Fair­fax County is fall­ing be­hind on the cli­mate cri­sis


Ten years ago, Fair­fax County pledged to re­duce green­house gas pol­lu­tion. The com­mit­ment, known as the Cool Coun­ties pledge, was an­nounced with fan­fare and is still fea­tured promi­nently on the county web­site. The goals of the pledge are to re­duce green­house gas emis­sions from pub­lic and pri­vate sources by 80 per­cent by 2050.

The county’s goals are right on the money. But whether the county is meet­ing them is in doubt. Re­cent com­ments by Fair­fax County Board of Su­per­vi­sors Chair­man Sharon Bulova (D) about the county’s progress to­ward its Cool Coun­ties pledge may con­fuse res­i­dents. They ob­scure the cen­tral fact about the pledge. Per the county’s goal, pol­lu­tion for 2015 should have been 14.9 mil­lion met­ric tons. Was that tar­get met?

The chair­man’s state­ments re­fer to a per capita re­duc­tion in green­house gas pol­lu­tion. Yet the Cool Coun­ties com­mit­ment is for a to­tal re­duc­tion. This small change of words mat­ters be­cause the county can avoid ad­mit­ting car­bon pol­lu­tion has gone up by say­ing that, be­cause the pop­u­la­tion has grown, per-per­son pol­lu­tion has gone down.

Her state­ments are based on an emis­sions as­sess­ment pub­lished at the be­hest of the Metropoli­tan Wash­ing­ton Coun­cil of Gov­ern­ments in 2012. The county has not pub­licly mea­sured progress in the years since.

De­ter­min­ing whether the goal has been met should be sim­ple. An ac­count­able, trans­par­ent reck­on­ing is needed. If the county has met its tar­get, we’ve started down a good path. If not, we should make small, cre­ative in­vest­ments to re­duce our fu­ture en­ergy costs.

In de­vel­op­ing pro­grams, Fair­fax County can look at how re­gional peers have achieved sim­i­lar goals. Ar­ling­ton County, Mont­gomery County and the Dis­trict have mea­sur­able tar­gets in re­duc­ing car­bon pol­lu­tion, mu­nic­i­pal bod­ies with ded­i­cated fund­ing to achieve the tar­gets and trans­par­ent re­ports on their progress.

For ex­am­ple, neigh­bor­ing Ar­ling­ton County has an of­fice with nine staff mem­bers work­ing full time on the tran­si­tion to clean en­ergy. In con­trast, Fair­fax County has a lone “en­vi­ron­men­tal co­or­di­na­tor.” Clearly, more can be done. Bulova and the Board of Su­per­vi­sors have done good work on sus­tain­abil­ity. The county’s re­cy­cling pro­gram is among the na­tion’s finest. Our parks are a place of pride, and wa­ter-qual­ity pro­grams pro­tect our streams. Many new build­ings are LEED-cer­ti­fied, and the county is up­dat­ing its 20-year En­vi­ron­men­tal Vi­sion to in­clude cli­mate change.

The chair­man her­self has an­nounced that she will re­con­vene a pri­vate-sec­tor task force to study how to move for­ward to meet cli­mate and en­ergy goals.

These ac­com­plish­ments are a good start and should con­tinue. But the county can go fur­ther.

An over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of Vir­gini­ans sup­ports ac­tion on cli­mate change. Ac­cord­ing to a bi­par­ti­san poll con­ducted in 2015 for the Na­tional Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil, 88 per­cent of Vir­gini­ans sup­port in­creas­ing the use of clean and re­new­able en­ergy, and 95 per­cent sup­port in­creas­ing the use of en­ergy ef­fi­ciency to meet Vir­ginia’s fu­ture en­ergy needs.

Fair­fax County could use its po­si­tion to con­vene, ex­em­plify and ed­u­cate, much as neigh­bor­ing ju­ris­dic­tions have done. Fair­fax County could be a re­gional leader. But, un­for­tu­nately, the county’s rel­a­tively weak sup­port of its Cool Coun­ties pledge af­fects us all neg­a­tively.

The eas­i­est way to re­duce green­house gas pol­lu­tion is to be­come more en­ergy ef­fi­cient. More ef­fi­cient homes and busi­nesses would mean less money paid to­ward util­ity bills ev­ery month. By act­ing on its Cool Coun­ties pledge, the county would help res­i­dents and small-busi­ness own­ers re­duce their util­ity bills. Un­for­tu­nately, the county is not even re­duc­ing its own util­ity bills, and res­i­dents and busi­nesses ul­ti­mately sign those checks, too. The county’s in­ac­tion costs all of us money.

Cli­mate change means less frozen wa­ter and more liq­uid wa­ter, which means the loss of land. Tax­pay­ers are al­ready on the hook for a $30 mil­lion bond to build a levee to pro­tect the Hunt­ing­ton neigh­bor­hood from floods. As the polar ice caps melt, sea-level rise is ex­pected to per­ma­nently flood ar­eas along the Po­tomac from the north­ern end of the county near Rea­gan Na­tional Air­port through Belle Haven and down to Po­hick Bay. That may re­quire ei­ther the con­struc­tion of ad­di­tional costly lev­ees or the aban­don­ment of homes and busi­nesses.

We need Fair­fax County to reded­i­cate it­self to the Cool Coun­ties pledge and keep the prom­ises it made to all its cit­i­zens.

The writer is founder and chair­man of Faith Al­liance for Cli­mate Solutions.

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