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.