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.