Montgomery County’s greenhouse gas emissions decreased by 30% between 2005 and 2020, according to recent findings from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. But environmental activists and county officials say the county can’t take credit for the entire dip – and that much more work remains in order to reach the county’s goal to reach a 100% reduction by 2035.
The largest drivers of the reduction were a greener electric grid, a decrease in energy usage per square foot in the commercial building sector, and a reduction in vehicle miles traveled per person, according to the Council of Governments. The data shows there were roughly 13 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2005, compared with about 9 million metric tons of emissions in 2020.
The county adopted a Climate Action Plan in 2021 that calls for an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2027 and a 100% reduction in emissions by 2035.
Adriana Hochberg, the county’s climate change officer and acting director of environmental protection, said in an interview that the data shows the county is headed in the right direction. But more action is needed if county officials are to achieve the Climate Action Plan’s goals, she said.
It’s also important to consider that 2020 could be an outlier year for vehicle miles traveled, due to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hochberg said. County officials have budgeted for bus rapid transit, electrifying Ride On buses, and partnering with the state to improve sidewalk and bicycle infrastructure to try and keep those metrics headed in the right direction, she said.
“I think that overall, this is good news: Emissions are continuing to go down … [but] of course, there’s a lot more we need to be doing in the coming months and years,” Hochberg said. “We’re going to really need to accelerate the pace.”
Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said in an interview that the findings are “encouraging.” But he added that part of the reductions is likely attributable to actions taken statewide, not just in Montgomery County.
For instance, the greening of the energy grid has occurred because of state legislation, Tidwell said. And he added that residents driving less during the pandemic was because of overarching public health concerns, not any particular county policies.
“This is a positive development, [but] it’s unclear how much of a role county policies actually played [in this],” Tidwell said.
Hochberg agreed that factors outside the county’s control likely contributed to the reduction. She added, however, that county leaders have taken steps to address the long-term goals of the Climate Action Plan—including legislation related to more environmentally friendly building energy performance standards, and the decarbonization of buildings.
County officials are also introducing a $1 million pilot program later this year that would incentivize residential homeowners to make their homes more environmentally friendly, Hochberg said.
Tidwell said it’s good that there are county officials attempting to make the local building inventory greener. Officials need to do everything they can to find money available under the Inflation Reduction Act, a bill passed by Congress in 2022, he said.
The bill “is the most significant climate legislation in U.S. history, offering funding, programs and incentives to accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Using those and other resources to electrify existing buildings is vital if county officials want to continue reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Tidwell said.
“What’s really the big thing that every county, every state, every city needs to figure out in the next 10 years, is: How do you retrofit existing buildings with electric systems? … It’s one thing to mandate that new buildings be fully electric, but that’s just a small, small percentage of the building stock,” Tidwell said.