‘Time for a reset’: Boulder moves toward ‘new paradigm’ on climate change

Image by Pixabay via Pexels

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Boulder’s elected officials are on board with a new approach to climate action that looks beyond local emissions toward the planet as a whole. It means abandoning pet projects and pursuing partnerships with one-time adversaries, and it may come with some controversial policies. So far, though, council members are complimentary; they’ll firm up their support with a formal vote later this summer.

“This is amazing work,” councilman Aaron Brockett said. “You’re looking at this from a visionary perspective.”

A new vision is necessary, staff explained, to avert the worst of a growing crisis. And the old ways weren’t cutting it.

“As our learning is evolved and we have new insights, we’re proposing changing how we measure success,” said Energy Sustainability Coordinator Yael Gichon. “Change should really yield the greatest systems-scale impact rather than the optimal impact within a city boundary.”

“This is a big shift in the paradigm.”

The previous model involved cities acting independently, reducing the emissions that occur within their physical boundaries. Boulder was faring well on that front: Our per capita carbon footprint (13.7 metric tons of CO2) is smaller than Colorado (21) and the U.S. (16.2) as a whole, though bigger than cities like Denver (11.6)  and New York (6.1) and the global average of 4.8 metric tons per person.

Boulder has also reduced its per capita electricity use 8% over the past 15 years despite a 55% growth in the economy (as measured by GDP) and cut its water use 20% since 2002.

Despite that success, “our science is showing us” that Boulder is not making as much of a dent as it would like, said Sustainability Coordinator Brett KenCairn. That’s in part because the city-centric model assumed that the actions of climate leaders like Boulder would eventually emulated by other cities, a ripple effect that would spread and pressure state and federal governments to act.

That hasn’t happened, staff said. Just 8% of local governments have climate plans, representing 30% of the U.S. population.

“We thought we were building a movement,” KenCairn said. “We now unfortunately recognize that several of those assumptions don’t appear to be true.”

‘Extremely daunting’ task ahead

The emerging approach involves pursuing changes that have the greatest overall effect, not just on Boulder’s total emissions. In fact, though greenhouse gas reductions remain central to this strategy — with a goal to slash them 70% within the decade — that won’t be enough.

At this point, staff warned, we need to start thinking taking carbon out of the atmosphere as well. Boulder’s 45,000 acres of open space will play a big role.

It’s also critical that we start planning for the fallout from our failure to adequately address the crisis, KenCairn said. “We have to prepare for the inevitable climate change that is to come.”

Climate resilience is a core pillar of the plan, as well as equity. The costs and benefits of climate action need to be distributed fairly, Gichon explained.

Lower-income residents and people of color have historically borne more of a burden despite contributing less to the problem; wealthier nations and neighborhoods create more emissions but also tend to live farther away from key sources of pollution like highways and heavy industry. The update Climate Action Plan calls for “institutional funding allocations to correct” these injustices, as well as specific goals to keep energy costs below 10% for every Boulder home.

As Gichon said, “those most responsible” for our climate crisis “must support those most vulnerable.”

Read a Twitter thread from Tuesday’s discussion

Boulder’s other new climate goals — to be net zero by 2035 and carbon positive by 2040 — require 3.5 million more metric tons of carbon reduction. The city has already cut 21% of its emissions from 2005, but that success will shrink as the city resets its baseline to 2018 and starts counting its contribution to greenhouse gases produced elsewhere, embedded into the products we buy, the food we consume, etc.

Such emissions are referred to as consumption-based, and accounting for them may more than double Boulder’s emissions.

“It’s extremely daunting,” Sam Weaver said on Tuesday.

Changing climate, changing conversation

Boulder may be better able to curb what it consumes than to force change in other areas. The updated Climate Action Plan features a “sphere of influence” map, with factors under the city’s purview (land use, local energy generation) near the center and things it can merely influence or take an active interest in around the edges — like where its electricity comes from.

Municipalization is the perfect example of the old mode of thinking. Boulder cannot force Xcel Energy to power the city with renewables, which is why it spent so long trying to take over the system. It was a city-centric move, one with enormous impacts on Boulder’s own carbon footprint but limited effect on the global climate, since the effort was too costly for other cities to pursue.

Work being done with Xcel now could have implications far beyond Boulder, officials argued Tuesday night. The company gave an update on plans to meet its own carbon reduction promises. Six coal plants will be retired by 2028, with another converted to natural gas. $1.7 billion is being invested in infrastructure to source and deliver renewable energy, president Alice Jackson said, which should be 80% of its supply by 2030.

“This will deliver on what it is we committed to and more,” Jackson said. The plan “meets and beats” Paris Climate Agreement guidelines and the state’s Greenhouse Gas Roadmap. “We’re making a very significant transition during this period.”

Xcel’s Energy Resource Plan is still subject to state approval. Boulder, as an official party to the proceedings, has some say — but not much. As the two entities work together to meet the city’s more aggressive goals, staff and council made it clear that they will continue to pressure the company to accelerate retirement of coals plants and reassess the role of natural gas in its energy mix.

“It is absolutely a step in the right direction,” said Climate Initiatives Director Jonathan Koehn, when pressed by councilman Mark Wallach. “We’re having a different conversation today with Xcel than we were just two years ago. … We’ve come a long way, but we have to continue to push.”

Weaver echoed that and questioned why Xcel’s current plan was selected with other scenarios allowed for slightly more carbon reduction. He insinuated that the company was still putting too much emphasis on cost over climate.

Jackson refuted that. Cost was not the deciding factor, she said. The availability to procure enough consistent, reliable renewable energy played a bigger role, as did the sourcing of batteries for storage.

“There’s another problem we’re trying to solve for,” Jackson said. “I’d love to see us get there sooner, but it’s a two-way street.” Boulderites can help, she said, by changing their consumption habits.

Read a Twitter thread from Xcel’s update

Xcel has been the most ambitious corporate utility in the country when it comes to climate goals. But the decade-long muni effort — with all its court battles and costs — created bad blood between Boulder’s climate crusaders and the company. So much so that Tuesday’s update came with a caveat from new city manager Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde.

“Tonight is not a public hearing, nor is it an endorsement of Xcel’s filing,” Rivera-Vandermyde said to start the discussion. Rather, the update was intended to give council and staff “a better understanding” of the company’s plans. “Their success is critical to us as we think to reach our goals.”

Empower Our Future, which advocated for the muni and against a settlement with Xcel, wrote asking council not to endorse the Energy Resource Plan, making many of the same critiques as staff.

“We ask that Boulder’s city council withhold judgement until the ERP can be vetted by the intervenors (including the City of Boulder) and by the PUC,” they wrote. “Now is the time to be asking tough questions, rather than endorsing a plan that is just beginning to be understood in full.”

‘Time for a reset’

Some of the fiercest muni proponents have are among those who champion slow-growth policies and support maintaining current city zoning. That may create conflict around another important part of an updated Climate Action Plan: A new focus on how Boulder makes use of its limited land.

Specific goals haven’t yet been developed, and the topic received scant airplay on Tuesday — aside from acknowledging what a tough sell it might be.

“Land use is one of the favorite contact sports in our community,” KenCairn said. “This is going to be an extremely important time to look at all the ways land use impacts our ability to draw down carbon.”

Staff are recommending that policies be created in time for adoption into the 2025 Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan. No one on council expressed misgivings about that proposal. The feedback was generally positive.

“I think it is time for a reset,” Weaver said. “I think we’re behind where we need to be.”

He said staff should continue to try and influence broader and bigger systems such as finance, while Wallach and Brocket urged them to aggressively pursue action where we can and concentrate less on things outside our control. All three espoused the value of partnerships, as did Junie Joseph.

Mary Young encouraged involvement of lower-income communities, and Mirabai Nagle said looking at land use should mean reconsidering what types of agriculture should be allowed on open space. Rachel Friend also shared her thoughts on land use: Namely, that the city shouldn’t “shy away” from sweeping changes if necessary.

The only two members who stayed silent were Adam Swetlik — one of two council members to vote against allowing the Xcel settlement on the ballot — and Bob Yates, an ardent anti-muni voice who has in the past recused himself from votes over Boulder’s fracking ban because of personal investments in oil and gas.

— Shay Castle, boulderbeatnews@gmail.com, @shayshinecastle

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