D.C. Area Sees Spike In Rate of Emissions
Carbon Dioxide Increases 13.4% In 4-Year Period
The Washington area is in the middle of a carbon dioxide binge, with emissions of this greenhouse gas from vehicles and electricity users having increased at more than twice the national rate between 2001 and 2005, according to a Washington Post estimate.
That estimate, which appears to be the first to track the region’s emissions from those two key sources, found a 13.4 percent increase. Nationally, those emissions grew by 5.6 percent in the same period.
The Post used traffic statistics and utility records to track the two major components of greenhouse gases; other sources, such as farms and airplanes, were not easily quantified.
Environmentalists say that these numbers illustrate an unwanted legacy of Washington’s recent economic boom: Population grew, but emissions grew faster. As exurbs have crept out to farms and forests, the region has required more energy for home air conditioners and long- distance commutes.
The estimate also gives a sense of the task facing local governments, which are taking their first steps toward measuring and reducing greenhouse gases. But with emissions increasing so quickly, their goals appear to be
receding even as they are set.
“ The first stage is understanding the problem and committing to trying — and I don’t think we’ve gotten there yet,” said Paul Ferguson ( D), chairman of the Arlington County Board. In January, Arlington began a program to conserve energy and tap renewable resources such as wind. “ We’re nowhere close,” he said.
Emissions jumped the most in suburban Virginia, where the estimate shows an increase of more than 18 percent. Emissions from the Maryland suburbs grew less, about 11 percent, but that rate still outpaced the country’s.
The brightest news came from the District, where emissions grew 6.7 percent. D. C. officials said they think the relatively low increase is partly a sign of changing behavior: Residents were leaving their cars at home and walking, biking or taking public transit.
Carbon dioxide, which is produced when fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal are burned, is one of several gases that accumulate in the Earth’s atmosphere, trapping heat from the sun. Scientists blame such emissions for a gradual warming trend over the past few decades. They worry that more emissions, and more warming, could trigger widespread changes in nature.
In the United States, national statistics show that carbon dioxide makes up about 84 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. The data also indicate that about 58 percent of U. S. carbon dioxide comes from two sources: power plants and the tailpipes of cars and trucks.
But much less information is kept at the local level. When the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments voted this month to establish a committee on climate change, its first request was that the committee measure emissions. That task is expected to take months.
The Post estimate began with data on miles traveled by cars and trucks in local jurisdictions and the amount of kilowatt hours used by utility customers.
Then, using methods from the U. S. Energy Information Administration, those figures were used to calculate the total amount of carbon dioxide emitted from vehicles and power- plant smokestacks. [ See the chart for details.]
The figures from those calculations leave out greenhouse gases from other sources, such as agriculture, planes, boats and oil furnaces. Those missing figures could account for half of all emissions.
Still, the figures provide a glimpse of the Washington area’s contributions to a global problem. They show that, even as climate change was becoming an urgent issue, residents were producing steadily more of the pollutants that cause it.
Jonathan Cogan, a spokesman for the Energy Information Administration, reviewed The Post’s calculations and said the agency’s formulas appeared to have been used correctly. “ This doesn’t represent everything, but it does represent two major sources of emissions,” he said.
Carbon dioxide pollution is different from smog, which is composed of gases that cause problems closer to the Earth’s surface. By contrast, carbon dioxide winds up in the upper atmosphere. The Washington area does not meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s smog standards; the EPA does not have regulations on carbon dioxide.
Across the area, carbon dioxide emissions increased faster than the population, which grew about 5.5 percent from 2001 to 2005. Environmental groups said that this is an indication that the problem is not only growth but the way in which the region has grown.
“ People have moved farther and farther out and drive more and more miles,” said Frank O’Donnell, president of the Districtbased Clean Air Watch. “ What it’s telling you is, sprawl is causing a big increase in greenhouse gases.”
In the past few months, several jurisdictions have pledged improvements.
Maryland has joined the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a pact among Eastern states to reduce emissions from power plants. Last week, Gov. Martin O’Malley ( D) signed a “ clean cars” bill to impose tougher stan- dards on autos.
Last year, Washington became the first major city in the country to mandate that some large new developments have “ green” buildings designed to conserve energy. Montgomery County has a similar rule.
And in Virginia this year, Arlington and Fairfax counties have announced plans to reduce emissions. Fairfax’s program, called a “ cool counties” initiative, includes a proposal to buy 10 percent of the electricity for county government from wind farms, which produce no greenhouse gases.
Some residents are taking advantage of green- friendly policies. State Department employee Ed Fendley, for instance, commutes from his home near Ballston by bicycle. His zero- emissions trip is made possible by Arlington’s bicycle lanes and the showers and bike rack provided by his employer — and his willingness to endure rain, snow and bad drivers.
“ It still beats sitting in traffic,” said Fendley, who is a member of the Arlington County School Board.
But much bigger changes will probably be necessary over the next few decades for the D. C. area to reduce emissions. Development will have to be clustered around mass transit, experts say. In far- flung suburbs, residents might one day rely on plug- in hybrid cars, which can run for long distances without burning gasoline.
And utilities will have to build plants that capture carbon dioxide or use non- fossil fuels.
That day seems far off. In Virginia, the Dominion power company has proposed a new plant to keep up with growing demand for electricity. The facility, planned in Wise County in the southwestern part of the state, would have pollution- reducing features.
But it would still burn mainly coal.
“ Until a fuel comes along that can produce the same amount of megawatts with the same cost,” coal won’t be supplanted, Dominion spokesman Dan Genest said.
Still, many people concerned about pollution said last week that they are hopeful— encouraged by the attention being paid to climate change.
“ We are starting,” said Matthias Ruth, director of an environmental research institute at the University of Maryland. “ We are asking the right questions.”
Ed Fendley bikes to his job at the State Department from his home in Ballston. His zero-emissions trip is facilitated by bike lanes and a rack at work. Despite foul weather and bad drivers, he says, “it still beats sitting in traffic.”