The Transatlantic Climate Bridge 2.0: Northern Virginia Redux
Global Engagement by Local Governments on Climate Change
Like no time before, local governments in the United States are critical actors on the global stage. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated – or necessary - than when cities, counties and towns address the topic of climate change. The reasons are clear – local governments in the United States are especially vulnerable to the effects of sea-level rise, extreme heat and intense flooding and storm events. They also are among the most critical actors when reducing greenhouse gas emissions, protecting vulnerable populations, mitigating floods, promoting green infrastructure, or engaging on the issue of global climate change. But perhaps most relevant is that local governments are on the frontlines of global climate action, where federal or state-level government policies are inconsistent.
Evolution to More Strategic, Purposeful Global Engagement That Benefits Main Street
As the demands grow for U.S. local governments to work internationally on climate change, the old model of event-based activity is falling short. In its place is rising a more strategic, purposeful, and outcome-oriented form of international work at the local level. It seems no longer sufficient for a U.S. mayor to travel internationally to give a speech at the C40 about the actions his or her city are taking on climate. Global work on climate change by U.S. local governments now must deliver ecological, economic, and social benefits to Main Street, support the day jobs of the city manager, wastewater treatment engineer and public health director. Local governments also need to cultivate partnerships with their local or regional businesses, universities, and NGOs to find policy innovations continuously and reliably from overseas for application to local climate initiatives.
Northern Virginia as a Model
For over 23 years, the Northern Virginia Regional Commission (NVRC), a regional council representing the 13 local governments of Northern Virginia with a population in excess of 2.5 million residents, has pursued an innovative form of global programming at the local level. The NVRC prioritizes the transfer and application of policy and technical innovations from overseas to the Northern Virginia region. NVRC’s global business model also involves the support and involvement of its commercial and business partners, academic and research institutions as well as its civil society and NGO partners. These partnerships aid with the long-term application of – at times – very complex policy and technical innovations from countries such as Germany.
Moreover, to stay strategically focused on outcomes that advance the climate programs of Northern Virginia’s communities, NVRC’s global business model further prioritizes collaboration with countries that also are economically invested in the region. German metropolitan regions such as Stuttgart, Bottrop, Hamburg and Berlin have been the focus of NVRC’s work for the past three decades because they (and others like it in Germany) are world-class pioneers in energy efficient building design, renewable energy, climate adaptation, electric vehicle planning and many other climate policies. But Germany is also among the largest investor in Northern Virginia. In Arlington County, German companies for the period 2015-2020 invested over $100,000,000 into the County, representing over 50% of all greenfield foreign investment in the County for that period.
Return to the Transatlantic Climate Bridge
In 2009, NVRC co-authored the “Joint Declaration to Support the Exchange and Application of Mutually Beneficial Sustainable Energy and Climate Policies Between the Federal Republic of Germany and the Commonwealth of Virginia” between former Governor Timothy Kaine and German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel. The document was a catalyst to a series of long-term and fruitful exchanges between Northern Virginia and metropolitan regions in Germany that hugely informed the progression of Northern Virginia’s climate programs. It also hailed a new era of progress to the region’s own version of an “Energie Wende”.
For example, in 2007, there were fewer than 500 kilowatts of installed solar PV capacity in the Commonwealth. But partnerships between NVRC, the Local Energy Alliance Program (LEAP) and George Mason University led to the harvesting of Bottrop and Stuttgart’s inspiring solar programs to create the Solarize “Solar Map.” A key feature of the map is the profiling of potential solar energy generation and return on investment generated by a residential rooftop. Drawing from energy efficiency lessons in Berlin and Hamburg, Arlington County in 2011 developed the nationally recognized “Community Energy Plan” – among the first comprehensive and quantitatively benchmarked climate mitigation and energy plans. Today, it is estimated that there are over 3,760 megawatts of installed solar photovoltaic energy in the Commonwealth – due in part to these types of strategic partnerships.
The 2022 Exchange
Looking to the future by building on the reliable foundation of the past, NVRC led a 12-member exchange to Stuttgart and Hamburg for the period May 6-14, 2022. The purpose was to advance and accelerate NVRC’s global engagement business model of harvesting climate mitigation and resiliency innovations from Stuttgart and Hamburg. The NVRC delegation included five elected officials of the NVRC board, two technical staff from Dominion Energy, the executive director of LEAP, a professor of environmental engineering from George Mason University, two NVRC staff and the director of the Heinrich Boell Foundation’s climate programs. The delegation was the ideal fusion of elected officials and policymakers, technical staff from the nation’s fourth largest electric utility, an environmental engineer from Virginia’s largest university and the executive director from one of Virginia’s largest solar and energy efficiency NGOs.
Projects and programs studied during the exchange included:
- Re-visiting the Stuttgart’s region-wide integrated “clean air corridor” climate resiliency program;
- Review of the Stuttgart Region Electric Vehicle Charging Initiative and EnBW Electrician’s Vocational Training Programs;
- Rems River restoration and flood management project;
- Integrated flood engineering plan of Hamburg’s Hafen City;
- Pergolenviertel ecological social housing program.
One week following the return of the delegation, the pursuit of applying many of the innovations from these projects in Germany to Northern Virginia has already started. The University of Stuttgart will orchestrate a workshop to bring the two regions together to study ways that cross-national science and research between the two regions and their academic institutions can be applied to support local-level climate planning. This has the potential to inform the newly formed “Virginia Climate Center” at George Mason University and lead to further applied science and policy exchanges. Moreover, NVRC proposes to dispatch two technical staff in late 2022 or early 2023 to Stuttgart and Hamburg to study the applications of those region’s climate resiliency programs to Northern Virginia. The social and economic attributes of Hamburg’s Pergolenviertel will be evaluated to potentially apply to social housing in Alexandria, Virginia. NVRC also is working with Dominion Energy to explore the possibility of an exchange involving teachers and students working on electric vehicle and grid maintenance between the Northern Virginia and Stuttgart regions.
2023 and Beyond
NVRC’s 23-year experiment of strategic global engagement provides a helpful roadmap for local governments across the United States aspiring to navigate this dynamic age. This is especially the case with transatlantic climate relations at the local level. Here, NVRC’s model of purposeful and outcome-oriented collaboration points to the potential for not just stronger and sustainable climate policies in the U.S., but also more collaborative transatlantic relationships over the long-term.