Besides the Shutdown, 2019 is Looking Bright (and Green) for D.C.


Garbage overflows outside the White House during the partial government shutdown. Image courtesy of CQ-Roll Call, Inc./Vox

The headlines out of Washington, D.C., so far in 2019 have been abysmal. Hundreds of thousands of federal employees are missing their paychecks as the partial government shutdown approaches its third week-iversary. The National Mall literally began overflowing with garbage after the National Park Service suspended its trash collection. And to cap it off, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke—the man in charge of the department that runs the National Park Service and oversees over 400 million acres of federal land—resigned amid mounting ethics scandals just days before the shutdown began. In an ominous, but totally unsurprising turn of events, Zinke’s departure has left responsibility for our public lands in the hands of a former oil lobbyist.

So, needless to say, I felt a little twinge of dread every time I told someone, back home in Seattle during the holidays, that I had recently moved to D.C. “Hope you still have a job when you go back,” they would inevitably say. (For the record, I don’t work for the government, so yes, I do still have a job, thank you.)

Truthfully, though, living in DC isn’t all dread and outrage. If you push past the national headlines and tune into local news, you start to realize that the District of Columbia—which extends far beyond the Capitol Building and the White House—is going into 2019 with all cylinders firing on environmental progress. Here are three of D.C.’s ambitious New Year’s resolutions that promise a brighter, greener future for the nation’s capital (and my new home):

1. Get clean (energy)

Christmas came early for clean energy fans when the D.C. City Council unanimously passed one of the toughest renewable portfolio standards in the nation. The Clean Energy D.C. Act includes a legal mandate for the district to get 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2032. That puts D.C. on a much faster timeline to clean up its power grid than even the most progressive states—California and Hawaii have both pledged to go 100 percent renewable by 2045. Currently, the PJM Interconnection, which serves D.C.’s power grid along with the rest of the mid-Atlantic, relies on coal and natural gas to meet about half of its electricity demand—so there’s a long way to go to cut out all fossil fuels in the next 14 years.

The Clean Energy D.C. Act goes even further than the 100 percent renewable electricity mandate. All public transportation and government vehicles will have to operate carbon-free by 2045. And buildings—which account for 74 percent of D.C.’s carbon emissions—will have to meet new benchmark standards for energy efficiency.

Leading the way on clean energy was especially important for D.C. in light of the federal government’s inaction on climate change, according to D.C. Council member Charles Allen. “The folks on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue don’t seem to care that much,” Allen told WAMU, a local NPR affiliate. “So the responsibility has fallen to our cities and states to act.”

Supporters rally for the Clean Energy D.C. Act, which the DC City Council passed unanimously on December 18th. Image c/o DC Climate Coalition

2. Transform transportation.

The same week that the City Council passed the Clean Energy D.C. Act, D.C. also made waves with the announcement of a new regional plan to cap greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks, which also includes nine northeastern states, through the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI). This is the first plan outside of California to cut carbon pollution from transportation, which is now the single biggest source of climate-warming emissions in the U.S., through a cap-and-trade system.

The program, which is set to be developed over the course of 2019 and adopted shortly thereafter, could be modeled after the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the cap-and-trade program for electricity that has helped nine northeastern states cut their carbon emissions by more than 50 percent in ten years. The signatories to the new transportation program are collectively responsible for 16 percent of total U.S. emissions from on-road vehicles.

“We are excited to work with our neighbors and partners up and down the coast to develop regional transportation solutions that will cut carbon, congestion, and air pollution at the same time,” said Tommy Wells, Director of the D.C. Department of Energy & Environment, in a statement.

3. Skip the straw.

Plastic straws adorn the walls of the DC pop-up bar “Garbage BARge,” using the popular hashtag #StopSucking to raise awareness for plastic pollution. Image courtesy of Andrew Overton/Twitter

It’s not just on climate change that D.C. is staking out a leadership role in 2019. The District is also pushing to the forefront of the global movement to address plastic pollution, with a ban on plastic straws and coffee stirrers taking effect on New Year’s Day. D.C. is now just the second major American city to say no to straws—Seattle started its own ban last year. The D.C. straw ban, which was originally passed by the City Council in 2014 but had not been implemented until now, aims to help the District achieve its goal of reducing its waste 80 percent by 2032.

Scientists agree that skipping straws solves only a tiny piece of the plastic pollution problem: although U.S. coastlines are littered with an estimated 7.5 million straws, they make up only about 4 percent of the total volume of plastic in the ocean—and far less of the total weight. But many hope that straws will serve as a “gateway plastic” and encourage consumers to think more critically about other throwaway items with larger pollution potential, like plastic bags and bottles. High-profile straw bans like in Seattle and D.C. can also play a part in advancing the national conversation around plastic.

Nowhere has that conversation been more in-your-face than at a pop-up bar that surfaced in D.C. last month. The owners of “Garbage BARge” covered the walls in plastic pollution to raise awareness for the global crisis of ocean plastic. “Save a sea turtle, choke on a straw,” proclaimed a sign behind the bar.

While the federal government lets garbage pile up around our country’s most revered landmarks, let’s make 2019 the year that the rest of us stand up and say no to garbage—in our oceans, in the air we breathe, in our global atmosphere. We might just save a sea turtle along the way—and likely a whole lot more.

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