Put up or shut up

Published in the Boulder Weekly on August 3, 2017

By Angela K. Evans

Regardless of human action (or inaction), the planet will warm more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit by the turn of the century, according to new government-funded analysis.

The research looks at “how warm we expect the planet to be if we turn off the lights today,” says Robert Pincus, an atmospheric scientist from the University of Colorado Boulder, who coauthored the study. It “describes the responsibility of past actions for future warming, for future costs” in measurable terms.

According to the study, published on July 31 in the journal Nature Climate Change, the window to achieve the thresholds set out in the 2016 Paris climate agreement — curbing global temperature increase to 3.5 degrees on the high end and 3 degrees on the conservative side, compared to pre-industrial levels — is closing rapidly. Within the next 15 to 30 years, the odds of achieving either of these goals drop to 50/50.

“It’s not lots of time until the odds are even of busting through those thresholds,” Pincus says.

Furthermore, in the annual legislative report on climate change this year, state officials say Colorado can expect to see warming up to 2-5 degrees by 2050, as compared to the 2.5-degree increase that has occurred in the last 50 years.

All of this makes local, national and international climate policy — a concerted effort to quickly and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions — necessary now more than ever.

On July 11, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed an executive order “supporting Colorado’s clean energy transition” and calling for a 26 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 as compared to 2005 levels. The order also specifically calls for further reductions in carbon dioxide emissions from the electricity sector by 2035, as compared to 2012 levels.

At the same time, Hickenlooper pledged Colorado’s support of the U.S. Climate Alliance, a bi-partisan coalition of states committed to the emission reduction goals set forth in the Paris climate accord, despite the Trump administration’s intention to withdraw from the international agreement. The governors of California, New York and Washington formed the Alliance in early June and since then, 10 other states and Puerto Rico have joined the effort, Colorado being the latest.

According to its website, the Alliance represents more than 33 percent of the U.S. population and $7.6 trillion of the nation’s GDP, along with more than 1 million jobs in both renewable energy and energy efficiency, giving it the leverage to be a leader in the global effort to address climate change.

In addition to these states, hundreds of local governments have also pledged commitment to enacting climate policy aimed at achieving the warming thresholds laid out in Paris, including Boulder County and cities throughout the region.

While this may be a step in the right direction, critics of these public declarations are wary of how much can actually be accomplished through them, given emissions around the state are projected to increase in the coming decades as the population grows and the state continues to pursue oil and natural gas development.

“There would need to be a lot of work done to put measures in place to get there from where we are and where we’re headed. That much is clear,” says Kevin Cross, spokesperson for the Colorado Coalition for a Livable Climate. “If we go with the U.S.’s commitment to Paris for the next five years we can make some progress, but after that it’s important to understand that we have to step things up by an order of magnitude.”

“This is way too little, way too late in order for anyone to be celebrating,” adds prominent environmental activist Gary Wockner, referring specifically to Gov. Hickenlooper’s executive order.

The July directive replaces a previous one signed by former Gov. Bill Ritter in 2008, which called for a 20-percent reduction in emissions by 2020 and a 80-percent decrease by 2050 compared to 2005 levels — goals which aren’t likely to be achieved.

According to the latest Colorado Greenhouse Gas Inventory, conducted in 2014, greenhouse gas emissions have actually increased since 2005 and are projected to continue to rise. Transportation, residential and commercial fuel use — spurred by dramatically increasing population growth throughout the state — largely accounts for the rising emissions according to the inventory. Without curbing population growth, it will be hard to curb emissions, Wockner argues.

“As long as you have more and more people — 100,000 a year pouring into the state — we see basically no way that emissions are going to go down,” Wockner says.

Furthermore, according to the Inventory, natural gas and oil systems will increase their contribution of greenhouse gasses, even while emissions from the electric power sector may slightly decrease.

“We should be moving away from natural gas as quickly as we can,” Cross says. “The issues associated with methane emissions in the extraction of natural gas and piping it around are pretty serious and not fully accounted for by either the state or the federal government.”

In Boulder County, many citizens continue to petition the County Commissioners to prevent oil and gas development in the area, regardless of the Colorado State Supreme Court decision that negated the County’s fracking ban last year.

“It’s a greenwashing thing. The public celebrates you for signing onto the Paris Accord, whether you’re Hickenlooper or the Boulder Commissioners, but then behind the scenes, [you’re] allowing more of these greenhouse gases to be produced and to escape here in Colorado,” says Terra Rafael with East Boulder County United, a community rights organization fighting oil and gas development in Boulder County. “Frankly it’s laughable. I’d like to see their plans… how are they going to cut the emissions, without cutting fracking?”

Which brings up an important point. While the goals laid out by the Paris agreement may be commendable, each country (or state or city) is responsible to enact specific policies to achieve drastic reductions in emissions and curb atmospheric warming. And while many praise Gov. Hickenlooper for joining the U.S. Climate Alliance, many activists throughout the state are calling on him to couple the promise with more specific policies to achieve it, including a pledge to achieve 100 percent renewable energy use as soon as possible.

“We’re celebrating this so that we can continue to use the momentum to build the climate movement and push for stronger policy,” says Julia Williams, volunteer coordinator at 350 Colorado. “But we definitely made it clear that the standards set are not enough and we want to continue to push for strong climate policy with scientific-based targets and measurable goals.”

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