Fairfax County moves to implement climate action plan as U.N. shares dire outlook

Solar panels on house (via Vivint Solar/Unsplash)

On the heels of last week’s sobering United Nations climate change report, Fairfax County is beginning to implement its first-ever Community-wide Energy and Climate Action Plan (CECAP), which sets goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Fairfax County staff delivered a final update of the CECAP to the Board of Supervisors during its environmental committee meeting on July 20. The board is expected to accept the report when it meets on Sept. 14.

The CECAP provides an inventory of current greenhouse gas emissions and recommends actions that the county and individuals can take to mitigate future emissions in order to achieve carbon neutrality within three decades.

“A lot of times, people feel like this problem is so big and out of their hands, that they feel like they can’t make a difference,” Fairfax County Office of Environmental and Energy Coordination Senior Community Specialist Maya Dhavale said. “I feel like it’s very timely that Fairfax County has been putting this plan and report together…We’re able to provide residents, business owners, and individuals in Fairfax County a path forward.”

Dhavale, who spearheaded the project, says staff have already begun the process of implementing the plan. That starts with community outreach, public education, and a review of existing county policies to determine how they line up with the proposed plan.

First proposed in 2018 and initiated in early 2020, the CECAP report was developed by a working group composed of environmental advocates, business representatives, civic association members, and other citizens.

As an overarching goal, the work group proposed that Fairfax County become carbon-neutral by 2050 with an 87% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels.

The Board of Supervisors has already pledged to make county government operations — including building and facility energy use and transportation — carbon neutral by 2040 in conjunction with an updated operational energy strategy adopted on July 13.

The county’s recent push to prioritize environmental initiatives comes as the U.N. continues to sound the alarm on climate change as a crisis that’s already in motion and will only get worse without a substantial shift in human behavior.

In its latest report released on Aug. 9, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that human activities are directly responsible for a roughly 1 degree Celsius climb in the global surface temperature from 1900 to 2019, contributing to retreating glaciers, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.

Even if future emissions are kept very low, global temperatures will continue going up until at least the mid-21st century and could very likely still be one to 1.8 degrees Celsius higher than 1900 levels by the end of the century, according to the report.

“Stabilizing the climate will require strong, rapid, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and reaching net zero CO2 emissions,” IPCC Working Group I Co-Chair Panmao Zhai said in a news release. “Limiting other greenhouse gases and air pollutants, especially methane, could have benefits both for health and the climate.”

In their report, the CECAP working group says the impact of climate change on Fairfax County is already evident in declining snowfall, more extremely hot days, heavier rainfall, and increased incidences of mosquito and tick-borne illnesses.

In Fairfax County, the two largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions by far are transportation and commercial and residential energy consumption. Combined, they contribute more than 90% of all emissions in the county.

According to the report, the main drivers of increasing emissions are population growth, commercial development, and the use of hydrofluorocarbons.

Dhavale says a big part of the plan is to be able to provide residents with data so they can make their own decisions.

“It’s providing information to assist people in making choices for things they are already doing…to reduce carbon emissions, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that affects Fairfax County and everywhere around the world,” she said.

The CECAP also makes some real-world recommendations on what both the county government and individuals can do.

Suggestions for the Board of Supervisors include incentive programs, more stringent green building policies, an expansion of the county’s electric vehicle fleet, pedestrian and bike infrastructure improvements, recycling and compost education, and additional green spaces.

For individual community members, the report recommends various options for becoming more energy efficient at home, such as buying more efficient light bulbs, installing solar panels, replacing older air conditioners with geothermal heat pumps, and participating in the county’s HomeWise program.

“I don’t think there’s many people here who don’t want to change their behavior, but there’s a lot of people who don’t know how to,” Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said at the July 20 committee meeting.

The report also zeros in on transportation choices, like how individuals can walk, bike, or take public transportation more often. If individuals chose to drive, the CECAP suggests considering an electric vehicle.

“It’s about being a conscious consumer,” Dhavale said.

Admittingly, the CECAP report is 214 pages full of highly technical verbiage that will make it a daunting read for most of the general public, so Dhavale understands that public outreach is a big component of the process.

I think the residents of Fairfax County can be very pleased with our government that we are being proactive, while also looking forward to having more information about how…individuals and the community as a whole can start to make a difference in the climate change conversation,” Dhavale said.

Photo via Vivint Solar/Unsplash

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