DC Council must match climate rhetoric with action

For decades, scientists have warned us of the catastrophic environmental and economic consequences that will result from our over-reliance on fossil fuels. And, yet, we wait. And wait.

Despite concerted attention drawn to the Anacostia River during the “Year of the Anacostia,” we are paying its climate impacts no mind. DC is likely to see record flooding by 2040. Already, the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers have risen roughly 11 inches in the past century, putting thousands of residents at risk.

Earlier this week, Chairman Mendelson introduced a bill that would increase the District’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) for clean electricity to 100% by 2050. First enacted in 2005 and expanded in 2016, the Renewable Portfolio Standard applies to all retail electricity sales in the District.

Although the Renewable Portfolio Standard has been instrumental in reducing carbon emissions in the District, a 100% by 2050 RPS policy alone will not help the District achieve its 2032 climate and energy goals. Its shortfalls are many but principally twofold.

First, the Sustainable DC Plan sets a goal for the District to reduce climate pollution 50% below 2006 levels by 2032 and 80% by 2050. We are not on track to meet either target, but Chairman Mendelson’s RPS bill does nothing in the short-term to curb District energy use. It would not take effect until 2033.

Second, the Renewable Portfolio Standard only applies to electricity. A 100% by 2050 RPS ‘fix’ does nothing to address climate pollution from transportation and other fossil-fuel bases sources in DC, including gas and home heating oil. To call that a glaring omission would be the understatement of the week.

Vehicular emissions alone account for nearly a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in the District, and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s decision last month to roll back fuel-efficiency targets for 2022-2025 (so-called “CAFE standards”) means higher than forecasted tailpipe emissions are on their way to the District.

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All of this is to say that any real, concrete, and inclusive policy that will take us closer to achieving carbon neutrality must be comprehensive, and Chairman Mendelson’s 100% by 2050 RPS plan is not.

While a strengthened RPS can and should be pursued, without comprehensive and equitable carbon pricing we will not be able to substantively close the gap on our 2032 goals.

A carbon fee-and-rebate policy is both intuitive in practice and implementation. District residents pay to send their trash to landfills. Putting a price on carbon simply mandates that corporations who pollute the air do the same. After all, it’s only fair.

This carbon fee-and-rebate already has broad support from over 70 local businesses and advocacy organizations here in the District. Since the fall of 2015, the “Put a Price on It Coalition” has worked closely with hundreds of business and community leaders as well as thousands of District residents to develop a detailed legislative proposal.

Under the coalition’s proposal, carbon would be taxed at a rate of $20 per ton beginning in 2019 – bringing in an additional $196 million in revenue to DC – and moving up to $150 per ton in 2032.

Seventy-five percent of this money would be rebated to DC residents. This is especially important because it is essential we protect low-income residents, who often have a smaller carbon footprint than average, from increased energy costs and prevent the policy from becoming regressive. The other twenty-five percent of revenue would be returned to the community via investments in green infrastructure and tax credits for local businesses.

In an era in which President Trump and opponents in Congress seek to institutionalize climate denial, Washington, D.C. – our nation's capital – has a unique chance to lead.

We appreciate the intent of Chairman Mendelson’s bill and commend the vision of a 100% renewable energy future by 2050. But we also need to drastically reduce carbon emissions right now. We also must ensure that DC’s low-income residents are protected in the transition to a clean energy economy. We know that a comprehensive carbon price would not only help DC achieve its climate goals but would set a shining example for other states considering their own carbon prices across the country.

Chairman Mendelson has repeatedly said that the “District of Columbia takes seriously the critical issue of climate change.” It’s time to get serious by taking serious action right now.

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