Boulder shifts strategy, eyes more aggressive climate goals

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Five years ago, Boulder adopted a “climate commitment” to shrink its carbon footprint, setting specific goals to do so. Two years ago, it declared a climate emergency and accelerated established targets.

Already, those plans are insufficient to combat an increasingly urgent crisis. With self-imposed deadlines looming, staff are recommending a moving of the goalposts and seismic shift in the way the city approaches climate change.

To meet these new objectives, 3.5 million more metric tons of carbon will have to be removed from the atmosphere over the next decade. Notes sent to council ahead of Tuesday’s study session hammered one point home: We aren’t going to get there doing what we’ve been doing in the two decades since Boulder took its first formal action.

“The pace of city-scale reductions falls far short of the urgency needed to stabilize the climate,” staff wrote. “The development of a systems-change-oriented climate action strategy arises from the increasingly obvious failure of past approaches to stabilizing climate.”

All eyes on the grid

One of the first failures Boulder recognized was an almost all-consuming emphasis on the electric grid. For the past decade, the city attempted to take over Xcel Energy’s system, in the hopes of sourcing energy from renewables rather than fossil fuels. Nearly $30 million was spent before a settlement with the company was negotiated and approved by voters last fall.

It made sense: Energy powering homes and businesses is the city’s biggest source of emissions. But it’s also the product of an inherently flawed and outdated way of tallying environmental impacts, one employed by Boulder and many other cities.

Using a global standard set of protocols, Boulder’s inventory counts what happens within city limits. Left out — and massively undervalued — are the greenhouse gases created outside Boulder that nonetheless make life possible here: The food we eat, the products we buy, the thousands of baristas and bartenders and other workers who drive in every day.

There was some assumption that the environmental cost of those actions would be counted at their point of origin; Boulder only calculated the end points of such activities. The stuff that ended up in our landfills and the miles in-commuters drive on city streets.

“The city’s previous Climate Commitment explained that the widely accepted and used protocol for measuring and reporting a city’s emissions excludes emissions associated with the use of materials other than landfill-related emissions, assuming that these emissions will be reported and mitigated by the communities where those goods are manufactured,” staff wrote. “The flaw in this approach is that it does not recognize and properly allocate responsibility for the role local demand for goods and services contributes to emissions globally.”

Similar thinking guided all local efforts to fight climate change. Each city was its own entity, responsible for tracking and reducing its own emissions. The problems with this mindset are myriad, but two big ones have emerged. Many places aren’t doing anything (and most aren’t doing enough), leaving many emissions uncounted and unmitigated. Even those that were making big moves, like Boulder, don’t control all they need to in order to foster large greenhouse gas reductions.

“Cities continue to set aspirational targets to achieve deep emissions reduction without the scope of control and influence that would allow them to achieve these targets,” staff wrote. “Cities do not control or substantively influence enough of the factors necessary to achieve — on their own — the scale of emissions reduction now called for by the most recent climate science.”

Photo by Pixabay on

Ideal vs. Real

This new strategy argues that Boulder should track — and be responsible for — all emissions created by the activities, choices and policy decisions of Boulderites, whether they occur here or elsewhere. The full impacts of the city-centric approach have yet to be revealed. But early estimates are not good.

According to staff, “preliminary estimates of Boulder’s consumption-based emissions indicate that fully accounting for these emissions could increase Boulder’s actual emissions from approximately 1.4M tons of CO2 to more than 2.2M tons of CO2 — a 40% increase in Boulder’s actual emissions responsibilities.”

Other studies found that cities’ emissions can more than double when these sources are included, and that Boulder’s embodied emissions (the sum of all energy required to produce goods and services) are “larger than all local sources of emissions put together.”

That’s partly because of Boulderites’ relative affluence. Wealthy people have larger carbon footprints: They buy more stuff, have bigger homes and travel more. As staff noted, “the emissions of the richest 1% of the global population account for more than twice the combined share of the poorest 50%.”

Moving forward, much more attention will be paid to Boulder’s impact on the global climate. One notable change is starting to count emissions from workers driving into and out of the city each day. At times, that may mean sacrificing progress on city goals if it results in greater overall greenhouse gas reduction.

“Boulder could face two options to reach 100% renewable electricity supply by 2030,” staff wrote. “If one option gets our city alone to 100% renewables, while a project of similar cost could get the entire region to 90% renewable electricity supply, when looking at net mitigation impact, the latter option would yield the greatest impact but may require a sacrifice of achieving that city target as stated.”

Collaboration with other governments and private entities will take on greater significance as Boulder seeks to change what it can’t control, such as the electric grid or transportation systems. “Bigger leverage points” need to be pursued by cities, staff wrote, things that “are not significantly impacted by the isolated, personal choices being made by individuals — or even single communities.”

That would enable individual behaviors to change, something that’s been tough to due under current systems.

While it would be ideal if all individuals rode to work in electric mass transit, were housed and clothed in completely recycled materials produced or maintained by 100% renewable energy, and ate food produced by regenerative agricultural practices, most of these actions or life choices are currently more expensive, more time consuming, less aesthetically pleasing and or simply unavailable.”

The goals

Established in 2016 and affirmed by the 2019 climate emergency declaration, Boulder is currently striving for:

While targets for local generation and renewables will remain, staff is proposing three new goals to supplant the old ones as the core drivers of city action:

  • Reduce emissions 70% by 2030 (2018 baseline)
  • Become a Net Zero city by 2035
  • Become a Carbon-Positive city by 2040

The cost to residents is likely in the many millions. In 2019, staff estimated that $4-$5 million more was needed annually to meet 2016 objectives. As for achieving carbon positivity and net zero emissions, “we don’t yet have estimates on what the optimum community investment in climate could look like,” spokeswoman Emily Sandoval wrote this week in response to emailed questions.

Boulder already devotes 2-3% of its budget to climate initiatives. The Climate Action Plan update comes at a time of tightening city purse strings and slowing revenue growth.

“As the primary provider of local public services,” staff wrote, “local governments will now have to turn an increasing amount of attention and resources towards addressing climate change impact. … At the same time, city-based actions will need to clearly identify where to focus available resources on what is within their control and influence” and with equity and flexibility in mind.

“Both adaptation (resilience) and equity must now be considered integral elements in all climate action.”

Of course, this assumes city council approves the direction staff is proposing. If they do, a resolution including the updated CAP and goals will be brought back in August for a formal vote.

Objectives, measures & more

There are five identified focus areas in the proposed plan: Energy Systems, Circular Materials Economy, Regenerative Ecosystems, Financial Systems and Land Use. Specific objectives have been set for the first three — financial systems and land use objectives will be developed after more community input — each with their own targets and progress measures:*

Energy Systems

  1. 100% of community has “unburdened access” to energy by 2050 (spend no more than 10% on energy costs)
  2. 100% renewable energy by 2030
  3. 40% reduction in embodied emissions (new buildings) by 40% by 2031
  4. 30% vehicle miles travelled in Boulder will be electric vehicles by 2030
  5. Zero operational emissions from existing and new buildings by 2040 

Notable progress measures within these objectives:

  • All new residential and commercial buildings will be fully electric by 2023
  • Eliminate natural gas from 15% of existing residential buildings and 5% commercial buildings by 2025
  • Require all new construction to offset embodied emissions with subsidies by 2023
  • 50% shared fleets will be electric by 2025
  • CU, BVSD and Via will have plan for all-electric fleets by 2030

Circular Materials Economy 

  1. Zero-waste city by 2025
  2. “Optimize organic waste to promote soil health in our community by 2030”
  3. Reduce community consumption-based emissions 50% by 2030 (2019 baseline)
  4. 25% of high-emissions building material can be reused by 2030
  5. Increase participation in sharing platforms 30%” by 2030 (2020 baseline) to “foster equitable access to goods and services over ownership” 
  6. “Promote repair and reuse” by 2030

Notable progress measures:

  • Eliminate single-use plastics by 2025
  • 75% of deconstruction waste reused or recycled by 2022
  • 50% of restaurants employing reusable takeout containers by 2023
  • 100% of compost created by the community used within the community by 2025
  • Require building materials inventory for all new construction by 2023
  • 20% of collected biomass turned into biochar and applied to land by 2025

Regenerative Ecosystems

  1. Capture 50,000 tons of CO2 annually by 2030 through trees, soil, etc.
  2. “Develop globally accessible tools for carbon management and optimal ecosystem services planning by 2025”
  3. 20% tree canopy by 2035 (16% in 2013)
  4. Reduce urban heat island 1 degree C in “energy burdened neighborhoods” by 2030 (2015 baseline) 
  5. “Create a closed-loop system that reduces fire risk in our community,” converts biomass to biochar for clean energy by 2030
  6. Strive towards 40% of new employment to equity-based opportunities to participate in ‘green’ sector jobs”

Notable progress measures:

  • 1,500 acres of ag land used for carbon capture by 2025
  • 50% increase in “planting” on private land by 2025 (2020 baseline)
  • Additional tree protection measures by 2027
  • 20% increase in BIPOC land operators in land contracts/management/stewardship leases by 2025

*This is not a full list. For complete details, see the June 8 council study session packet.

Xcel check-in

Council on Tuesday night will also receive an update on Xcel’s Energy Resource Energy Plan, a look at all the possible sources it will use to generate electricity for the next several years. No information on the plan was included in notes to council

The city recently seated the resident board that will advise and direct the Boulder/Xcel partnership agreed to in the muni-ending settlement. 18 members will serve a mix of one-, two- and three-year terms.

Representatives from academic, business and nonprofit worlds were selected, many with expertise in the energy field. All appear to be homeowners, though several were noted as being “past” renters or “recent” homeowners. Read short bios on the members.

The Community Advisory Panel will meet for the first time this month, though an exact date does not appear to have been scheduled yet.

Xcel is supposed to work with city staff and the panel to help Boulder reach its climate goals, since they exceeds the company’s own — even before the Climate Action Plan update.

— Shay Castle,, @shayshinecastle

Want more stories like this, delivered straight to your inbox? Click here to sign up for a weekly newsletter from Boulder Beat.


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: