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How D.C. beat Capitol Hill to real climate action

As Capitol Hill idles on climate issues, the District of Columbia is taking decisive action on emissions cuts — starting with a citywide green building campaign.

The United States Congress has proven time and time again its disinterest in promoting policies aimed at tackling climate change through community sustainability and resilience initiatives. But the same can’t be said about the government of the District of Columbia, just a few blocks away from the U.S. Capitol at D.C. City Hall.

In July 2011, then-D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray announced his intention to make the District the “healthiest, greenest and most livable” city in the United States.

The lofty rhetoric could help capitalize on the reputational and economic development benefits that have accompanied increased recognition of the city as a growing urban hub for young professionals. D.C.'s actions also dovetail with much broader trends toward more localized climate action led by city and state governments.

But the District also has a complicated history, from intense racial turmoil and entrenched economic inequality to longstanding backlash against the ill-effects of being a federal territory instead of a state (taxation without representation, anyone?)

Recognizing the importance of making any successful sustainability plan a bona fide child of the community, the District spent more than a year soliciting ideas from thousands of local residents and stakeholders.

Vencent Gray, District of Columbia, Sustainable DC
In 2012, Sustainable DC was born.

The citywide initiative aimed to address (PDF) four critical challenges — jobs and the economy, health and wellness, equity and diversity, climate and environment — making the plan a forerunner to similarly comprehensive sustainability efforts that have since emerged in cities such as Los Angeles and New York, where social equity and environmental issues are increasingly recognized as interconnected.

The Sustainable DC program pursues seven solutions focused on the built environment, energy, food, nature, transportation, waste and water. The District also issued an updated Climate Action Plan, which outlines specific measures to reduce emissions 50 percent below 2006 levels by 2032 and 80 percent by 2050.

Taking a three-pronged approach to reaching those goals, the plan addresses the ways residents, businesses and the District government can work together to reduce climate impacts by limiting greenhouse gas emissions. A positive side effect the city also hopes to realize: ensuring economic competitiveness.

"After decades of population decline, the District has seen a solid decade of population growth," the Sustainable DC plan (PDF) notes. "As our population expands, we have an important decision to make."

The plan outlines two scenarios: taking "decisive action" to ensure that all residents benefit from an expanding tax base and new urban amenities, or allowing "historic gaps in education, income, housing and access to transportation [to] further divide our city."

In a bid to realize the former, Gray in late 2012 announced seven initial projects that received a combined $4.5 million in funding, including several efforts to upgrade city agencies' operational efficiency, a new demonstration center for urban agriculture, a study on waste-to-energy conversion and new climate and green purchasing protocols.

Gray also signed into law seven complementary policy measures in January 2013, covering issues programs ranging from urban agriculture to energy efficiency, renewable energy upgrades, environmental conservation and public health.

To promote city resilience, the District also has outlined ways to adapt buildings, land use policies and wastewater, transportation and energy infrastructures to respond to climate impacts.

Gunning for greener buildings

The District’s status as the nation’s capital gives it a slightly different carbon emissions breakdown from many cities: its economy is driven more by brain power than industrial brawn.

Buildings — many of them administrative hubs for massive federal agencies, foreign embassies, lobbying groups and think tanks — generate 75 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the District, according to the District Department of the Environment.

“Our focus on building and green building policy made a lot of sense in terms of the highest level of impact we can have,” William Updike, green building specialist for the District Department of the Environment, told GreenBiz. “This has led to national leadership in green building deployment.”

The District has a history of progressive green building policy and implementation. It was, for example, the first U.S. city to pass a green building law. D.C. also ranks highest in the nation for the deployment of green roofs.

“Folks from all over the world come to D.C. to ask us about our green building policies and deployment,” Updike said.

To date, the District has 585 LEED-certified projects, which includes over 110 million square feet of certified space. The District also recently dethroned Los Angeles as the leading metro area for number of Energy Star certified buildings.

While it might seem intuitive that government buildings account for most of these green buildings, only 10 percent of the District’s LEED certified buildings belong to the federal government — some 85 percent are privately owned.

But the District wants to go beyond LEED and EnergyStar to do more with green buildings, Updike said. One thing the District has done is create a green building fund grant program to drive innovative green building solutions. This includes looking at next generation green buildings and microgrids.

In recognition of the financial barriers to green building expansion, the District is exploring innovative financial structures, as well as the creation of a green bank, according to Updike.

The District government also has collaborated with private sector players to develop and implement green building policies. The District’s Green Construction Code, for example, was shaped largely by members of the business community.

“I was the chair of the working group for the Green Construction Code,” Updike said. “Seven of the nine voting members on my advisory group were private sector members. I ran it as a democratic process. So, whatever the majority of the votes came in at, that’s what we pushed forward to the construction code board.”

Greener buildings have the dual benefit of mitigating climate change while also improving resiliency, Updike noted. After all, buildings that use energy more efficiently are less susceptible to climate impacts.

What's next?

In April, the District released its Second Year Progress Report (PDF), which showed headway is being made towards Sustainable DC’s goals.

Between 2006 and 2013, the District’s greenhouse gas emissions fell by 16 percent. Granted, there’s still a long way to go to reach 50 percent by 2032.

Earlier this year, Mayor Muriel Bowser assumed office with much enthusiasm for Sustainable DC. Updike said the mayor “gets” sustainability beyond the political level and has been engaged with the program. Bowser even made an appearance at this year’s Global Citizen 2015 Earth Day, where she called on Congress to take climate action.

In the preface to the progress report, Bowser outlines her holistic approach to sustainability and urban development:

“Sustainability is one of those words that evokes different things to different people. So, I’ll tell you what sustainability means to me," she began. "Sustainability means a stronger economy with more opportunities for good-paying jobs. Sustainability means healthier neighborhoods with safe places to be active outside and better access to healthy food. Sustainability also means having more efficient homes that help keep our utility bills lower. Those are things every District resident can get behind.”

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