(This article is from the New York Times in 2008. How far have we come since then?)
February 7, 2008
By FELICITY BARRINGER
ARLINGTON, Va. — This urban suburb of Washington seems well-prepared for a leading role in the green revolution embraced by hundreds of the nation’s cities, counties and towns.
For decades, Arlington County’s development has been consciously clustered around its subway line. There is abundant open space to plant thousands of trees. Residents also seem eager to cut back on their own energy use.
Jose R. Fernandez, who moved here last year and works at the nearby national headquarters of the National Guard, chose to settle in Arlington because he does not need a car. “I can go anywhere on the bus,” Mr. Fernandez said, “or I can ride my bike anywhere.”
But even in Arlington, county officials are reckoning with the fact that though green is the dream, the shade of civic achievement is closer to olive drab. Constraints on budgets, legal restrictions by states, and people’s unwillingness to change sometimes put brakes on ambitious plans to cut carbon dioxide emissions.
Emissions are stubborn things. In Arlington, emissions per capita are now 15 tons annually and rising. In Sonoma County, Calif., the figure is close to nine tons. Arlington is not alone in bumping up against obstacles.
“We have been doing things like filling potholes and reducing crime since cities began,” said David N. Cicilline, the mayor of Providence, R.I., but energy efficiency requires “a whole new infrastructure to evaluate and measure.”
When Providence officials pushed for new police cars with four cylinders instead of six, to save gasoline, there was pushback — unsuccessful — from police officers who preferred more powerful engines to pursue speeders or criminals. Cleveland’s plans to retrofit a local hot-water plant, produce new electricity and save tons of greenhouse gas emissions, molder in a file. It would cost $200 million, and there is no money — the tax base, left ragged by the loss of population and industry over the last two decades, has been hit hard again by the subprime mortgage crisis.
Nearly 1,200 miles away, in Austin, Tex., — a city that ranks high on any list of green strivers — some residents want to help but do not feel they can afford it. DeVonna Garcia’s family won an award for its beautiful outdoor display of Christmas lights — but she stayed with her old-fashioned incandescent bulbs, hearing that a friend paid $600 for energy-efficient lights.
Ann Hancock, the executive director of the Climate Protection Campaign, a nonprofit based in Sonoma County, a wine-growing area north of San Francisco, said that the county and its nine municipalities signed climate-protection agreements with enthusiasm more than five years ago, committing to bringing down greenhouse-gas emissions. Then they tried to figure out how.
“It’s really hard,” Ms. Hancock said. “It’s like the dark night of the soul.” All the big items in the inventory of emissions — from tailpipes, from the energy needed to supply drinking water and treat waste water, from heating and cooling buildings — are the product of residents’ and businesses’ individual decisions about how and where to live and drive and shop.
“They’ve seen the Al Gore movie, but they still have their lifestyle to contend with,” she said.
“We need to get people out of their cars, and we can’t under the present circumstances,” because of the limited alternative in public transportation, Ms. Hancock said. And the county’s many older homes are not very good at keeping in the cool air in the summer or the warm air in winter. “How do you go back and retrofit all of those?” she asked.
County governments are also finding that homeowners’ associations can be troublesome. Carbondale, Colo., would welcome people like Adam and Rachel Connor, who bought a lot in a subdivision outside town and made plans for a house with solar panels. But the homeowners’ association vetoed the proposal on aesthetic grounds. Such associations have rejected solar projects from Southern California to the Chicago suburbs to Phoenix, prompting at least two states to pass laws prohibiting such vetoes.
“Unrealistic and unreasonable expectations,” Ms. Connor said, “should not stand in the way of us taking climate change seriously and taking control of energy security with our own hands.”
Arlington, Providence and more than 300 other communities in the United States are members of the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, which has developed software to help them determine the quantity of greenhouse gases their municipalities emit. They are still trying to figure it all out. Reductions and remedies are harder still.
Regional politics render ideas that are embraced in some cities unthinkable in others. In Burlington, Vt., and Berkeley, Calif., there are local laws requiring that people who are selling their homes upgrade the energy efficiency to meet current standards, whether by adding thicker insulation to the pipes, replacing the windows or putting in an energy-saving water heater. (The maximum amount to be spent is determined by the selling price of the house.)
Would the idea fly in, say, Cleveland? On a statewide level, “politically, it would be a non-starter,” said Andrew Watterson, the program director of Cleveland’s office of sustainability. “Legally, I’m not sure if we could do it” because of state limits on local taxing powers, Mr. Watterson said.
But Cleveland’s mayor, Frank G. Jackson, has backed the redevelopment of three old city neighborhoods in accordance with blueprints established by the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program (for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.) Mr. Watterson said he hoped this sort of project would encourage a reverse migration of families who seek livable, walkable communities.
Arlington County is not having a problem attracting residents who are partial to the idea of a green revolution. But in the outer sections of Arlington, the problem is aging houses with inadequate insulation and inefficient appliances.
“We have an old house,” said Kevin Clark, who is 41 and a professor of instructional technology at George Mason University. “We got double-paned glass. We could feel the air coming in through those nice wood frames.”
Between the $13,000 cost of that repair and the money for a new refrigerator and other appliances, energy efficiencies have cost Mr. Clark and his family about $18,000. Though they have cut monthly electric bills, he is not sure how much he is saving.
Among the county’s biggest roadblocks in its effort to reduce emissions are the strict legal limits on Arlington officials. The state government in Richmond has the final authority in setting building codes, for instance. Like Cleveland, Arlington cannot require a house’s energy systems be upgraded when the house is sold. And Arlington cannot require commercial builders to install more insulation and more efficient heating, cooling and lighting systems than the state does.
As J. Walter Tejada, the chairman of Arlington County’s governing board, said, “Sometimes I think that even when you’re sneezing you need to ask the Legislature for permission.”
Laura Fiffick, the director of the office of environmental quality in Dallas — one vehicle in four is a pickup truck in Texas — said, “How do you reach an individual citizen and tell them: Everybody makes a difference.”
She added: “A lot of cities have said, ‘We’re going to be carbon-neutral by 2020.’ To me, the idea is to figure out what emissions we are going to go after and what we can do and then set the goal. When you set the bar too high, it becomes demotivating.”