Fairfax County enlists faith groups to spread word of need to act on climate change

Fairfax County is planning pilot projects to get different parts of the community more involved in reducing greenhouse gas emissions (via Fairfax County)

The clock is ticking on Fairfax County’s goal of achieving net-zero new carbon emissions by 2050.

With local government and school operations accounting for just 5% of all emissions, the county is developing a plan to help residents and organizations take action to reduce their carbon footprint and combat climate change.

Presented to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors at an environmental committee meeting on Dec. 13, the proposal suggests starting to implement the Community-wide Energy and Climate Action Plan (CECAP) adopted in 2021 by partnering with businesses, nonprofits and others that will serve as “climate champions.”

“Every single person and organization can have negative or positive impacts for reducing our greenhouse gas emissions in time to prevent serious harm to our children, nature and communities,” Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck, chair of the environmental committee, said in a statement. “Each segment of our community…must have simple, easy, adoptable actions to get started and get done the changes we need.”

Expected to roll out early this year, the Climate Champions initiative will take a three-pronged approach, Office of Environmental and Energy Coordination (OEEC) staff told the board:

Having pilot projects focused on specific sectors will help the county tailor its resources, policies and messaging to their needs, Storck said.

A hotel owner, for instance, could provide insight into how their building could be more sustainable — and what incentives would make those changes feasible. Homeowners’ associations could raise awareness of programs like Solarize Fairfax County, which aims to reduce the cost of solar panel installations.

“We can sit in this room all we want, but we need messengers out there in the community, taking ownership of elements in CECAP to make sure we’re successful,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said at the committee meeting.

Convincing churches and other places of worship to take action on climate change isn’t a challenge for FACS, a nonprofit with over 190 religious groups in Northern Virginia that has been a vocal advocate for CECAP and other environmental measures.

Many faith communities are already tackling climate projects, from solar sanctuaries that would turn them into refuges during power outages to staff at Reston’s St. John Neumann Catholic Church volunteering to clean up for events if they utilize reusable dishes and silverware to reduce waste.

The county’s pilot will help better coordinate those efforts and share ideas, while hopefully encouraging more congregations to get involved, FACS Executive Director Andrea McGimsey told FFXnow.

“We all need to work together as quickly as possible to try to get this done, and that’s going to take a lot of partners out in the community, so we really hope to hear from folks,” she said. “…I really think this pilot has the chance of making a real difference, and we’re honored that Fairfax County asked us to do this and we’re going to work as hard as we can at it and try to really make a difference.”

Per CECAP, the county hopes to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, reducing greenhouse gas emissions 50% from 2005 levels by 2030, 75% by 2040 and 87% by 2050.

Fairfax County has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions since 2005, but not at the rate needed to meet its future goals (via Fairfax County)

The D.C. area has seen a 30% reduction in emissions since 2005, despite its population growing over that time, according to OEEC staff, citing 2020 data from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

A steep drop betwen 2018 and 2020 partly reflects the pandemic’s impact. Even so, overall energy usage and electricity consumption levels have declined, and the adoption of renewable energy systems and electric vehicles surpassed the region’s 2020 goals.

According to the county’s energy dashboard, carbon emissions from local government facilities have stayed below pre-pandemic levels, ticking up over 55,000 metric tons in 2021 before decreasing to about 47,500 metric tons last year.

However, there is still a long way to go to reach the county’s 2030 goal of under 8 million metric tons across the community. Getting there will require “strong leadership” from the county and other figures in the community, McGimsey says.

She says FACS is talking with the county about working with its nonprofit partners in human services and other sectors for the Climate Champions pilot. The organization is also eager for a potential green bank that would provide funding for both residential and commercial clean energy projects.

“In the end, you can come up with all these good ideas, but if you can’t figure out how to finance it, you’re not going to get them built and on the ground, and that’s what we want to do,” McGimsey said.

John Morrill, OEEC’s division manager for innovation and sustainability, said a steering committee is finalizing its proposal for the green bank, which could go to the Board of Supervisors for a vote this spring.

“We’re anticipating a green bank will be able to hit the ground running in the middle [of 2023],” he told the environmental committee.

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