Montgomery County, the most populous county in Maryland, was recognized today – Day 1 of the International Decade for Emergency Climate Action – by President Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Congress and the United Nations as the first Post Carbon(P-C) community in the United States and the largest jurisdiction on the planet to reduce its net Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions to zero, while also removing millions of tons of GHGs from the atmosphere.
The county government in partnership with its one million residents achieved this ‘moonshot’ goal through the transformation of its energy, transportation, building and agricultural systems, while strengthening the ability of its residents and businesses to withstand the increasingly frequent and severe physical and socio/economic shocks resulting from accelerating climate change.
Join me as I share how Montgomery – a wealthy, highly diverse, well-educated majority-minority community  – got to be a P-C community and what it now looks like.
The 35 or so new institutions, agencies and programs, and the billions of dollars in targeted expenditures described below were based on a straightforward goal: build sufficient community support and financial capital to reduce demand for energy through better design of neighborhoods, buildings, vehicles, transport and food systems, while electrifying buildings and vehicles to eliminate the direct and indirect burning of fossil coal, gas and oil. While achieving this goal sounds simple, it was as ambitious as any community transformation in history.
Thousands more people now live and work in the many walkable, compact, vibrant green communities in the county. Carefully designed and located higher density, mixed-use development results in smaller homes and housing for all incomes. Greater provision of accessory dwelling units in single family neighborhoods helps minimize displacement and maximize affordability. Easily accessible by foot, bike or wheelchair, this mixed use development contributes to a sharp reduction in the number and use of vehicles. The remaining vehicles are largely electric, mostly shared and increasingly autonomous, resulting in part from the creation of the largest charging network in the region and carefully designed parking, road, purchasing, financing and tax incentives and penalties. Highway expansions were stopped, with the many millions saved dedicated to extensive ‘road diets’ and complete street redesigns with priority for pedestrians, bicyclists, shared vehicles and public transport. These street redesigns reduced vehicle use, which – complemented by vigorous enforcement and public education – led to a sharp and sustained reduction in vehicle related deaths, fulfilling the promise of the county’s commitment to Vision Zero more than a decade earlier. Regulations required new housing and commercial development to actually reduce vehicle miles travelled and GHG emissions by their occupants through restricting parking and subsidizing walking, bicycling and transit.
Extensive retrofitting of the building stock based on detailed building ‘carbonoscopies’, including the replacement of high GHG emitting refrigerant gases, resulted in lower utility bills and healthier and more comfortable living environments, noticeably cleaner air and a reduction in asthma and heart ailments. The many leaks in the county’s fossil gas pipelines – leaks that released methane, a potent greenhouse gas – were identified and remedied, resulting in safer communities, lower utility costs and reduced GHG emissions. In 2029 a ceremony was held to celebrate the last property disconnected from gas service.
Montgomery Electrifies, a public-private partnership,was established to accelerate the necessary electrification of the county’s more than one million buildings and vehicles. As a result of a sustained educational campaign, as well as powerful incentives and regulations setting out a progressive schedule of ambitious GHG reduction targets, commercial and residential buildings no longer emit carbon or methane as electric heating and appliances replace fossil gas. First in the nation legislation prohibiting new gas lines serving homes and businesses was passed in 2022.
The 125,000 daily riders on the county’s Ride On transit system (up by over half since 2019 and now the 20thlargest system in the US) now travel on an all-electric fleet of close to 500 buses. One hundred and ten thousand public school students travel on 800 electrified buses (with all diesel buses eliminated), while school enrollment increased by 10%), covering over 15 million miles a year. School bus fleet size and mileage traveled was reduced by a third – as were student obesity rates – due to higher density development, a more extensive sidewalk network, safer roads and a school siting and design policy that favored multi-story buildings in developed areas. Increased Ride On patronage came largely from reorganized bus routes, a sharp reduction in fares and a newly established fleet of small vans, frequently autonomous, shuttling riders the ‘last mile’ from the Metro or Purple Line to and from homes and businesses.
A wide variety of clean energy sources were encouraged by the county. As a result rooftop, window and community solar, geothermal, legacy nuclear, hydrogen, onshore and particularly offshore wind, along with energy storage capacity, and smart and micro grids provide a clean electric grid. Most community solar arrays are located on parking lots, commercial roof tops or other impervious surfaces, minimizing intrusion into natural habitats. All new buildings have solar, lush green or reflectiveroofs, many with green ‘living walls’. An increasing number are certified as Living Buildings and meet the WELL standard – assuring users they are the healthiest, most sustainable and most carbon absorbing possible. Many larger office, institutional and commercial buildings are now constructed largely from wood, sharply reducing GHG emissions. Building codes require net zero GHG emissions throughout the lifecycle of the building, including construction, embodied energy from materials and deconstruction. Roadsare coated in white to reflect heat and cool neighborhoods.
Existing structures are evaluated for their ability to withstand more frequent rain bombs, derechos, intense flooding, higher wind speeds, record high heat and temperature fluctuations never before experienced in the county. Montgomery became the first government to require Universal Climate Design (UCD) construction standards to climate-proof every new and most existing structures. A Climate Compatible Design(CCD) standard for every neighborhood helps to ensure minimum carbon consumption and maximum resiliency. UCD retrofit programs upgraded buildings to withstand these extreme conditions, with particular focus on schools, community centers and other institutional facilities frequently used as climate shelters for those displaced by power outages and severe weather.
Most of the county’s farmers have embraced regenerative agricultural practices resulting in healthier foods and a more resilient agricultural economy, leading to an influx of younger farmers. A Living Soils program recognized farmers whose soils absorbed significantly more carbon. A county sponsored Regenerative Agriculture Research and Demonstration Farm developed techniques that assisted local farmers, as well as the larger agricultural community. Now one of the most popular county attractions, it is visited by thousands of school kids and residents each year. This reinvigoration of the county’s soils and farms strengthened the county’s nationally recognized 93,000 acre agricultural reserve, while improving water quality.
The redesign and expansion of county parks, green and other public spaces and roadside rain gardens reduced flooding and helped draw down carbon from the atmosphere, while providing greater protection and shelter from severe weather. Aggressive water conservation, including the reuse of greywater, and wastewater treatment assisted by carbon-eating bacteria further reduced GHG emissions.
An ethic of sharing emerged as people discovered new ways to reduce consumption while maintaining and enhancing their quality of life. Knowledge and talent sharing through community time banks, community supported agriculture, co-living and co-working spaces, peer-to-peer lending, and tool libraries sprang up most everywhere. Shared guest rooms were included in new multi-family residential developments so buyers or renters could occupy smaller units and still accommodate visitors.
Led by a group of Master Carbon Gardeners, individual and community Climate Victory Gardens were created by the thousands, providing healthy fresh food often shared amongst neighbors, while cooling the environment, reducing runoff, enhancing neighborhood cohesion and resilience, and saving money, all while absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. Many of the climate victory gardens were established on school property, providing opportunities for thousands of students to connect with nature and fresh food. Many thousands of trees were planted – and existing forests better maintained – by the newly created County Climate Conservation Corps (4C), expanding the county’s tree canopy while drawing down carbon and cooling neighborhoods.
With leadership by the county’s food markets, restaurants, schools and colleges, food choices gradually shifted to fresher, healthier and lower carbon plant-based diets, aided by the widespread availability of ‘virtual’ meats and fish. Obesity and diabetes rates plummeted from the healthier food as well as the increased incidence of bicycling and walking. An annual Eat Green and Clean week showcased restaurants, business, government and school cafeterias, and hundreds of neighborhood potlucks serving fresh low carbon food.
Food waste was sharply reduced to close to zero, as a result of careful purchasing, storage and eating habits, composting, reductions in packaging, enhanced recycling, the overhaul of food ‘use by’ and ‘sell buy’ labeling and prohibitions on food markets throwing out food.
Buildings slated for teardown were required to be deconstructed rather than demolished, saving materials and reducing GHG emissions. The success of the zero waste campaign allowed the county to close the Dickerson resource recovery facility in 2021, saving money and eliminating emissions.
Flying was sharply cut by a Stay Local program to educate residents and businesses on the ‘sky high’ carbon emissions resulting from air travel.
A first in the nation climate test was instituted to ensure that every major county planning, regulatory, investment and operational decision advanced its climate vision. Other organizations, companies and governments followed suit with climate tests of their own.
Government: Structure, Processes, Policy, Operations
County officials essentially reinvented government to ensure that GHG reduction and climate resilience came first. Departments that had rarely talked to each other before are now in constant communication, with many functions re-organized to better address the climate emergency. Dozens of often obscure regulations, policies, practices, and expenditures have been examined and subsequently modified, strengthened or eliminated. Telecommuting was vastly expanded, both to reduce GHG’s and to ensure continuity on the increasingly frequent days when severe weather made commuting much more hazardous if not impossible. A climate ‘war room’ reporting directly to top county officials was established and staffed seven days a week.
Successful management of the many new programs and agencies was accomplished by a County Climate Coordination Council(4C) led by the County Executive and including the Select County Council Committee on Climate (S4C) and a broad coalition of community leaders. A DMV Regional Climate Summit initiated by the county and attended by hundreds of elected officials and residents throughout the region led to the development of an area wide blueprint that reflected the strategies undertaken and the P-C outcomes attained in Montgomery County. The President herself attended, having pedaled United States Bike 1 the short 45 minute ride from the White House to the Silver Spring Civic Center. While there she announced a transformational initiative to drive global GHG emissions to zero in a decade.
The county also recognized the importance of leading by example. It created delicious low carbon menus for the food it served, contracted for or financed. It directed its employees to reduce their flying, including the council and county executive. Its entire workforce of thousands were trained to understand the climate emergency and the role of each and every county office in combating GHGs and enhancing individual and community resilience. Each of these actions was also undertaken by the Montgomery County Public Schools, the 14thlargest in the country, and the 35,000 students and staff at Montgomery College.
Interconnections Beyond the County: Impacts and Influence
Recognizing that eliminating emissions in Montgomery County by itself would have no noticeable effect on the global climate given the almost unimaginably massive quantity of GHGs emitted around the world, the county developed a number of strategies to leverage its actions to indirectly reduce emissions elsewhere.
Revising its purchasing specifications in partnership with other local, state and federal government agencies and private businesses, catalyzed the greening of supply chains by specifying lower carbon emitting products and materials. This Use Clean(UC) program spread across the country. A successful campaign to get local businesses to join the county in requiring that all commercial deliveries be made in zero emissions vehicles only (Clean Vehicles Only or CVO) was developed. UPS, Fed Ex and others got the message and accelerated the transformation of their fleet, including to E-cargo bikes, here and elsewhere.
After years of debate, the county instituted a comprehensive program to divest its financial resources from companies connected to fossil fuels. Those hundreds of millions of dollars are now invested in companies and institutions helping to create the P-C economy. A new county supported law office, Montgomery Climate Legal Services,(MCLS) initiated or joined lawsuits against industries and companies actively resisting a clean energy transformation.
The county advocated for the creation of a much needed new Federal agency, the National Institutes of Climate(NIC), which was created by Congress in 2021. Given Montgomery‘s location next-door to the District of Columbia, the county successfully lobbied Congress to site the campus in a new mixed use community in the White Oak neighborhood. NIC now coordinates climate research and policy development throughout the Federal government. Housing the NIC has made the county the world’s leading hub of climate research and has attracted many companies – both established and start-up – and research institutes to the county, reinvigorating the less advantaged eastern neighborhoods of the county.
TheClimate University of America(CUA) – the first full scale university focusing on climate in the world – was developed through a unique partnership between government, business and the civic sector, and recently opened its doors adjacent to the NIC. Nearby the country’s first Climatarium, hosting exhibition halls, meeting space and an interactive educational and climate simulation center, draws visitors from around the world.
The county was frequently asked to present its remarkable climate story to state and national audiences and increasingly internationally as well – which it did by webinar, of course, and not by flying to those locations.
Recognizing that the state and federal government were critical to meet its targets, the county organized a broad coalition of cities and counties who successfully lobbied for changes in state and federal legislation and utility regulation. Legislation included a 2020 100% Eastern Regional (and in 2025 federal) Clean Energy Only(CEO) electric power mandate, a 2022 Eastern Regional 75% transportation CEO mandate that increased to 100% in 2027, clean energy utility selection (Community Choice Energy), a statewide fee on utility bills to provide universal electric vehicle infrastructure and progressive and escalating carbon taxes. A large scale buy-back of internal combustion engine powered vehicles by the federal government accelerated the transition to electric vehicles.
The unprecedented legislative assistance received from Annapolis and Washington did not diminish the county’s unrelenting insistence that both the state and the Feds declare climate emergencies and up their climate game. After some years when stiff resistance to this demand thwarted action, the unexpected and dramatic election of Ocasio-Cortez in 2028 led to emergency declarations and accelerating action from both soon after. In turn, both the state and federal governments adopted some of the county’s best climate practices, particularly in citizen engagement, planning and financing.
Many thousands of climate migrants from other parts of the US and abroad are being integrated into the community – often with difficulty due to shortages of housing and other necessities – through an unprecedented partnership of hundreds of schools, businesses, faith institutions, and immigrant and neighborhood groups. Montgomery Together mental health and migrant programs inspired similar efforts in other cities and states.
Impacts Outside Our Borders
The county’s first in the world climate transformation resulted in a planetary reduction in greenhouse gases many times larger than the county achieved within its borders – larger than the GHG emissions of most states – as a result of its efforts to leverage its activities, as well as through the powerful example of its innovative and integrated suite of strategies.
Montgomery county’s leadership has ‘unpaved’ the way for governments throughout the country and indeed the world to restore a healthy planetary climate, better manage the climate shocks we increasingly experience and demonstrate that it is possible to more than meet the One Generation Challenge that was proclaimed by the United Nations in 2020 as necessary to achieve a stable climate and greener planet.
Sequestration or Removal of Carbon
The county recognized that other means of atmospheric carbon removal besides regenerative agriculture is essential to restoring a healthy climate by reducing GHG concentrations to 300 parts per million (ppm) or less from the 411 ppm when the planning for the Vision began. The county continues to make strategic investments in companies that have developed safe and promising approaches to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. This includes technologies and processes like carbon air capture, carbon mineralization, marine permaculture and seaweed farming. The county’s foresight in supporting the single most critical action to address climate breakdown – the restoration of Arctic ice – helped accelerate the development of safe techniques to reverse the disappearance of Arctic ice.
Attracted by proximity to the NIC and the CUA, several of these companies have located their research and development labs in the county, more than justifying these investments.
The unprecedented P-C transformation led to tens of thousands of new well-paying largely unionized jobs in retrofitting, solar manufacturing and installation, extension services, community and regenerative agriculture, public education, public transit upgrades, bike and pedestrian pathways construction, accelerated housing construction and maintenance, climate R&D and related services. Opportunities expanded for entrepreneurs to provide green goods and services to residents and businesses throughout the region and beyond. This boom resulted in prosperity for most. In particular, large numbers of formerly disadvantaged county residents benefited as a result of the application of an ‘equity’ policy applied to every county program to insure equitable access for all.
At the same time, however, the world changed, and not for the better. Increasingly severe and unpredictable weather patterns, frequent shocks to the local and national economy, political instability around the country and the world, and the disorienting unpredictability of nearly all aspects of life characterized everyday living. The county, in collaboration with the mental health community, developed extensive peer and professional support networks to help people navigate this ‘new abnormal’ world. Despite the high quality of care available, few are immune from anxiety, depression and various stress-related disorders, including large numbers of service providers and community and government leaders.
State of Emergency
Building on the counties’ first in the nation declaration of a climate emergency in 2017, the catalyst for this historic P-C transformation was the development of a comprehensive and compelling blueprint for emergency climate action. This blueprint was developed in close coordination with the first major revision of the county’s General Plan in 50 years.
Organizing an extensive outreach process in 2019 was the first step. Thousands of residents representing all walks of life participated with special attention given to ensure that people from underrepresented groups and areas of the county were included. Climate conversations, based on study materials prepared by the county and reviewed by leading climate scientists and policy experts,provided opportunities for hundreds of neighborhood, work and school groups to discuss the nature of the climate emergency and the best ways the county could address it. Folks in virtually every occupation – actuaries to zoologists – explored how their professions and occupations could help contribute to climate solutions.
The comprehensive blueprint for emergency climate action – titled ‘A Healthy Climate in a Prosperous Montgomery’ and released in 2020 laid out detailed programmatic and budgetary recommendations for action by the county council, the county executive, the public schools and college, municipalities, nearby county and regional governments, the state and federal government, and perhaps most importantly county residents and businesses. The document was produced in a variety of video and print formats, distributed to every county residence and business, as well as to every county and large city in the country, members of Congress, leaders of business, philanthropy and non-governmental organizations. It is also used as a climate text book by schools and colleges here and elsewhere. The tagline: ‘A Healthy Climate in a Prosperous Montgomery’ is prominently displayed on every county webpage and on all public information materials, and even on the tee-shirts worn by participants in the county softball league.
Awareness and Outreach
These efforts worked. While less than 40% of the population discussed climate change in 2016, almost 90% now regularly discuss it, and over 95% of residents now believe that humans cause climate change, a noticeable increase from the significant numbers of residents who did not accept that role in 2016. Recognizing that most residents were not aware of how little time we had to literally save life on the planet – the decade of the 2020’s was make-or-breaktime with a severe planetary procrastination penalty for inaction – the county found creative ways to involve residents. Many of these initiatives were developed and managed in partnership with county-based Federal agencies including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Food and Drug Administration, other federal and state agencies, and local private businesses with climate expertise.
Reaching the hundreds of thousands of Montgomery county residents to participate in this transformational change remained a challenge. To address that challenge the county, in partnership with business, civic and religious organizations established a Citizens Climate Extension Service(CCES). Modeled after the agricultural extension agent program, hundreds of volunteers were trained to help residents and businesses understand and access the many programs and services available to transform their homes, businesses, vehicles and lifestyles. Some 175,000 households and businesses were assisted through the first eight years of the program. Inspired by Montgomery’s example, over four million people nationwide have now been assisted by a national network of climate extension services.
Motivated by the county’s progress and supported by the many programs that provide financial and technical assistance, hundreds of religious, civic, business and educational institutions transformed their operations to meet the county’s target of zero net GHGs by 2030.
A county Climate Creative Arts group with hundreds of artists, musicians, singers, poets, dancers, actors and actresses incorporated climate into their work, reaching many thousands of county residents through performance, exhibitions and outreach.
Recognizing the Interests of the Future
Also recognizing that the 250,000 county residents under the age of 18, as well as those as yet unborn, will be most affected by the change in climate, a first in the world Climate Trusteelaw was passed that required the appointment of a Climate Trustee to represent the interests of young people and future generations. The first of many recommendations made by the Trustee resulted in the appointment of a young person to every county board and commission and the lowering of the voting age to 16 in county elections. Each year a Young People’s Climate Assembly was convened, with over 1000 youth recommending climate actions and policy for their neighborhood, county, region and state.
Both Montgomery Public Schools and Montgomery College recognized the opportunities that this dramatic climate transformation provided to enhance their educational missions. Curriculum was reshaped around climate, since virtually every subject and topic has a climate dimension. The more than 200 school buildings and thousands of acres of school grounds themselves provide a rich canvas for students of all ages to learn about climate. As a result of the establishment of the Montgomery Learns Climate program,students are the most climate-cognizant in the country, enhancing their ability to function in this new climate era, while preparing them for both the many new climate disciplines, occupations and careers and the stresses, dislocations and shocks to come.
Climate competitions were also developed with hundreds of students and residents developing ideas for climate action, with area businesses and institutions donating modest prizes. To help insure a climate literate populace the county unveiled the first county level Citizens Climate Institute in the country with over 1000 residents trained to be valuable community resources.
Rebutting the cries by many that such a transformation was unaffordable, an innovative strategy to finance this transformation led to the existing non-profit green bank becoming a full service public green bank – the Montgomery County Community Green Bank(MCCGB), which sold millions of dollars of small denomination Climate Victory Bonds in its first days of operation.
Financing also came from leveraging the hundreds of millions of dollars in savings that resulted from the phasing out of fossils fuels, the larger tax base resulting from the boom in new jobs and businesses, property value increases brought about by healthier and more efficient homes and resilient communities, and contributions made by the private and philanthropic sectors, including the establishment of a United Climate Way Campaign (UCWC).
A 1% for Climate voluntary contribution program (Climate 1) and a small tax on very high income earners (the Robin Carbon Hood Tax) were also put into place. In addition, savings from more efficient use of resources by the county in its operations and the aggressive pursuit of resources available through the federal and state Green New Deal initiatives minimized the economic burden on residents and businesses.
Recommendations for Policies and Actions
Recommendation 28: Counties in New Jersey should consider doing a somewhat similar bold vision of their own. They should seek to put their own stamp on it, customizing it for their own current and anticipated circumstances. Similarly, they should stretch their imaginations to reach what seems to be needed, and even make up a few new terms, if appropriate, along the way. Even better would be if, like the vision for Montgomery County, they also seek to have beneficial impacts on other counties and even other places around the world.
Of course, even wonderful visions, once created, have to be frequently invoked and their spirit seen in what is actually practiced (as implied in the beginning quote from Achim Steiner, the Administrator of the United Nations Development Program). We could use vision-invokers whose role it would be to point out when plans and actions fall short.
In the next Part, we’ll return to the mindset barriers problem discussed in Part 4, by showing a more positive view of mindsets that might help.
 Editor’s note: The former head of New Jersey’s Office of State Planning, as well as New Jersey Higher Education Partnership for Sustainability, has been doing a lot of thinking and writing about climate change since leaving our state. At the same time, the construction of a vision can open up a sense of the possibilities by at least temporarily freeing up usually binding constraints to creativity, identifying what is needed, and showing what it would look like if obstacles could be eliminated. Therefore, I asked Herb to re-post his essay here. (Matt Polsky)
 For more information about Montgomery County, see the source below. For quick reference, cities in it include Silver Spring, Rockville, and Bethesda.
Wikipedia. (2019, February 22) Montgomery County, Maryland. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montgomery_County,_Maryland.