In the words of Kermit the Frog, it’s not easy being green. Though the Muppet references the color of his amphibian skin, the famous line is a sentiment that also rings true for Charlottesville, where carbon emissions per household are more than a ton above the national average.
With 10 tons of carbon emissions per home annually, the United States trails the considerably more environmentally-friendly Europe by nearly five tons, but “as a city, we’re even further behind,” says Susan Kruse, the executive director of the Charlottesville Climate Collaborative.
Charlottesville lags behind both America and its neighboring continent by clocking in at 11.2 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per household, according to local environmentalists like Kruse, who used an emissions calculator from the California-based Community Climate Solutions.
“We have a lot of work to do,” she says.
City data shows that local greenhouse gas emissions have decreased by nearly a quarter since 2000, from approximately 470,584 metric tons to 362,192 metric tons in 2016. But according to an Environmental Protection Agency equivalency calculator, that’s still enough carbon dioxide to match the greenhouse emissions from 76,899 cars in one year.
Why is an ostensibly progressive community like Charlottesville doing so poorly? Kruse has a few theories, including that the city’s current emissions reduction goal is weak, and the average income here is greater than the national average, so more people own bigger homes and additional vehicles.
“Another factor is that our city was not designed around a robust public transportation system,” she says. “Without an adequate base of affordable housing to serve our community, those who cannot afford to live in Charlottesville rely on their cars to get to work.”
Time for a change
There’s a bit of history to the city’s various attempts to reduce its footprint. In 2011, it committed to a community-wide greenhouse gas reduction goal of 10 percent below those 2000 baseline levels by 2035, a far less ambitious goal than other Virginia cities like Richmond, which has pledged to reduce emissions by 80 percent by 2025. But when city leaders signed on to the Global Covenant of Mayors in June 2017, they agreed to tackle a more aggressive, three-phase goal, which started with an inventory of citywide gas emissions, and will now require setting a new target for reduction, and the development of a climate action plan.
The time may be right, says Susan Elliott, Charlottesville’s Climate Protection Program manager. Given the changes in available technology, cost improvements, utilities integrating more renewables into their fuel mixes, and the city’s increased focus on affordable housing, “Charlottesville is both capable and at a timely point to adopt a new and more ambitious reduction goal,” Elliott says.
She gave the most recent update on this initiative to City Council in November, when she said the inventory phase was finished, and that residential energy, commercial energy, and transportation were the highest contributors to carbon dioxide emissions—at 29.8, 27, and 26.6 percent, respectively. The city then accepted public comments through March to give community members a chance to weigh in on a draft recommendation for an official reduction target and action plan, which will be presented to council May 6.
The Charlottesville Climate Collaborative is one of several groups urging what it calls a “best in class” climate goal of a 45 percent reduction (of 2010 emissions levels) by 2030, with the additional objective of total carbon neutrality by 2050. This is the threshold recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and one that Elliott says she expects her draft recommendations will reflect.
Albemarle officials recently proposed the same net zero goal for 2050.
But Anna Bella Korbatov, chair of the Cville100 Climate Coalition, says environmentalists are urging local leaders to do more than just set robust climate goals. In order to meet their target, she suggests committing to conducting a greenhouse gas inventory every two years, benchmarking progress, and making the data clearly available to the public to make the process more transparent.
And while Charlottesville is already taking steps to address climate change, areas in which the city could use some work include addressing equity issues, tree cover, and transportation, she adds.
Making goals a reality
“Energy efficiency work is really at the nexus of affordable housing and climate change action,” says Chris Meyer, the executive director of the Local Energy Alliance Program “It is not very sexy, but it delivers immediate results to reduce energy bills [and] related greenhouse gas emissions, and increases a low-income household’s quality of living.”
LEAP is tackling this issue head-on, and in 2018 it delivered free energy efficiency improvements—such as new insulation, LED light bulbs, and aerators for faucets and shower heads—to 475 low-income homes in Charlottesville and Albemarle, with financial support from the city, county, and Dominion Energy.
Over the past several years, LEAP has made multiple improvements to Charlotte and Ralph Terrell’s home in the 10th and Page neighborhood, including insulating multiple walls, ceilings, and closets. They’ve also made safety enhancements to their dryer hose, installed an upstairs heating and cooling unit, and replaced 13 60-year-old windows.
“Our gas bill has gone down considerably because the house is holding the heat in the winter,” and staying cool in the summer, says Charlotte. “We are very, very thankful for that.”
One of the major challenges Meyer’s organization faces is identifying those in need. “There are resources available, we just have a tough time connecting with those who are eligible,” he says.
Another way to make a home—and a city—more efficient is quite simple, says Wild Virginia board member and lifelong nature lover Lil Williams. Look no further than the trees.
“You don’t have to recreate the wheel,” she says. “You have to plant the right kind of trees in the right place and you have to maintain them.”
Cities are heat islands that absorb and retain warmth, and are generally a few degrees warmer than rural areas. Planting shade trees is proven to decrease a city’s temperature from two to nine degrees based on the type and location, she says.
Due to increasing development and natural causes, Virginia cities are losing approximately 3,000 acres of trees per year, and globally, 20 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to deforestation, says Williams.
“In Charlottesville, we’ve cut down whole swaths of forest and put in apartments and shopping centers,” she adds.
While development may be inevitable, Williams recommends the city plant broad-leaf deciduous trees in more densely populated areas with higher pollution levels, such as near schools, hospitals, and in disadvantaged communities, where shade is proven to decrease the cost of air conditioning and electricity.
The city’s 2007 comprehensive plan established a goal of 40 percent tree cover, and a 2009 study found that number at 47 percent. When the city reassessed it in 2015, tree cover had decreased by 2 percent.
Williams expects tree cover has continued to decrease over time, and seemingly without a one-for-one replacement.
A 2018 city “greenprint” noted that, “while 45 percent is a good canopy coverage, the citywide percentage does not tell the whole story,” because 72 percent of that canopy was on private land, and increasing cover would require participation from the private and public sector.
The city’s urban forester, Mike Ronayne, says the tree commission has recently said it would like to instate a 50 percent canopy goal.
Aside from encouraging the planting of more trees, community activists also hope the city’s forthcoming climate action plan will include a better plan for regional transportation, which accounts for 26.6 percent of all local gas emissions.
City residents have long complained about the ineffectiveness of the Charlottesville Area Transit. “People have a hard time getting from point A to point B in a reasonable amount of time,” says C3’s Kruse. “The buses are not always reliable.”
She says the city should look at public transportation and its layout as an aspect of affordability and emissions reduction.
“It’s not just about whether Charlottesville is walkable or bikeable, it also has to have public transit for the people for whom those are not options,” she adds.
Signs of hope
But it’s not all bad news—there are some areas in which the city is successful. Charlottesville has been a leader in piloting and funding climate protection-related programs, including joining the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement in 2006, and drafting its vision for becoming a “green city” by 2025 three years later, CPG’s Elliott says.
In 2017, Charlottesville was the first Virginia city to earn a SolSmart designation, meaning city leaders incentivized going solar by hosting a community “solarize” campaign, reviewing zoning codes, and identifying and addressing restrictions that prohibited solar development.
Several city buildings—including the Smith Aquatic and Fitness Center, Fontaine Fire Station, and Lugo-McGinness Academy—have installed solar panel systems, and the city tracks their energy production. The solar arrays at Charlottesville High School, installed in 2012, supply about an eighth of the school’s annual electricity usage.
Some private companies have followed suit: Carter Myers Automotive in Albemarle, for example, recently built a solar array that covers more than 90 percent of the dealership’s energy use.
To meet a more ambitious carbon reduction goal, the city will also have to work with UVA, its largest employer. The university has its own climate goal—currently, it’s a 25 percent reduction of 2009 emission levels by 2025. Despite university growth, it has already reduced emissions by nearly 19 percent, says sustainability director Andrea Trimble, and is on a trajectory to meet its goal ahead of schedule. Like the city and county, UVA is in the process of developing a new sustainability plan and more aggressive climate goal, and Trimble says all three entities are working on coordinating their efforts.
Says Kruse, “We have leaders in our community who are stepping out and doing the right thing. What we need to do as a community is learn from those leaders and put forward new policies.”
Corrected April 17 at 1:43pm with the correct figure from the Environmental Protection Agency equivalency calculator.