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Virginia Commission on Climate Change
Panel Points the Way to Reducing the State’s Enormous Impact on a Warming Planet
Virginia Moves Closer to a Clean Energy Future
SELC and its allies helped shepherd bills through the 2009 General Assembly that make it more attractive for power companies to invest in robust energy efficiency programs, one of the top recommendations of Governor Tim Kaine’s Commission on Climate Change.
The legislation establishes a framework for Virginia utilities to develop customer-based programs that curb overall electricity consumption while granting power providers a fair rate of return on their investments in these programs. By compensating electric companies for lost sales, the measure removes a major impediment to utility-based energy efficiency. It also helps to level the playing field between energy efficiency and new power generation―a vital issue as we strive to keep the region from being saddled with more coal-fired power plants that lock us into decades of increased air pollution and global warming emissions.
While the new legislation is a good start, more work needs to be done. Lawmakers narrowly rejected an amendment from the governor—which we strongly championed—that set a voluntary goal of meeting 19 percent of projected electricity needs through energy efficiency by 2025. Found to be achievable by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, and recommended as a mandatory goal by the Governor’s Commission on Climate Change, this sizeable reduction in energy use would shrink Virginians’ cumulative carbon footprint by 240 million tons.
Utility involvement is key to reaching this target, but financial incentives alone will not be sufficient to go the distance. SELC and its allies are already discussing goals for next year’s legislative session, and with the assistance of our Washington, D.C., office, we are striving to advance climate legislation in Congress that would mandate national energy efficiency targets for the first time.
After nearly a year of deliberations, Virginia’s Commission on Climate Change has issued a set of recommendations that, if fully implemented, would dramatically reduce the state’s outsized contribution to global warming.
In addition to curbing greenhouse gas emissions, fulfilling the Commission’s overall goals would yield many other benefits for the Commonwealth and its economy by cutting pollution, reining in sprawl, providing better transportation options, trimming utility bills, and preparing the state for rising sea levels and other effects of global climate change.
“Some recommendations should be stronger, and there are some we object to, but generally, this is a big step in the right direction,” says Trip Pollard, head of SELC’s Land and Community program and a member of the Commission. “What’s remarkable is that a group representing a wide range of interests and viewpoints came to the unanimous conclusion that this is a serious issue for Virginia, that climate change will have major impacts on the state, and that there is an urgent need for action to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.”
Now it’s up to Virginia’s leaders to act on these proposals, and SELC has already begun advocating ways to implement the Commission's recommendations.
A Roadmap to Effective Action
In a final report submitted to Governor Tim Kaine on December 15, the Commission put forward more than 100 recommendations. Among them are measures to:
Increase energy efficiency and conservation
For example, the panel calls for legislation that mandates meeting 19 percent of projected electricity needs through energy efficiency by 2025.
Expand transportation options and improve land use practices to reduce vehicle miles traveled
Among the proposals are enhanced support for transit, passenger rail, and freight rail, which can move a ton of cargo with one-third the carbon footprint of shipping by truck. The report also calls for the use of transportation funds and other tools to promote compact, transit-oriented development and to prevent poorly planned growth.
Increase the efficiency of the transportation fleet and the use of alternative fuels
Options include financial incentives for purchasing fuel-efficient vehicles, retiring or retrofitting old diesel trucks and buses, and adopting low-carbon fuels.
Protect forests, wetlands, farmlands, and other natural areas that take up and hold carbon
The Commission outlines a number of steps that should be taken to preserve large expanses of natural terrain for carbon sequestration.
Adapt to the impacts of climate change that can’t be avoided
As the state faces rising seas, increased vulnerability to storm surges, and elevated rainfalls due to global warming, the Commission offers a variety of strategies for protecting ports, transportation systems, farmland, and military installations in coastal areas, as well as for conserving tidal wetlands and wildlife habitat. The panel also spells out ways to address statewide impacts, such as inland flood risks, heat-related illnesses and diseases, and increases in polluted stormwater runoff.
Raising the Bar for Greenhouse Gas Reductions
Governor Kaine has set a state target for reducing greenhouse gases at 30 percent below the business-as-usual projection of emissions by 2025. The Commission urges the governor and the legislature to consider a more aggressive goal that better reflects the recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC calls for reducing global warming emissions by 25 percent below the 1990 level by 2020 and 80 percent below the 1990 level by 2050.
Falling Short on Coal-Fired Power Plants, Renewable Energy, and Vehicle Emissions
There are a number of key areas where the Commission failed to adopt strong recommendations needed to curb greenhouse gas pollutants. The Commission considered recommending a ban on new coal-burning power plants in the state until the technology for controlling carbon dioxide emissions is fully developed. Unfortunately, it narrowly rejected this proposal. The majority of members also voted not to recommend a mandatory standard for the use of renewable energy sources by utilities, opting instead for a voluntary standard. And by a close vote, the Commission rejected a recommendation that Virginia join 18 other states in endorsing a standard for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles.
Putting the Issue Front and Center
Despite these shortcomings, Virginia’s Commission on Climate Change deserves to be commended for an ambitious package of proposals that—for the most part―matches the enormity of the problem. Just as important, the panel has raised the profile of this issue in the Commonwealth and has made Virginians aware that bold and decisive steps are needed to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions and to contend with changing conditions brought on by a warming planet.