A green dream: City Council passes ambitious goal for carbon neutrality

Susan Elliott led the team of city staff members who drafted the ambitious proposal for Charlottesville to go carbon neutral by 2050. (Photo: Eze Amos) Susan Elliott led the team of city staff members who drafted the ambitious proposal for Charlottesville to go carbon neutral by 2050. (Photo: Eze Amos)

The City of Charlottesville has set a plan in motion to reduce its carbon footprint—and it’s not messing around.

On June 24, City Council unanimously approved a proposal to curtail carbon emissions by 45 percent over the next 11 years and achieve an end goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. It’s an aggressive plan, one considered by local environmentalists to be the most ambitious of any city in Virginia, and its success is going to depend on buy-in from residents.

“The motivation and the discussion that happened was not around, ‘We want to be the leader’ or ‘We want to be the first,’” says Susan Elliott, the city’s climate protection program manager. “This is what the climate science is showing us needs to [happen]. And based on our values and our history and our community’s priorities, we’re rising to that challenge.”

Previously, the city had a much more modest goal, having committed in 2011 to reducing its emissions by 10 percent by 2035. But in June 2017, city leaders signed onto what is now called the Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, and committed to a three-phase plan to examine emissions, set a new goal to reduce them, and implement a plan to get there. Each phase takes about a year.

With a goal now in place, the city can direct its attention toward devising specific strategies for achieving it. Elliott points to two general courses of action as realistically attainable: reducing inefficient energy consumption and encouraging businesses to consider renewable fuel options.

“When we looked at our emissions profile, 5 percent of that is directly within the city control,” Elliott says. “So the other 95 percent has to be private sector action.”

In the first phase, Charlottesville determined that three areas directly contribute to the majority of its carbon emissions: residential (29.8 percent), commercial (27 percent), and transportation (26.6 percent). That means home owners, local businesses, and drivers must be motivated to reduce their carbon footprint. The city’s task is to create incentives for them to do so.

“Everybody has a role to play,” says Teri Kent, program director of the Charlottesville Climate Collaborative. C3 is a local nonprofit that promotes community-based incentives for going green. One of those incentives currently being considered by the city for the final action plan is the Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy financing program.

Under C-PACE, owners of local properties receive long-term loans that allow them to undertake projects such as insulating walls and installing water-efficient toilets. The extended repayment structure of the loans means the landowners’ monthly or annual payments would be covered by the money saved from implementing these energy-reducing practices. Also, the loan is tied to the property, not the business that owns it, so the remaining balance would be packaged with the real estate itself in the event that the owner decides to sell the property.

The city hasn’t yet addressed the transportation aspect of emissions, writing in its proposal that it aims to research methods for “integrating zero emissions vehicles into the municipal fleet” and encouraging community members to do the same for their cars. Given that the staff crafting the plan just had its set of goals approved, it expects to nail down specific strategies in the coming months.

Charlottesville does already have some environmental initiatives in place, such as the Local Energy Alliance Program, which is sponsored by the city, Albemarle County, and Dominion Energy. LEAP was instrumental in the installation of energy-efficient projects in 475 low-income houses across the city and county in 2018, and the initiative includes the Commercial Clean Energy Loan Program, which assists businesses in paying the interest on solar panels.

Indoor Biotechnologies, a local firm focused on asthma and allergies, installed solar panels with help from the program, and received C3’s 2019 Industry Leader Award as part of the nonprofit’s Better Business Challenge. Company founder Martin Chapman believes that while not all businesses will take advantage of these programs, the “smarter” companies will see that long-term efficiency bodes well for their overall success.

“Some businesses may just see this as, ‘Well, this is an added cost and I’m not going to recover my return on investment for 10 years, ergo I’m not going to do it,’” Chapman says. “Usually those kinds of businesses in any case are not the ones that are going to thrive because you’re always thinking in a kind of shallow way.”

Voluntary practices like these will likely not be enough to make the city carbon neutral by 2050. Elliott says the plan is to eventually consider carbon sequestration, a process that removes carbon from the atmosphere, to counteract any remaining emissions. Meanwhile, Charlottesville will focus on eliminating unnecessary factors that contribute to its carbon emissions. She hopes the city’s eventual proposal will include input from the entire community.

“If people want to be involved in this, this really is the time to do that,” Elliott says. “There is genuine interest in having something that is actionable and achievable.”

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