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D.C. Area Sees Spike In Rate of Emissions

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,
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." (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 29, 2007

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 from 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.

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