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Environmentalists Examine D.C.’s Clean Energy Bill

Major Focus Considers Potential Racial Implications

For local horticulturist and business owner Xavier Brown, nothing spoke more to the urgency of his advocacy for environmental sustainability than unprecedented rainfall that waterlogged his cash crop — peppers — earlier this year.

So while the D.C. Council moves closer toward approving legislation described by some as the most expansive clean energy legislation in any major U.S. city to date, Brown and others say they’ll continue with efforts to include hardworking Black residents in the conversation.

“This year was super rainy; the rainiest it’s been since I started working the land and a lot of water could cause trees to fall and mudslides [to occur],” Brown said.

For him, the global implications of weather patterns in the D.C. metro area became clearer during a conference in Detroit where he learned that flowers there didn’t pollinate this year as the spring season skipped the city altogether.

During recent forums in Wards 7 and 8, Brown and fellow colleagues uttered ominous warnings about the environmental effects of the District’s population spike expanding development. They also spoke with residents about the Sustainable DC Plan, an effort by the DC Department of Energy & Environment and Office of Planning to improve the District’s standing in the areas of climate, energy, food, nature, transportation, waste, water and the green economy.

“If we’re not careful, something could happen to our city for which we’re ill-prepared,” he added. “It seems like people are beginning to take climate change more seriously. This should be a discussion that we have along with disaster preparedness.”

If passed, the CleanEnergy DC Omnibus Amendment Act of 2018 would direct the District to ramp up plans that would help the city meet its goal of halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2032, reducing them at a clip of 80 percent by 2050.

The legislation would establish the following: set a building energy performance standard program for large and new structures in the District; incentivize the purchase of fuel-efficient vehicles with Department of Motor Vehicles excise taxes; require that energy purchased in the District come from renewable sources by 2032; and fund low-income energy assistance programs.

“Fighting climate change is made all the harder by the fact that, in order to be effective, it requires global cooperation and good faith among many countries and sectors of the economy,” Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) wrote in a statement.

“On top of that, given the timescale of global warming, we’re unlikely to see the benefits of our work and sacrifices in our lifetimes — instead, we make them for our children.”

In July, more than a year after President Donald Trump (R) announced his intention to pull out of the Paris Climate Treaty, Cheh, along with Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and Council members Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), Trayon White (D-Ward 8), and Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1), introduced the CleanEnergy DC Omnibus Amendment Act.

Around that time, D.C. experienced humidity and high temperatures which meteorologists called the city’s hottest month on record. Predictions that 100-year recurring storms along the Mid-Atlantic will appear in 25-year intervals due to changes in the climate have also surfaced.

As of October, eight out of 13 council members have expressed support for the Act. While the People’s Counsel Sandra Mattavous-Frye spoke in favor of the legislation, she stressed that the transition should not financially burden low-income residents. The bill, as it now stands, would raise rates on electric and gas bills by a couple dollars to finance the District’s Green Bank.

In late October, the D.C. Council Committee on Business & Economic Development hosted a public hearing on the legislation. On hour before its convening, the DC Climate Coalition hosted a volleyball flash mob in nearby Freedom Plaza to greater highlight what organizers described as an “endless summer.”

Buildings account for nearly three-fourths of the District’s energy consumption, particularly commercial buildings. Studies show that with the erection of a new large structure comes the trapping of more heat to create what experts call urban heat islands. Climate Central named the District one of the country’s hottest cities in its 2014 report about the phenomenon.

“This is another opportunity for climate resiliency to be on the forefront,” said Michelle Mabson, chief advocacy officer of Black Millennials 4 Flint, a grassroots organization dedicated to acting against lead exposure in Black and Latino communities.

While Mabson commended the council for its attention to climate issues, she suggested that the Act consider urban heat islands and other potentially adverse long-term, climate-related effects of D.C.’s population boom and urban development.

“What are more innovative ways to address, not only the energy piece, but ways buildings could be erected to decrease the potential for flooding when there’s no soil in place to help absorb the water?” she asked. “As more buildings are built, how do we counter that? We have to look for examples in cities where they’re trying to address that piece.”

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