2021 | Government

County leaders tout climate action plan as one of nation’s most aspirational

Public, private sector must jointly work toward zero emissions, officials say

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Before several Montgomery County leaders unveiled a climate action plan on Wednesday, County Executive Marc Elrich admitted that its aims are ambitious.

The plan seeks to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions in the county by 2035, and cut them 80% by 2027. Elrich said those goals might seem out of reach, but given the threat of climate change, government officials must pursue them.

“We kind of have to figure out how to walk and chew gum at the same time. … We don’t have the luxury of sequencing [different parts],” Elrich told reporters a day before Wednesday’s event at the Marian Fryer Town Plaza in downtown Wheaton. “I know my staff wishes that, because this is a major bandwidth area. And we’re going to have to deliver the bandwidth to do multiple things at once.”

The plan, which is the final version of a draft released in December, has several key areas:

  • Provide affordable carbon-free electricity throughout the county
  • Decrease the carbon footprint in buildings by supporting carbon-neutral building design 
  • Transition to 100% emissions-free public transportation through electric vehicles and encouraging less use of personal vehicles 
  • Sequester carbon by protecting and increasing forests and green spaces, and by conserving land
  • Protect vulnerable communities through infrastructure improvements and prioritizing those most affected by climate change
  • Educate county government officials on how to address climate change
  • Keep focus on the plan and its goals through community partnerships and by empowering young people to educate the public

The plan includes 86 specific climate action steps to accomplish all of those goals, including:

  • Urge the state to adopt a 100% renewable portfolio standard by 2050, instead of the current 50% standard
  • Disincentivize and end natural gas utilities in new construction
  • Expand transit service, including routes and overall frequency 
  • Limit use of cars in downtown commercial districts, and encourage shared and open streets programs
  • Expand the electric vehicle charging network
  • Advocate for a vehicle carbon/gas tax or vehicle miles traveled tax
  • Retain and increase forests
  • Repair and improve stormwater conveyance systems
  • Provide tax credits or subsidies for low-income residents or rental properties to reduce water and energy use
  • Ban stormwater management requirement waivers
  • Designate “climate ambassadors” within each county department
  • Form a “climate change communication coalition” with communication students from local higher education institutions 

During Wednesday’s announcement, Elrich, County President Tom Hucker and others involved in the plan said it was vital that both the government and the private sector work toward its goals.

Adriana Hochberg, an assistant chief administrative officer in Elrich’s office, moderated Wednesday’s event. She said in an interview that Montgomery County’s plan is one of the most ambitious nationwide because of its short timeframe. Most other plans have zero emissions as a goal for 2050, or 80% emission reductions by that time.

Adriana Hochberg, an assistant chief administrative officer for the county, talks about the climate action plan in Wheaton on Wednesday. (Photo by Elia Griffin)

“We don’t have the luxury of saying some things are going to get done in the long-term, because 2027 is almost around the corner,” Hochberg said, referring to Montgomery County’s 80% emission reductions goal.

With the plan finalized, some of the first legislative initiatives involve getting buildings to be more energy efficient and climate-friendly, officials said. The building sector currently makes up 50 percent of greenhouse emissions, they added. 

Lindsey Shaw, the county’s manager of energy and sustainable programs, said in an interview that Building Energy Performance Standards legislation the County Council is currently working on will be an important first step of the overall plan.

Under that bill, certain commercial and multifamily properties must report energy-use benchmarking each year.

The county currently offers tax incentives to help building owners switch to greener energy sources and keep those practices in place, Shaw said. But it’s important to encourage and educate owners about those options, and not mandate them, she added.

“We’ll eventually get to requirements like that, but you need to bring the market along with you. You need to educate the workforce to say we need the contractor community to understand all of the electrification options that are out there right now,” Shaw said.

Part of the outreach related to that, in commercial and residential areas, will be done by “climate resilience ambassadors” countywide, one of whom spoke at Wednesday’s event: Omotola Fadeyi, a rising senior at Paint Branch High School.

Fadeyi said that before she became an ambassador, she knew about climate change, but didn’t understand the ramifications or how it created racial inequities in her community and elsewhere. 

Douglas Weisburger, a senior planning specialist within the county’s Department of Environmental Protection, said similar ambassadors will help the movement by continuing that education and community engagement.

One item added to the plan since the initial draft was released in December is a Community Justice Academy. That academy would train “community ambassadors” who would learn how climate change contributes to social inequities and how it affects the most vulnerable communities, according to the plan.

County and community leaders said the public and private sector will need to work together to meet the climate action plan’s goals. (photo by Elia Griffin)

Those are like the “climate resilience ambassadors,” but take on a broader role related to issues involving racial equity and social justice, and how they interact with climate change.

Initially, a community task force was proposed, but an academy creates a more permanent solution, with graduating community ambassadors educating people about climate change and potential solutions the county is pursuing, Weisburger said.

The academy also creates a process in which the public is empowered to tell county government how to solve inequalities in their neighborhoods, regarding climate change and other issues, he added. 

“The idea is that they would work with neighbors in their blocks to conceive ideas that are important to them — not just reductions in emissions, but quality of life and health, jobs, etc.,” Weisburger said.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com