John Seymour is a 40-year resident of Arlington.

Since it issued its first Community Energy Plan in 2013, Arlington County has been at the forefront of regional efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Over the past 10 years and despite substantial population growth, the county has reduced its carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 25 percent.

Arlington is updating its plan to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Instead of the target of 3 metric tons of carbon dioxide per capita annually by 2050 established in 2013, the staff has recommended a new target of 1 metric ton. According to county staff, the “aspirational 2050 target of 1 metric ton of CO2 per capita per year simultaneously pushes the limits local jurisdictions have in Dillon Rule states the costs associated with change, and the aspirations of local community leaders and activists.” (Arlington is prevented from taking legislative action unless specifically authorized to do so by the Virginia General Assembly.)

At a public work session in June, the Arlington County Board unanimously rejected the staff recommendation and directed county offices to plan to achieve a more aggressive 2050 target of “net zero” — no net increases in carbon dioxide emissions. This goal has been endorsed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as necessary to prevent catastrophic impacts to the biosphere. The County Board went even further and directed the staff to plan for a trifecta of zeros, including two new goals not addressed in the plan: a target of 100 percent renewable electricity for county government operations no later than 2025 and a third target of 100 percent renewable electricity countywide by 2035.

Despite misgivings about “overpromising” and unresolved issues of technological feasibility and marketplace and regulatory realities, the board said localities must act aggressively to address the exigencies of global warming — particularly in the absence of federal and state leadership. The County Board will formally consider the plan at its Sept. 21 meeting.

Charlottesville announced on July 1 that it has become the first locality in Virginia to commit to carbon neutrality by 2050, although city planning staff conceded that a path to achieve carbon neutrality “is not currently clear.”

The absence of a clear path forward was a theme repeated throughout the Arlington work session, as well. Emphasizing that the plan’s ambitious goals “cannot be achieved in a vacuum,” county staff pointed to the absence of state laws and regulations promoting the move to green energy. Jurisdictions with precise and well-rendered plans for carbon neutrality, staff pointed out, typically benefit from community-owned utilities, mandatory renewable portfolio standards (requiring utilities to make substantial investments in renewable power), laws authorizing the purchase of renewable power from non-utility sources and a host of other advantages not found in Virginia. The Virginia General Assembly has been exceedingly reluctant to boost investments in wind and solar. Indeed, the signature Republican energy initiative this year was to prohibit Virginia from joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. The climate-change deniers now in control of federal energy policy have rolled back or canceled scores of important environmental and energy initiatives intended to mitigate adverse climate effects.

Despite these obstacles, Arlington might still conceivably achieve “net zero” by simply purchasing carbon credits/offsets or renewable-energy certificates or engage in other transactions to cancel out the grid-supplied “dirty energy.” To achieve Arlington’s 2025 net zero electricity goal for county operations, staff estimated that the county would need to obtain offsets or credits or resort to other creative finacial strategies equal to 84 percent of its electricity consumption. But these approaches can be costly and raise issues of equity.

Drawing on his experience as an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, Board Chair Christian Dorsey viewed proposals to “essentially pay off” Arlington’s emissions surfeit attractive as a political goal but worried that doing so might simply free policymakers from the hard work of driving down emissions locally.

The staff’s task is not an enviable one. Beginning in early 2018, the staff began work on the new plan and developed an energy model, conducted market research and engaged in broad community outreach. Staffers set a highly ambitious target for carbon reduction that, they felt, struck the appropriate balance between “being a set of aspirational goals and policies and mapping a realistic vision that can be implemented.” Now, the staff must revise the draft, consistent with the County Board’s directive, and incorporate entirely new targets — unmoored from the modeling and market research conducted over the past year — together with strategies and tools to implement them. Nothing has changed in Richmond or Washington, however, and the staff will find little help there.

Although the County Board deserves credit for its clear and bold expression of political will on an issue of momentous importance to us all, Arlington’s path to net zero remains — at least right now — buried beneath layers of state and federal inertia, disinterest and outright opposition. The best path forward for Arlingtonians concerned about global warming and the future of the planet may ultimately lie not in electric cars, solar panels or carbon credits and offsets, but in the November elections.

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