This is the first in a 3-part series, A sea change in action: Bay states plan for future climate, providing an overview of state-level climate initiatives in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland. See also PA sets lofty goals for climate action, but can it achieve them?
Virginia, like many coastal states, has been battling climate change primarily on two fronts: reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preparing coastal communities for rising seas.
The state’s formal response to climate change can be traced to then-Gov. Tim Kaine’s executive order in December 2007 that formed the Governor’s Commission on Climate Change.
Since then, climate action on a state level has been on a rollercoaster. From 2010 to 2014, the issue took a back seat under Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell’s administration. But two successive Democratic administrations under Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam made some progress amid resistance from a Republican-controlled General Assembly.
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions
The political dynamic shifted again in November as Democrats regained control of the General Assembly for the first time in more than two decades. Now, environmental activists hope that change translates into long-awaited action on their climate agenda.
In his 2007 order, Kaine, now a U.S. senator representing Virginia, urged his climate commission to find ways to cut the state’s greenhouse gas emissions 30% by 2025. Assuming the state took no action, officials estimated that total emissions would reach 230 million tons by that year. The governor’s plan would reduce emissions to 163 million tons per year.
Critics, including some commission members, argued that the state’s target didn’t go far enough. In contrast, the most recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had urged reductions of 25% by 2020 and 80% by 2050. But others worried that more-aggressive steps would raise energy costs beyond what residents and businesses could absorb.
The commission ultimately proposed 76 million tons in cuts, which would result in a slightly higher reduction than the 30% that Kaine had sought.
Today, Virginia may be closing in on that goal. In fact, it may have already happened. The source of the uncertainty is a problem that has plagued the state’s climate change campaign from the outset: lack of public support.
No comprehensive analysis of emissions has been performed for years because of a lack of funding from state lawmakers, said Meryem Karad, policy and communications adviser to Natural Resources Secretary Matt Strickler.
But state officials estimate the current total is 160 million to 185 million tons per year. Most of the cuts have come from electricity suppliers converting from coal to natural gas to fire their plants, Karad said. The low end of that range surpasses the emissions goal; on the high end, the state would still have a long way to go.
The largest share of that multimillion-ton decrease, representing about one-third of all emission reductions, was projected to come from federally mandated actions, such as increased fuel economy for vehicles and new efficiency standards on certain appliances.
But the state has found itself with less help from Washington, DC, than expected. The long-awaited cap-and-trade legislation was dead on arrival in Congress — and remains so. The system would have set an emissions cap. Companies could then buy and sell allowances on the open market; those that reduce emissions could sell excess allowances to other emitters.
The Obama administration enacted a Clean Power Plan, but the Trump administration replaced it earlier this year with an industry-friendly version that required no specific emission reductions.
Trump also backed out of the 2016 Paris Agreement on climate. In response, under then-Gov. McAuliffe in 2017, Virginia joined a group of states pledging to uphold the Paris accord, including its goal of reducing emissions up to 28% from 2005 levels by 2025. So far, 24 states and Puerto Rico have signed on to the U.S. Climate Alliance’s targets.
“Working with a strong coalition of states through the Climate Alliance is important as Virginia develops comprehensive strategies to address the impacts of climate change,” said Gov. Northam. “We are focused on reducing our carbon footprint in a way that grows our clean energy economy and creates new business opportunities across the commonwealth.”
But Northam, like previous Democratic governors, faced opposition from the state’s Republican-controlled legislature on climate issues.
Nine Northeast states have formed a cap-and-trade program for power plants. Northam made joining it a signature campaign issue. State regulators finalized a carbon-trading rule last April. But state Republicans blocked the move, refusing to allocate funding for it in their budget this year.
Activists hopes that the new Democratic majority will nudge the proposal across the finish line. Northam has announced plans to seek the go-ahead from lawmakers during this year’s session.
Virginia has twice made sweeping climate action proposals: in 2008 under Kaine and 2015 under McAuliffe. The trouble has been sticking to them.
The Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the Virginia Coastal Policy Clinic at the William and Mary School of Law published a review of the state’s progress toward meeting the 2008 goals. The report found that while certain actions had been taken, the state had failed to implement a “comprehensive” program to address the recommendations.
The state’s energy-conservation efforts haven’t much impressed the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. The energy watchdog ranked Virginia 29th in the nation, just behind Tennessee, in 2019 in overall efficiency. Its total score of 15 points out of the nonprofit’s scale of 50 was just 5 points higher than its 2008 sum.
The state also has lagged in renewable energy development. In 2018, Virginia obtained just shy of 7% of its energy from renewables, well below the national average of 17%, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.
The Kaine commission had hoped to wring about 8% of the state’s emissions reductions from transportation system upgrades. It was more of a plan to have a plan, though, calling on officials to set numerical goals for initiatives such as improving community designs as well as increasing public transit ridership, the amount of freight carried by rail and the number of people who bicycle or walk to work.
The state has made strides on some of those recommendations. The Virginia Department of Transportation published statewide bicycle and pedestrian plans. The agency also wrote a document to help guide localities toward more-efficient community designs. But transit ridership dipped 8% statewide in 2017 and another 2% in 2018.
Adapting to a wetter world
Scientists widely agree that coastal Virginia is ground zero for sea level rise and other climate impacts.
Sinking land, a weakening Gulf Stream and rising seas are expected to raise the level of the water surrounding Hampton Roads 4.5 feet by the end of the century. (Worldwide, the average rise is forecast to be 3 feet, according to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.) That incoming tide threatens thousands of residents as well as the largest naval base on the planet, Naval Station Norfolk.
Alarmed, many coastal communities have begun taking action, from the Eastern Shore studying potential road-flooding impacts to Norfolk investing $112 million in an elaborate tide-defense system for a pair of low-lying neighborhoods.
For years, though, those efforts unfolded largely in isolation from one another, with little state-level coordination. State lawmakers stepped in last year, creating a cabinet-level position dedicated to coastal adaptation and protection. Northam appointed Ann Phillips, a retired Navy rear admiral and longtime advocate for climate action, to the position.
“Because the localities and the cities have been doing so much already, they’re really ahead of the state,” Phillips said.
She has spent much of her first year on the job meeting local planners and documenting the resources they need to combat climate change in their communities. The most-cited challenges included a lack of planning staff, funding shortfalls and conflicts with the state’s top-down approach to governance.
Virginia adheres to the Dillon Rule, an 1800s legal doctrine that prohibits local governments from wielding any powers beyond those specifically granted by the state. While multiple legal analysts have sided with local governments on their authority to tackle flooding problems, the issue remains far from settled. A 2010 Virginia Supreme Court ruling, for example, overturned on Dillon Rule grounds a Hampton decision to expand a conservation area to protect the Chesapeake Bay.
In 2015, the nonprofit advocacy group Climate Central and its consultant ICF International gave Virginia a C+ grade for its coastal-flooding efforts. Its neighbor, Maryland, received an A–.
The report card cited Virginia’s lack of an updated climate change adaptation plan with detailed resilience policies and a timeline for getting projects done.
Phillips is working on completing a “coastal master plan,” by the end of the spring, she said. But her efforts will be constrained, she added, because of her office’s lack of a budget and staff.
“I have to stay within my means,” she said.