Climate, Energy, and Cities: Learning By Doing

Arlington County Community Energy Plan Cover

By: Andrew Perlstein, Bruce Hull, Iris Picat

Cities are the solution to climate change. Cities can influence building and transportation systems, the two largest sources of global greenhouse gas emissions, with tools like land-use zoning, transportation infrastructure, and building codes. Cities are motivated to play a leading role in addressing climate change because they want to attract residents, businesses, taxes, and prestige, and can do so by developing thriving and secure, sustainable places to live and work.  Moreover, city governance tends to be pragmatic and effective.

In the Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) graduate program we learn by doing, and for the second year in a row we spent a month working with Arlington County, Virginia, on its award winning Community Energy Plan (CEP).

Arlington CountyArlington County, located adjacent to Washington, D.C. and within the National Capital metroplex, is one of the most ethnically diverse, densely populated, and highly educated counties in the United States. Arlington’s CEP will help it remain economically competitive, environmentally committed, and energy secure. The plan sets an ambitious target of 3.0 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per capita per year by 2050, which would place Arlington far below the per capita emissions in the U.S. and on par with the current emissions of Copenhagen, Denmark, a recognized leader in low-carbon urbanism.

The CEP has 6 broad goals, each with corresponding strategies and targets:

  1. Increase energy and operational efficiency of all buildings
  2. Increase local energy supply and distribution efficiency using district energy
  3. Increase locally generated renewable energy
  4. Refine and expand transportation infrastructure and operations enhancements
  5. Integrate CEP goals into all county government activities
  6. Advocate and support personal action through behavior change and effective education

Separated into teams, students played the role of environmental consultants, evaluating and formulating suggestions about which of the CEP’s many goals and strategies should be prioritized. The outcomes were varied, with team C4 focusing solely on district energy (Goal 2), viewing it as having a home-run, long-term, big-win potential, while teams BCS and Starlight recommended a more diversified approach that included building efficiency, enhanced transportation planning, low carbon local energy, and county leadership.

Teams also suggested best practices for Arlington County to remain an environmental leader, and preserve its reputation for innovation, making  it a sought-after locale for businesses and residents alike. Team S3 encouraged the county to establish clear indicators and performance measures, providing other municipality examples, and focus on cross-sector collaboration. Other teams’ suggestions included demonstrating quick wins, leading by example, and maintaining openness and accessibility as a resource center for residents, builders, and businesses interested in energy issues.

After further brainstorming, teams also came up with out-of-the-box strategies that Arlington and other communities might consider as next steps. For example, team Synergy created a table of emerging technologies that the county could use for further community engagement. These included nanoleave trees, which are in the development stage but could generate energy from sunlight and heat, or solar roadways and bike paths. Team Trifecta took a different approach and advised Arlington to create a learning network focused on grooming “change agents” – people with the skills for change management and strategic innovations. This network would focus on keeping up to date with emerging technologies, sharing information, and mentoring.

Cities and municipalities are playing a major role in innovating and implementing solutions to our climate and energy challenges. As Arlington has shown with its Community Energy Plan, and corresponding Implementation Framework, being a leader on these issues is no small undertaking. It is complicated. There are goals, strategies, tools, and policies that need to be prioritized, coordinated, and communicated in order to achieve the desired collective action.

This exercise was an opportunity for students to learn about what it takes to be a recognized leader and innovator in the realm of sustainable development, while also helping  the county focus and allocate effectively its finite municipal resources. The world needs professionals who can help cities like Arlington continue steering the way towards global sustainability, and we hope the XMNR program will provide just that.