Colorado grappling with greenhouse gas inventory

Draft version shows some gains, but state has a long way to go to meet emissions reduction goals

The state wants to track transportation emissions.

Tallying up greenhouse gas emissions may not be quite as easy as counting your fingers and toes, but it’s a necessary step toward taming the global warming beast, according to experts who have been working hard to complete an updated greenhouse inventory for Colorado.

According to the draft version that’s now available for public comment, Colorado has made some progress in reining in emissions — but the state has a long way to go to meet an ambitious goal of cutting greenhouse gases by 20 percent by 2020.

“It is important to get good estimates of greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere. It is also important to reconcile all of those emission estimates with actual changes in concentrations that are measured,” says Kevin Trenberth, a leading climate scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

“The reason this is important is because these emissions have consequences, especially for climate, and there are downstream costs,” Trenberth said via email. “Who should pay those costs is a key societal and political question: Should there be some kind of carbon tax for example?”

Boulder’s environmental planners have also been following the inventory process closely.

“I think part of the reason it’s really important is, that even communities like Boulder that take this issue really seriously … there’s only so much that cities can do,” says Brett KenCairn, who is shaping the city’s climate commitment program.

“There are certain things that are in the state’s purview, for example regulating the oil and gas industry,” KenCairn said, adding that Boulder is currently reconsidering its climate goals in light of new research showing that, without a 30 percent cut in greenhouse gases in the next few decades, the planet is facing potentially catastrophic climate change impacts.

The public comment period for the draft inventory has been extended through March 15. For now, the state air quality planners tasked with completing the inventory are still grappling with methodology, and looking for input from the public and key stakeholders.

When the report is final, it could be used to figure out how to meet Colorado’s goal of actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent over the next few years, or deciding if that goal is even realistic, said Colorado Air Pollution Control Division Deputy Director Garry Kaufman.

As is, the draft report suggests that statewide greenhouse gas emissions increased by less than 1 percent between 2005 and 2010, a time of slowed economic activity in the state due to the 2008 recession.

Those numbers might also be colored by some inaccurate assumptions of emissions by the oil and gas industry, KenCairn says.

With the economy growing again, the draft inventory projects emissions increasing by 8 percent in the next five years. That would put the state deep in the hole when it comes to reaching 2020 target emissions.

Those numbers show that relying on conservation and efficiency alone won’t enable the state to meet its targets of reducing greenhouse gases, KenCairn said. The only way to achieve the deep cuts needed to avert a climate crisis is “a rapid and orderly transition away from fossil fuels,” he says. Anything other than a rapid trajectory of change is asking for disaster, he concluded. Looking back a little farther, the numbers outlined in the draft inventory reflect a big drop from the late 1990s, when the state’s population grew by 42 percent. Between 1990 and 2005, Colorado emissions increased by 35 percent.

Nationally, emissions grew by 16 percent during that same span, with the country’s population increasing by 19 percent.

Colorado’s per capita emissions were slightly higher than the national average between 1990 and 2005, with electricity use and transportation accounting for 61 percent of the state’s gross emissions, according to the 2007 report.

Experts who reviewed the draft said a final version should account for emissions from gases that escape or are lost through leaks or sloppy practices in energy development.

“This is a big issue in fracking, for instance,” Trenberth said, adding that it’s also important to look at emissions from big one-time events like wildfires, which can release massive quantities of heat-trapping gases in a short period of time.

“Knowing where greenhouse gases originate is a first step in reducing them, and this is a major goal of the Boulder City Council, for Boulder, for instance,” Trenberth said. “In the future, we will have new space-based sensors that enable concentrations to be measured much more accurately and, with winds, even trace back to get rough estimates of where it is coming from.”

The state’s efforts to track and reduce greenhouse gas emissions are especially important in the context of global CO2 levels, said Stephen

Saunders, president of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization.

“If we get serious about reducing emissions we can limit temperature increases, perhaps to 1 degree Celsius,” Saunders said. “That’s livable, but with high emissions, temperatures could go up 10 degrees by the end of the century. That would completely change life on earth as we know it.”