His administration spent $400,000 to produce a draft “Climate Action Plan” that sustainability activists say is vague and lacks concrete action plans.
Advocates from the building industry say the plan threatens the county’s financial recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and call its goals “overly ambitious and aggressive.”
These competing voices, along with the pandemic, have slowed progress.
According to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ most recent study, Montgomery’s greenhouse gas emissions declined 3 percent from 2015 to 2018.
While officials have made some changes, such as securing electric school buses, activists say they fall far short of the county’s 2017 commitment “to use all available powers and resources” to address the climate emergency.
Promises to shut down a polluting trash incinerator and propose legislation to dramatically expand solar panels have gone unfulfilled.
And Elrich, who faces reelection in 2022, did not submit his first major climate legislation to the council until the first week of April — months later than lawmakers expected.
“I think you have to say so far [Elrich] has been a disappointment,” said Jim Driscoll, a member of Extinction Rebellion DC/MOCO, who in 2018 organized a climate-based fundraising event for Elrich’s county executive campaign.
“We’re asking for more because Marc [Elrich] promised more,” said Mike Tidwell, a Montgomery resident and director of the regional Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “Everything he has done is chronically behind schedule, if it happens at all.”
Similar frustrations are bubbling up in communities across the United States, experts say. In a 2020 Brookings report titled “Pledges and Progress,” researchers found that of 45 major cities that have established ambitious climate goals in the past three decades, two-thirds are not on track to achieve them. Some aren’t even tracking their own progress through regular emissions inventories.
“Having a well-intentioned, well-researched commitment is different from having a plan for execution — that’s where cities are struggling,” said Mark Muro, a senior fellow at Brookings and co-author of the report.
To significantly reduce emissions, he said, local governments have to take big swings at issues such as zoning laws, building codes and transportation infrastructure, many of which can be politically explosive or not wholly within their control.
Adriana Hochberg, Montgomery’s climate change coordinator, said in January 2020 that the Elrich administration planned to unveil a series of climate bills that spring, including a set of “Building Energy Performance Standards” that would legally require buildings over a certain size to improve their energy efficiency. The bill landed 14 months later, on April 1.
“It’s a little bit of a mystery to me as to why it’s taken so long,” said County Council President Tom Hucker (D-District 5), who is often an Elrich ally. “I expected to have it a long while ago.”
Elrich said the proposed bill is an achievement despite its tardiness. It would require all commercial or multifamily residential buildings larger than 25,000 square feet to meet government-set energy efficiency standards over the course of 15 years, starting in 2022. According to county data, such buildings account for 50 percent of the county’s greenhouse gas emissions.
“There’s not a lot of meaningful stuff you can do quickly, because the things that matter are all big lifts,” Elrich said. “Big things take time.”
County officials have received significant pushback from trade groups such as the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington, which said the county “seems to trivialize the historic and unprecedented havoc” the pandemic has caused residents. The group urged officials to postpone adoption of the new standards.
Elrich, who has long had deep links to the activist community in Montgomery, said his efforts on climate have been bound by “things beyond my control,” from state and federal regulations to disagreements with the council.
For example, he said, Montgomery has for years wanted a community choice energy program that would allow the government to pool the electricity demand of residents and purchase electricity on their behalf from sustainable sources. A bill asking the state to allow this pilot program didn’t pass the Maryland Senate last year and was approved by both state chambers only last week. It’s headed to the desk of Gov. Larry Hogan (R).
In 2019, Elrich told residents he would introduce legislation requiring all new single-family houses — and possibly apartments and commercial buildings — to include rooftop solar panels, starting in 2022. That proposal never materialized, he said, because County Council members weren’t enthusiastic. He is exploring incentive programs instead.
“When you’re an activist, you want everything tomorrow. I would ask for the same thing,” said Elrich, who as a young man was a member of the Students for a Democratic Society. “Figuring out how to get things done is different.”
To current activists, however, Elrich’s responses appear as excuses.
Eleanor Clemans-Cope, 17, was outraged by the county’s draft Climate Action Plan, which she said more closely resembles a research project. Clemans-Cope, coordinator for the Rockville hub of the Sunrise Movement, said the document doesn’t actually say what the county is going to do — or how it is going to pay for specific actions.
Activists say other local governments have unveiled plans with more teeth: In 2020, a year after declaring a climate emergency, Ann Arbor, Mich., released a 98-page document with 40 action items, a 10-year timeline, a $1 billion price tag, and budget requests for the 2021-2022 fiscal year.
After protesting outside Elrich’s office and home, Clemans-Cope and other youth activists met with him in March. He was dismissive, Clemans-Cope said, dwelling more on the challenges that local governments face than on the teenagers’ appeals.
“He kept saying, ‘Two years is not enough to make major changes.’ But two years is a substantial percentage of the years we have left to fix this,” the high school junior said. “Even if he thinks that it’s impossible to move forward, we need him to. . . . We’ve run out of time.”
Hochberg, Elrich’s “climate czarina,” said “it’s flat-out unfair” for activists to suggest that the county has been dawdling. “We’ve been working very, very hard,” she said. “Developing climate policy and reducing greenhouse gases is not like flicking a magic wand.”
Since taking office, Elrich has helped broker a deal allowing Montgomery County to become the nation’s biggest operator of electric school buses. He launched a bus rapid transit system connecting downtown Silver Spring and Burtonsville. And in his latest proposed budget, he set aside money to transform a bus depot into an electric charging station and to hire three new employees focused on pushing climate action.
These measures are welcome but don’t go far enough, said members of the influential Montgomery County Sierra Club, which did not endorse Elrich in the 2018 Democratic primary.
Dave Sears, who chairs the club’s land-use committee, said a “glaring omission” in the draft climate action plan is the lack of proposals to reduce suburban sprawl and increase high-density affordable housing near transit.
Elrich irked smart-growth advocates in 2019 for questioning housing targets set by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. In 2020, he vetoed a bill that would provide tax incentives for developers to build apartment buildings above Metro stations, though the council overrode his veto. And earlier this year, Elrich acted against the Sierra Club and other climate groups by advocating for measures that would limit the construction of solar farms in the county’s protected agricultural reserve.
“The county executive should be leading, encouraging the County Council and the planning board to make bold decisions,” Sears said. “And he hasn’t.”
A newly formed coalition is demanding a more actionable version of the county climate plan — complete with timelines and budgets — by Earth Day, which is April 22.
Officials say that while they will soon release a 2021 work plan as well as a final version of the overarching climate plan, they won’t be able to meet that deadline. County employees are still going through 500 pages’ worth of comments on the draft plan released in December.
“I’m sorry,” Elrich said about the deadline. “It’s just not possible.”