DEC 1, 4:12 PM

Here’s D.C.’s Plan To Be Carbon Neutral By 2045

Jacob Fenston

Rooftop solar is key to the District meeting its climate goals.

Ben Margot / AP Photo

Fast-forward to the year 2045: D.C.’s streets are dramatically quieter, with residents heading to work on zippy electric buses and on a vast network of connected bike lanes; solar panels are everywhere, sucking up the sun’s energy and powering homes and offices; and just about everything is recycled or composted.

That’s the vision outlined in the District’s Carbon Free D.C. plan, the final version of which was released today. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser released the plan to coincide with her attendance at the COP28 climate conference in Dubai. The document outlines strategies to slash greenhouse gas emissions in the city, transitioning away from fossil fuels over the next two decades. It emphasizes many of the benefits the city will experience from this green transition, including cleaner air and healthier homes.

“I like to say that carbon neutrality is a target, not a vision,” says Jenn Hatch, who leads the green building and climate team at the District Department of Energy and Environment. “We wanted to make sure that the vision for 2045 really reflects the type of city that people want to live in. That’s the one where you can afford to live in a house that’s comfortable and healthy. You can get around to everything you need easily and without getting in a car.”

Currently, with policies now in place, the District is on a trajectory to cut emissions by 65% by 2045.

The plan envisions going much further. It focuses on three broad areas: buildings and energy; transportation and land use; and waste and embodied carbon. Taken together, by the year 2045, actions recommended in these areas would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 88%.

A chart showing the relative potential impact of emissions reductions by sector.District Department of Energy and Environment

That would still leave a significant amount of tough-to-get-rid-off greenhouse gas emissions — equivalent to 1.25 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. That’s roughly equal to the emissions of 275,000 gas-powered cars.

Those residual emissions would mainly come from pollution sources outside the control of the local D.C. government, including regional transportation and electricity generation. Residual emissions could be further reduced with stronger regional and national renewable energy policies — according to the plan, such policies could cut the District’s emissions to .7 million metric tons by 2045. Those remaining emissions would, in theory, be offset through carbon sequestration in order to reach the net-zero emissions goal — producing no more carbon than is removed from the atmosphere.

DOEE Director Richard Jackson says new technology in the coming decades will also likely help the close the gap in terms of residual emissions. “Because of the rapid rate of change with regard to technologies, in maybe another five years or ten years, there may be new technologies that are there that will allow us to get that last 12%.”

“The plan looks very good, but it can’t just be words on a piece of paper to make you look good when you’re at a climate conference, this actually needs to be implemented,” says Mark Rodeffer, with the D.C. Chapter of the Sierra Club. “Right now, the District government is actively working against a lot of what is in this plan.”

One example, Rodeffer says, is in building electrification — the process of transitioning buildings from fossil natural gas to cleaner electric energy. The mayor’s Carbon Free D.C. plan embraces electrification, but in recent months, the committee that oversees building codes in the District shot down a proposal that would have banned fossil natural gas in new commercial buildings.

“She’s putting out a press release saying we need to get fossil fuels out of new buildings, while her appointees on the board in charge of the building code are working against that,” Rodeffer says.

By far, the largest share of carbon emissions in the District — 71% — comes from energy use in buildings, so much of the plan focuses on actions to cut emissions from that sector. Transportation accounts for 24% of emissions, while waste disposal and wastewater treatment accounts for 5%.

According to the plan, about 40% of projected emissions reductions would come from improvements in buildings, while 21% of reductions would come from shifting to electric vehicles, and 13% would come from more people taking transit, walking, and biking.

The Carbon Free D.C. plan was originally released in 2020 in draft form.