County Executive Marc Elrich has called you the “Climate Czarina.” Sounds like a powerful position. Are you OK with that title?
Climate Czarina suits me just fine. I think I have a slightly bossy streak in my personality, so I am OK with the title. I would also say that I am a no-nonsense type of person, focused on getting to results. In this job, it means finding ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve our community at the same time.
My work involves a lot of coordination of efforts among departments and with the community. The reality is that there are many different actors who have the power to enact change, so doing my job effectively involves building partnerships and coalitions rather than telling people what to do. It’s a lot more soft power than hard power.
Elrich and others say we have a “climate emergency.” What impact can Montgomery County make on a worldwide issue of such magnitude?
As a wealthy jurisdiction of more than one million people, Montgomery County has historically, and continues to, emit a disproportionate share of greenhouse gas emissions compared to most communities worldwide. Even though our countywide emissions have decreased since we started tracking in 2005, the per capita emissions of a Montgomery County resident is 11.1 metric tons. This amount is more than double the world average of per capita emissions. We have an ethical imperative to take a leadership role in reducing and eventually eliminating our emissions.
There are more than one million people in Montgomery County. What actions can each one take to help combat climate change?
There are many things that people can do at the personal level to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The first thing is to talk about climate change. Share with your friends and colleagues what you have done to reduce your emissions, and ask them about what they have done and their upcoming plans. Studies have shown that people are more likely to purchase an electric vehicle or install solar panels when people around them have
At the household level, our largest single sources of emissions are associated with the way we heat and cool our homes and with our mode of transportation. Even if replacing your HVAC system or purchasing your next car is a few years away, you can start planning ahead for those purchases by learning about your options and by making your home and your travel more energy efficient in the meantime.
An energy audit is a low-cost way to start making your home more energy efficient, while keeping the car at home and doing more travel by walking, biking and transit can help make your transportation more energy efficient. You can also switch to clean energy by purchasing electricity from a third-party energy supplier or by subscribing to a community solar project. To get you on your way to more energy efficiency in your daily life, there are tips at Montgomery Energy Connection and Better Ways to Work.
Combating the climate emergency also comes with opportunities to embrace nature-based solutions. If your home has a yard, consider planting more trees and take care of the trees you already have. The county has tree-planting programs that you can take advantage of, like Tree Montgomery, which will install trees on your property free. Eating more plants and less meat is another effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
What are the major tools you have at your disposal to combat climate change in Montgomery County?
County government has a variety of tools we can—and are—using to combat the climate emergency. We are adopting building codes that mandate buildings to achieve improved energy performance. We provide financial incentives like tax credits to building owners that install energy conservation measures. Montgomery County established the nation’s first local-level Green Bank, which gives residents and businesses access to financing specifically for clean energy and energy efficiency projects.
We are also making purchasing decisions with an eye towards reducing emissions, like transitioning the county fleet to electric vehicles. We are installing solar panels on county facilities, including on the closed Oaks landfill, which will provide community solar benefits to low- and moderate-income residents.
We are requiring new buildings and businesses to adopt strategies to reduce their tenants’ and employees’ commuting impacts. And we are expanding public transportation options to make it easier for people to commute by means other than a single-occupancy vehicle. An example of this is FLASH, Montgomery County’s new bus-based rapid transit system that will start operations along Colesville Road in the summer of 2020. And all youth ages 18 and under are eligible to ride for free on our local buses.
Walking can help residents to reduce their carbon footprint, but suburban counties like Montgomery aren’t as conducive to walking as cities. How can walking play a part in what you’re trying to accomplish?
As a graduate of the Walking College [a remote-learning fellowship from America Walks], I am a huge proponent of walking and making communities more conducive to walking. Walking has many co-benefits, like improved physical and mental health, and it’s a wonderful way for connecting with neighbors.
We are working hard to make it easier and more comfortable for people to walk within Montgomery County. The county recently hired a Vision Zero coordinator who is leading the effort to make it safer for people to get around the county on all modes of transportation. For pedestrians, this includes making improvements to the walking infrastructure, like installing new sidewalks, maintaining existing sidewalks and putting in place mid-block signalized crosswalks (“HAWK signals”). The county’s six-year capital improvements budget includes over $266 million for projects related to the Vision Zero initiative.
The Planning Department is currently working on the county’s first pedestrian master plan, which will identify strategies to make streets safer and more accessible to walkers of all ages and abilities.
The county has set aggressive greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals for the next 15 years. What are we doing to meet those goals?
Montgomery County’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets (80 percent reduction by 2027 and 100 percent reduction by 2035) are among the most ambitious in the nation.
We have a climate planning process underway to develop a Climate Action and Resilience Plan that will serve as a road map to reach these targets and to become more resilient to a changing climate.
As part of the planning process, county officials convened five work groups made up of county residents that recommended more than 850 actions the county, residents and businesses could pursue related to
The recommendations developed by the climate work groups are now available for public review on Montgomery County’s climate website. On the page there is a quick survey where you can share your views on the most important areas on which the county should focus and how actions should be prioritized.
There is also an extended survey to leave detailed feedback on any or all of the 850 work group recommendations. The work group recommendations will be reviewed and evaluated for their effectiveness and feasibility over the coming months as we develop the Climate Action and Resilience Plan. Meanwhile, we are moving forward, acting while we plan, with many initiatives to begin making an immediate impact.
For a county without any major manufacturing or industry, how will meeting those goals contribute to the worldwide climate change issue?
Montgomery County’s main sources of measured greenhouse gas emissions come from the vehicles we drive and from the buildings we use for living, working and playing. Reducing emissions gives us an opportunity to be an innovator in the transportation and
Personal consumption is an additional significant area of emissions, which is difficult to measure and is not captured in the county’s greenhouse gas inventory. The consumption choices we make in our homes, workplace and in the community will also impact industry and manufacturing by reducing demand for climate-harmful products.
Montgomery County can become a model for other jurisdictions that are trying to find a path forward. Transitioning to a clean energy economy is also an opportunity for economic development, from energy auditors, to solar developers, to regenerative farmers and electric vehicle charging station installers. There is a world of opportunity awaiting.
From a financial standpoint, how much money can be saved by meeting these goals?
When we live in homes that have efficient cooling and heating systems, and that are well insulated, we pay less in utility bills. Renewable energy choices, like installing rooftop solar, can even generate revenue for homes and businesses in the county. With an increasing Renewable Portfolio Standard requirement in Maryland, solar credits generated will only become more valuable, reduce the payback period for energy generation systems and improve the economics to expand solar energy in the county.
When we look at our transportation choices, if we go to a one- or zero-car household we can save on car payments, insurance and fuel costs. And as the vehicles on the road transition from internal combustion engines to electric, we will experience improved air quality and fewer fine particulates like PM2.5.
New research has shown that these particulates contribute not only to cancer, asthma and heart disease, but also to diseases affecting the kidney and urinary tract. So we can expect lower medical bills and higher life expectancies when we reduce greenhouse gas.