12 years to make unprecedented changes to our current system. The headline was everywhere. The IPCC was basically repeating what scientists and environmentalists like me (and maybe you) had already known for years. Climate change is a real AND time-sensitive issue. 

Headlines after the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 1.5°C Special Report was released.

That’s why DC’s climate legislation is so important. It sets a legally binding timeline for DC to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2032, and sets us on the path to a carbon neutral economy in the District.  Although it’s one of the most ambitious climate laws in the country, it may not be ambitious enough. The climate crisis, which we are already experiencing in DC, calls for something as tough as – if not tougher than – what we enacted.

Twelve years from 2018 (when the IPCC 1.5°C special report was released) is 2030. The District won’t even be running on 100% renewable energy by then, let alone be carbon neutral. 

Michael Marshall, in an opinion piece for Forbes, explains what the IPCC’s warning really means, stating “the reality is that there is no such cut-off: just a problem that gets worse and worse the later we leave it.”

What Climate Change Means for the District:

On July 8th the District received a month’s worth of rain in an hour. Let me say that again… a MONTH’S WORTH IN AN HOUR. It’s predicted that in DC, a 1-in-100 year storm will become a 1-in-25 year storm by 2050, and a 1-in-15 year storm by 2080. We must act now before this becomes our reality.

During the deadly heat wave in late July, DC’s Heat Emergency Plan was implemented. Six lives were lost due to the heatwave. Not normal. Not okay. This is climate change. No. These are signs of a climate emergency.

What’s worse? Despite the climate emergency being felt locally, the important timeline that the climate law mandates is perhaps in jeopardy. 

The District’s public transportation system is supposed to be emissions free by 2045, yet WMATA doesn’t even have a plan in place to transition to electric buses. 

Vehicles are the second highest emitters in the District, comprising 23% of all emissions. The Clean Energy Act requires the DC Department of Motor Vehicles to create a vehicle excise tax incentivizing fuel efficient vehicles by January 1, 2020, yet there are no public reports on current steps being taken by these agencies.

In July, MOMS Clean Air Force, a grassroots organization of over a million moms and dads hosted the play-in for climate action. Children from all over the country came to the Capitol to tell the hill to act now. CCAN, MOMS and others lobbied DC Council to implement the provisions of our new law before it’s too late.

In DC, low-income residents spend as much as 12% of their income on energy utility bills. The Clean Energy Act requires that in 2020, the Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) and the DC Sustainable Energy Utility (DCSEU)  will allocate at least 30% of the funds from the sustainable trust fund increases to low income residents for programs including energy bill assistance and workforce training. To date, no progress has been reported on these initiatives. Accountability and transparency are critical to making sure we achieve the change we need for a livable future.

Our new law funded the DC Green Finance Authority, effectively establishing one of the nation’s first Green Banks. It’s expected to attract $5 private dollars to every $1 public dollar to help fund clean 

energy projects in places such as low-income communities around the District. However, corruption is already a concern for the DC Climate Coalition. Denise Robbins, Communications Director at CCAN, wrote an op-ed featured in the Washington Post, illuminating issues with the newly confirmed nominees to the DCGB board. Conflicts of interest tamper with the effectiveness of an organization that has the ability to have a positive effect of this magnitude.

Stories like these put a bad taste in DC residents’ mouths. When we lose hope, we lose this battle.

The DC government isn’t doing a great job at generating trust. And this is a government-heavy law. DC residents need transparency and clarification as to how the law is going to be implemented. There is danger in resting now. The government must be held accountable through the implementation process. We have the opportunity to solidify our role as leaders in a global transition away from carbon.

We want our law to set an example of what is possible when people work together to solve complex and seemingly insurmountable problems at a local level.

Here’s what needs to be done:

  • The DC Council should request updates from the DMV and DOEE regarding their plans to create the excise tax by the established deadline of January 1, 2020.
  • The DC Council should ask the DOEE and the DCSEU to report on their progress in establishing plans, including community outreach and engagement, for meeting funding goals for low income residents by 2020.
  • WMATA should develop and implement an electrification plan immediately.
  • The D.C. Council should pass an amendment that requires the Green Bank to establish strong oversight policies as law.

Please join us in this fight. Sign up to volunteer, stay updated through our email list, donate — one or all of the above. Anything helps. Together, we can keep moving DC forward.