Keeping up with climate change

Mayor Suzanne Jones with John Reynolds and Ben Valley at a solar array owned by W.W. Reynolds Companies in Boulder.

Earlier this year, the City of Boulder came out with its 2017 Greenhouse Gas Inventory, and the results look pretty good: a 16-percent reduction in emissions compared to 2005 levels — a mark of progress reached three years earlier than expected.

The inventory followed a global protocol for tracking community emissions and collecting data within cities’ boundaries for the consumption of electricity, natural gas, vehicle petroleum fuel and waste generation. As of 2017, Boulder emits 1.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. This means that each resident, on average, is responsible for 14 metric tons per year. By 2050, Boulder wants to produce less than 400,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases, or three metric tons per person, reducing emissions by 80 percent based on 2005 levels.

Reducing the City of Boulder’s greenhouse gas emissions has been a unified effort, according to Kimberlee Rankin, sustainability coordinator for the City of Boulder. From the City’s emissions reduction programs to community members stepping up and recycling or putting solar on their roofs, the pieces are coming together. But the largest factor in reaching the 16-percent reduction ahead of schedule, according to Rankin, has been Xcel Energy’s effort to add renewables to its grid.

“There is less carbon intensity associated with electricity consumption because the grid is getting cleaner,” she says. 

Boulder has also seen an overall decrease in electricity and natural gas consumption, despite the city’s economic and population growth, Rankin says.

On a smaller scale, the City’s Zero Waste Program has contributed to the reduction of emissions. Landfill waste in particular has decreased significantly, according to Rankin, due to the community focus on recycling and composting.

Still, the larger goals of reaching 100-percent renewable electricity and 50-percent emissions reduction by 2030 may not be enough in light of recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which urge extreme and immediate emissions reductions to avoid catastrophic climate change. “Now we have to reduce emissions at a much faster rate than we’re planning on,” Rankin says. “When we did the math that meant meeting our 2050 goal in 2030.”

The goal is daunting, yet there is a strategy: Continuing to pursue local electric utility development through municipalization, solar energy, electric transportation and community outreach, are, according to Rankin, the keys to success.

“Even though Xcel Energy has plans to continue to improve the grid, a local utility enables the City to reach higher levels of renewables faster,” Rankin says. “Local electric utility development is a crucial component of Boulder’s energy strategy to bring clean, local, affordable and reliable electricity to the community.”

Approaching solar energy on a larger scale is at the top of the City’s agenda, with a draft design to push solar throughout the community and to develop a significant solar infrastructure. But as the grid gets cleaner and electricity becomes less carbon intensive, transportation is going to account for more than 50 percent of Boulder’s emissions, Rankin says. 

Boulder’s Transportation Department is currently updating the transportation master plan, and alongside Boulder’s Climate Initiatives Department, are looking at ways to reduce emissions from vehicles, either by getting people out of single occupancy vehicles or making electric cars more prominent.

Still, using more renewable energy and reducing car trips may not be enough to reduce overall emissions, according to a recent report carried out by the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group.  Consumption of goods and services (i.e., food, clothing, electronic equipment, air travel, delivery trucks, etc.) should also be part of the equation in a city’s effort to reduce emissions.

Boulder’s greenhouse gas emissions inventory was conducted within the City’s limits, and therefore doesn’t incorporate emissions from trans-boundary activities such as the purchases of goods and services, which are difficult to track.

“But the City has prioritized [measuring and reducing the emissions related to] these activities within its Climate Commitment goals” in the coming years, says Rankin, as around 40 percent of household emissions are generated by these trans-boundary activities.

By reducing local emissions, the City is hoping to outpace the threat of catastrophic climate change, given that cities are responsible for 70 percent of global emissions. But the City can’t do it alone. As Rankin says: “We need the community’s engagement because it’s going to take everyone’s effort to reach these goals.”