Boulder has long been viewed as a leader in climate change. But how much is it really doing?

A Boulder Chamber event on Friday was used as a checkpoint on the city and state’s leadership toward eliminating fossil fuel consumption from the global economy.

While commending progress made toward regulating the energy sector and air quality this year in the state Legislature, local business leaders, politicians and government regulators discussed how the new ambitious greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals and other lofty objectives are being brought to life.

State Senate Majority Leader Stephen Fenberg, D-Boulder, emphasized three bills passed into law this year as positive steps:

  • HB-1261, which mandates the state as a whole by 2025 cut greenhouse gas emissions by 26% of 2005 levels, 2030 by at least 50%, and 2050 by at least 90%;
  • SB-181, which made sweeping regulatory reforms to the oil and gas drilling sector, including requiring continuous air quality monitoring at all sites;
  • SB-236, which reauthorized the state’s Public Utilities Commission for seven more years to oversee the state’s power grids, and expanded its ability to measure the social cost of carbon emissions in energy resource planning and set up work transition programs for laborers in coal and gas burning plants.

“It’s interesting to think about where the power is to make some of these changes — in the past, I think we’ve looked to the federal government for that,” Fenberg said, contending doing so today is less reliable under the Trump administration than Obama’s past leadership. “In a lot of ways, the responsibility really does lie with the states now. Many states are starting to take this much more seriously than they have in the past. It’s almost a race to the top among several states, which is great … We’re living in an exciting time, but the clock is ticking.”

Energy sector the starting point

At the same time, it was acknowledged more work needs to be done across Colorado to prevent the worst local effects of human-caused global warming, namely transportation and land-use policy, especially when it comes to statewide efforts at preserving carbon sinks like sustainable cropland and forest and proliferating sustainable, carbon-storing farm practices.

Photo by Lewis Geyer/Staff photographer

Officials gathered Friday to discuss and take measure of where Boulder stands on climate change issues.

There are some positive signs locally, such as the electric vehicle industry’s 10% market share in Boulder — the highest anywhere outside California, according to a report by the International Council on Clean Transportation as cited by Colorado Energy Office Director Will Toor. Toor is also a former Boulder mayor.

But most of the green movement’s focus right now is on the energy sector due to the need to electrify vehicles with power from renewable sources.

“(Energy) is the sector where the economics and the technology are lined up (now) so there are affordable pathways to deep decarbonization while maintaining reliability,” Toor said.

Housing density, farms play roles

A transportation step that may be taken by the state soon, though, according to Toor, is initiating a “much more real” study of a Front Range rail service along the Interstate 25 corridor and an expansion of bus service on Interstate 70 as a more permanent solution to the “peak period” toll lane being opened on that highway’s shoulder in the near future.

“We need to evaluate what are the opportunities to create economic value for things like carbon sequestration in agriculture,” Toor said. “When it comes to the bigger questions around land use, there is a two-part solution: You need to limit sprawl and instead build more housing in our cities. In Colorado we have a tradition of local land use control and jurisdictions that want to sprawl are able to, and those that don’t want housing near where the jobs are are able to do that. In other states, that’s changing.”

Photo by Lewis Geyer/Staff photographer

John Shaw, with Namaste Solar, works Friday at the solar site at IBM.

Both Fenberg and Toor spurred Boulder business leaders and residents to attend rule-making sessions with the state regulatory bodies in charge of enacting the spirit of the laws Fenberg mentioned, starting with the state Air Quality Control Commission’s hearing next month on requirements for automakers to up the proportion of electric cars they sell over the next several years.

Business owners were encouraged to connect with state agencies to check on whether they could be eligible for any grants to help ease the cost of replacing fossil fuel-burning equipment and vehicle fleets with electric products.

Boulder Senior Sustainability Policy Advisor Brett KenCarin explained how the city had made some “errors in judgement” with past climate-oriented initiatives by focusing too much on individual behavior rather than tweaking entire human-made systems at large scales to promote green economies. The city is considering declaring a climate emergency, as other municipalities around the country have.

“When I put natural gas into my house for heat, we’re acting rationally in an irrational system,” KenCarin said.

Carbon tax refunds

The Boulder Chamber discussion closed with entrepreneur Jim Hooton, husband of Gunbarrel state Rep. Edie Hooton, explaining why he is behind an effort known as the Citizens Climate Lobby to get a bill passed at the congressional level to begin taxing businesses $15 for every ton of carbon emitted, with the fee ratcheting up over time, and return the funds collected directly to individuals.

Hooton said the idea has been endorsed by countless economists, including five dozen in Colorado, as well as huge companies such as BP and Shell, and that 70% of households would come out on top even after facing higher prices at the pump and for other carbon-intensive products and services after receiving their refunds — the average family of four would receive nearly $3,500 annually, the idea’s backers estimate.

While segments of the left have opposed the concept because they want a targeted beneficiary for the money collected, and leaders on the right are “scared to be the first one in the pool,” Hooton said, distributing the carbon tax right back to individuals is a way to gain bipartisan support, he said.

“The point here is to keep the government’s involvement really small,” Hooton said. “… If you want to change behavior, you want to see those costs (of carbon) passed on.”

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