History, History Column

Greenhouse Gases

©2019 Sarah Becker

Greenhouse Gases

“Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have grown faster in the United States than in the rest of the world…reinforcing calls for unilateral U.S. curbs on the global-warming gas,” The Washington Post wrote in 1989.  Today the United States is the world’s second largest carbon emitter.  Carbon dioxide molecules, once emitted, remain in the atmosphere for almost a century.

Do Americans, Alexandrians for example who reside in the U.S. Route 1 residential corridor adapt to climate change—as President Donald Trump’s environmental policies suggest—or do local, state and federal governments mitigate?  At present Alexandria promotes accelerated auto transportation.  Six Metro stations are closed for summer repairs.

Most U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are human roused—the result of burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas) for heat, electricity, and transportation.  Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide (84%), methane (10%), nitrous oxide (4%) and fluorinated gases (2%).  According to the Rhodium Group carbon dioxide emissions rose 2.7% in 2018, the second largest annual spike since 2000.  “Much of the emissions spike was driven by the continued rise of transportation emissions, now the nation’s top source of emissions.”

“The hardening scientific consensus has pushed governments to move toward negotiations for international controls,” The Post continued in 1989.  The United Nations Montreal Protocol (ozone) became effective in 1987, the Kyoto Protocol (emission reductions) in 1997.

“In 1997 the United States signed a non-binding agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—primarily carbon dioxide,” The Washington Post reported.  Then U.S. carbon dioxide emissions “exceeded the Kyoto target by 18%, or 220 metric tons per year.”  The percent of excess continues to grow.

Rather than develop mass transit competitively, plan and market its metro stations fittingly, the city of Alexandria encouraged auto-driven streets.  It still does knowing that in 1990 “Virginia ranked 19th among the states—and ahead of industrial nations like Belgium and Sweden—in its emissions of carbon dioxide.”

In 1991 the Environmental Protection Agency “declared Alexandria, Arlington; parts of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in violation of (upgraded) federal standards.”  Governor Doug Wilder responded by asking the state legislature “to place California restrictions on cars in Northern Virginia, the state’s most seriously polluted area.”  President George H.W. Bush amended the Clean Air Act in 1990 as part of his urban air pollution strategy.

Alexandria’s transportation grid is little more than a particulate covered window into Virginia’s segregated past.  In 1993 there was growing evidence “that smog—most of it produced by cars—causes long-term lung damage.”  It did on Alexandria’s U.S. Route 1, the inner city’s Patrick and Henry Streets.  The housing setbacks—for reason of eminent domain—the Jim Crow-era windows were only a sidewalk’s width from the neglected streets.

“Over the past 30 years, researchers have unearthed a wide array of health effects which are believed to be associated with air pollution exposure,” the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences website explains.  “Among them are respiratory diseases (including asthma and changes in lung function), and cardiovascular diseases…While climate change is a global process, it has very local impacts that can profoundly affect communities, not the least of which” were the inner city’s black home-owning seniors.

From 1991-1993 Alexandria’s Inner City Civic Association, with the help of retired T&ES Director Tom O’Kane and City Attorney Philip Sunderland, monitored the U.S. Route 1 corridor for air and noise pollution; conducted carefully considered traffic counts.  Unhealthy, discriminatory practices were discovered and the roadways corrected.  Truck related problems included smokestack emissions and noise (Jake Brakes).  It was the ICCA then described as a determined biracial band, who successfully shepherded the city’s 1993 Jake Brake Ordinance—to the American Trucking Associations dismay.

Years later Alexandria’s Del Ray Civic Association, with the help of former T&ES Director Rich Baier designed the “new” Monroe Street Bridge such that neighborhood cut-through traffic is not permitted.  Del Ray, “the political and cultural center of Alexandria…is home to the mayor and the sheriff,” Michael Lee Pope wrote in 2019.  To longtime leaders and low density advocates who, as local Del Ray historian Leland Ness reportedly said “apparently saw no irony in being progressive and racist.”

Today the federal government wants to rollback fuel economy standards for cars.  Hold them at or near the 37 miles-per-gallon mark.  This at the same time the city claims a multi-modal transportation plan; limits critical traffic counts, and sometimes co-opts neighborhoods’ residential streets on behalf of regional motorists.  The Trump administration also wants, as part of the rollback, to withdraw California’s Clean Air Act waiver.  The waiver allows California and 13 other states to overrule the federal government and set tougher in-state tailpipe pollution rules.

The Environmental Protection Agency website, as revised in 2017 states: “Over half the pollutants in America’s air come from ‘mobile sources’ of air pollution.  These mobile sources include cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, recreational vehicles, scooters, off road construction equipment, marine engines, generators, and…equipment.  Mobile source pollutants include smog…particulate matter or soot, and greenhouse gases.”   

Said Alexandria’s 2009 State of the Air Report—Past, Present, and Future: “Our increased understanding of the adverse health effects of air pollution has led to increasingly more stringent levels of protection.  And the potential environmental effects from greenhouse gas emissions still need to be addressed.”  Meanwhile Auto Data Corporation’s Motor Intelligence reports that as of June 2, 2019 sales of comfort-seekers small SUVs increased 27.9%, luxury SUVs 9.7%.

Sixteen year-old Swedish climate activist and Nobel Prize nominee Greta Thunberg suggests it is wrong to portray climate change as “primarily an opportunity to create new green jobs, new businesses, and green economic growth…Climate change is an emergency, not something you can like on Facebook.  Politicians one second say climate change is very important…and the next second, they want to expand airports…and motorways.”

In 2016 the United Nations Civil Aviation Organization adopted international carbon dioxide emissions standards for aircraft.  The United States struggles to meet the UN 2020 deadline yet National Airport, National Landing are situated nearby.  Meanwhile Alexandria yields to regional pressure and new road construction; metro, parking and violations the ½ Mile Rule; local increases in density, Jim Crow and FDR’s Neighborhood Composition Rule.

“If greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, the atmosphere will warm by as much as 2.70 F, or 1.50 C above preindustrial levels by 2040,” the United Nations 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report concluded. “Without aggressive action, many effects that scientists once expected to happen further in the future will arrive by 2040, and at the lower temperature.”  The scientists’ warnings are dire.

The Report “is telling us we need to reverse emissions trends and turn the world economy on a dime,” Myles Allen, Oxford University climate scientist and author said.  America, its localities need “to ratchet up their ambitions…and cut emissions of greenhouse gases.”

In fact “a majority of our emissions in this city are from buildings and transportation,” Alexandria Environmental Policy Commission member Jim Kapsis confirmed on June 4, 2019.  Activists now await the release of Phase Two of the city’s updated Environmental Action Plan; the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Juliana v. United States [fossil fuels].

However you celebrate the 4th of July, enjoy your holiday!  While you munch your lunch Environmental Protection Agency Administrator and former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler will be working “to weaken the guidelines for a wide range of hazardous air pollutants.”  Wheeler plans “to limit the types of applicable studies used in review.”

Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007. 

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