Rolling Boulder up the mountain


It is almost an article of faith among climate activists that only a lack of political will is preventing us from taming global warming. As Al Gore puts it in his book, Our Choice:

 "It is now abundantly clear that we have at our fingertips all of the tools we need to solve the climate crisis. The only missing ingredient is collective will."
If any place on the planet has the collective will to put those tools to use, it's Boulder, Colorado -- a city that is probably home to more people working on one aspect or another of climate change than any other place on Earth. But according to a recent article by Stephanie Simon in the Wall Street Journal, even liberal Boulder, that bastion of environmentalism, and the first place in the United States to actually enact a carbon tax, is struggling mightily to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
The city is no doubt learning from its mistakes and may well do better and better in coming years. But its experience so far, along with that of European nations, which have been working hard for years to reduce their emissions, should stand as a cautionary tale for those who buy Gore's assertion. Breaking political logjams probably isn't going to be good enough.
In 2002, the Boulder City Council passed a resolution committing the city to meeting the goals of the Kyoto Protocol. To get there, the city must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. If that sounds modest and doable, consider that this will require a reduction in emissions totaling 22 percent below 2007 levels.

To help reach the goal, Boulder voters passed the country's first-ever carbon tax. According to the Wall Street Journal article, it now amounts to $21 annually for each resident. The proceeds are supporting a wide variety of programs promoting energy efficiency, renewable energy, low-emission vehicles, mass transit, biking and walking, and reductions in the amount of waste going to landfills.

In 2008, these efforts prevented emissions into the atmosphere of 81,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. [PDF] According to the city, this has succeeded in reversing the growth of Boulder's greenhouse gas emissions. On the surface, that seems like no small achievement. But as the Wall Street Journal points out, overall Boulder's emissions declined just 1 percent from 2006 through 2008. Moreover, at the end of 2008, the city's emissions were 27 percent higher than they were in 1990 -- "a worse showing than the U.S. as a whole, where emissions rose 15% during that period," according to Journal.

There's no question that photovoltaic panels are going up in many places around town. And Boulder is friendlier than ever to cyclists, pedestrians and mass transit. But at the same time, the city is finding it difficult to promote even simple energy efficiency measures in homes and businesses. According to the Journal article, of 750 homeowners who had subsidized energy audits, "half didn't implement even the simplest recommendations, despite incentives such as discounts on energy-efficient bulbs and rebates for attic insulation."

So given all of this, I wonder how much of the paltry 1 percent reduction in emissions that Boulder has managed to eke out so far came from the slide into the deep recession that began in 2008. Reduced economic activity goes hand-in-hand with reductions in greenhouse gas emissions -- as has been the case in Europe, where the European Environment Agency reports that emissions for the EU-15 (the major industrialized European nations) dropped 1.3 percent in 2008. These reductions, says the EEA, "reflect the effects of the global economic recession which began in 2008, which resulted in reduced industrial output and reduced energy consumption by industry, and correspondingly reduced freight transport."

Going forward, The European Environment Agency projects that without additional measures, emissions of all 27 nations of the EU will start to rise again. (See the chart on p. 14 of this PDF) And even with those new measures, the EU will fall very far short of achieving it's announced unilateral goal of reducing emissions 20 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2020.

Back in Boulder, what will happen as Colorado and the nation come out of the recession? With continued economic growth, and migration of new residents into the city and county, reaching the Kyoto goal in Boulder will probably prove increasingly challenging.

Meanwhile, no amount of reductions in this small city -- and even in all of Europe -- are going to be noticed much by the climate. Without significant reductions over the long term and throughout the industrialized world, including the United States, and among the emerging industrial giants like China, India and Brazil, the risks of serious disruption to the climate will steadily rise.

The lesson I draw from Boulder's experience so far is that even in a place where the politics are just about perfect for reducing carbon emissions, actually doing it is a monumentally difficult effort.  Unlike, say, Phoenix, perhaps, we have few politicians and radio talk-show bloviators trying to block us from rolling the huge boulder up the hill. The problem is that the boulder is really, really big, and the hill is really really steep. (These are the Rockies, after all...)

Human nature is part of the problem, but the reality is that carbon is so ubiquitous it practically runs in our veins.

Tom Yulsman is co-director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado.

To see more photos of the Boulder Rally by Doug Grinbergs, go to his Flickr stream.

Response to Rolling Boulder up the mountain
Will Toor
Will Toor
Feb 22, 2010 05:22 PM
On Feb. 13 the Wall Street Journal ran a front page article criticizing the efforts of communities in Boulder County, Colorado to increase energy efficiency, reduce carbon emissions, and build a green economy. The article included numerous cherry-picked negative quotes, but very little factual analysis on the impacts of these programs .
The truth is, our local clean energy efforts have had significant accomplishments. Since the program began in March 2009, the new ClimateSmart Loan Program has lent nearly $10 million in private bond sale investments to 612 homeowners to improve their homes’ energy efficiency and install solar systems. Approximately 1/3 of this went to solar energy, the other two thirds to energy efficiency improvements. More than 280 local independent contractors have received work from this program, producing jobs and keeping many vendors in business .The program is continuing to expand – we receive numerous calls from homeowners wanting to participate in the next round of loans. This program does not rely on tax dollars – instead it use property assessments to back bonds for clean energy improvements, and has begun one of a handful of national models for such programs. Already, three other counties in Colorado have followed suit.

Boulder, Boulder County, Superior and Longmont have all adopted residential green building codes, assuring that new homes and major remodels of existing homes are far more energy efficient than the national norm. Boulder County’s code requires modestly sized new homes to use 40% less energy than typical new homes, and requires larger homes to be even more efficient, so that their net impact is not greater than small homes. All these jurisdictions have collaboratively created a model commercial green building code which would set the bar at 30% more energy efficiency than national codes, and Boulder has already adopted this standard. Over time, these codes will have a huge impact on energy use .

In the last few years, our residents have increased their annual investment in new solar panels by a factor of 10 – making solar generation an important component of our local electricity mix. Local governments have aggressively pursued power purchase agreements that allow them to add largescale solar to public buildings at no net cost. Boulder County alone has installed nearly a megawatt of solar PV on 10 county buildings in the past two years.

Here are responses to some of the specific claims by the Wall Street Journal :
WSJ claim: “Since 2006, Boulder has subsidized about 750 home energy audits. Even after the subsidy, the audits cost each homeowner up to $200, so only the most committed signed up. Still, follow-up surveys found half didn't implement even the simplest recommendations, despite incentives such as discounts on energy-efficient bulbs and rebates for attic insulation.”

Here are the actual facts: The Residential Energy Action Program, a joint program of Boulder, Boulder County, and other municipalities in the county, which provides energy audits and energy counseling, has attracted more than 2,000 participants. Phone surveys have indicated that 85% of participants follow up with action. The most common improvement is added insulation, followed by installaing energy efficient furnaces, eand nergy efficient hot water heaters. On average, an audit participant spends $8,724 on energy improvements, resulting in a $44 return on investment for every $1 spent by local government.
WSJ statement: "We still have a long way to go," says Paul Sheldon, a consultant who advises the city on conservation. Residents "should be driving high-efficiency vehicles, and they're not. They should be carpooling, and they're not." The implication is that local efforts to improve transportation sustainability are a failure. This is demonstrable false. Unlike the climate action plans, which are very recent, the City of Boulder has had a sustainable transportation plan since 1995, and has been carefully tracking the results.

Boulder’s efforts have focused on switching investment from roadway expansion to public transit and high quality bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, creating financial incentives for transit use, and supporting higher density mixed use development in the core of the community. This work has paid off. According to US Census Bureau surveys, Boulder residents have cut back their driving by nearly 20% since 2000. Compared to the national average, Boulder residents bike 18 times more, walk 3 times more, and use transit twice as much. Boulder set a goal of capping vehicles miles travelled in the Boulder Valley at 1994 levels. The data from 2008 (the most recent year data are available for is ) show that this goal has been met – there has been no increase in miles travelled within Boulder, despite a thriving, growing local economy. Without these policies we would have expected a 60% increase. This alone represents a significant accomplishment in avoiding GHG emissions growth. While there are clearly large transportation challenges facing boulder – how to develop additional regional public transit and how to house more employees within Boulder to reduce commuting being the biggest – it is just incorrect to imply that Boulder’s transportation efforts have been a failure.

Wall Street Journal claim: “By the end of 2008, emissions here were 27% higher than 1990 levels. That's a worse showing than the U.S. as a whole, where emissions rose 15% during that period, according to the Department of Energy.” While this is true, it needs some context. At the global scale, total emissions are what count. But, if what we are trying to do is judge the success of local efforts, we need to normalize the emissions. Boulder went through a huge boom in employment and commercial construction. And commercial energy use is the largest source of GHG emissions in Boulder. These emissions came not necessarily from higher per capita emissions, but simply from more activity happening in Boulder rather than somewhere else.

Wall Street Journal quote: "If a place like Boulder that regards itself as being in the environmental forefront has such a tough time, these types of efforts are not going to work as a core policy" for the nation, says Roger Pielke Jr., who studies the political response to climate change at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Local efforts to reduce GHG emissions have just begun. The carbon tax was not passed until 2006, and most of the programs have only been started in the last two years. The most successful countywide program to date, the Climate Smart Loan Program, just began in March of 2009. There simply has not been the time to measure the overall impact of Boulder’s carbon reduction efforts . The built infrastructure can’t be changed overnight. But what are seeing are some encouraging signs. The data indicate that emissions seem to be trending downwards, as opposed to historical growth rates of several percent per year. This is too recent to be sure that it is really a long term trend – but certainly does not support the conclusion that these efforts are a failure.

Boulder County and it’s municipalities cannot go it alone. Many of the largest drivers of GHG emissions are regulated at the state and national level. The state government regulates the generation of electricity – one of the largest sources of GHG emissions. Luckily, our Governor, Bill Ritter, has been a tireless champion of the new energy economy. Under his leadership the state has adopted legislation requiring that 20% of our electricity be generated from renewable sources by 2020, and is considering legislation this spring to raise the standard to 30%. There is a real opportunity to couple this with coal plant retirements and additional use of lower carbon natural gas as an interim strategy to achieve deep reductions in GHG emissions – and huge benefits for public health locally.
The federal government regulates automobile fuel efficiency standards, controls much of the investment in transportation infrastructure, and is probably the only effective level at which a carbon tax or cap and trade system can be implemented. Local governments like ours can make a big difference in certain sectors, such as building energy efficiency, and are a hugely important place for policy innovation, but ultimately we can only achieve a large-scale transformation of our energy systems through a partnership between state, federal, and local government, in cooperation with the private sector.

Far from a cautionary tale, the Boulder area provides a model for how well crafted government policies for clean energy and sustainable transportation can spur green jobs, a high quality of life, and lower carbon emissions. It is time for the federal government to enact comprehensive climate and clean energy legislation so that the entire country can realize these benefits.
Feb 25, 2010 07:06 AM
Without knowing the specifics, I would think runaway growth (a.k.a. sprawl) in the Boulder area would be the major roadblock to reductions below 1990 levels. Proper Land use planning and enforcement is a requisite component of any form of conservation. Big houses and sprawling yards are just not conducive to small footprint living, especially in a arid/semi-arid climate.

That being said. Congratulations Boulder residents...for putting forth a strong effort! Keep up the good work! Keep up the mutual competition with Corvallis, OR, the back and forth has been beneficial for both towns.