Boulder City Council on board for more aggressive climate approach

·5 min read

Jun. 12—In light of the urgency of climate change, Boulder City Council is on board with city staff's plans to adopt more aggressive climate goals and targets and to shift the way the city thinks about its overall approach.

In addition to adjusting its goals, Boulder is arguing that the city must put equity and resilience at the center of the work, while also considering the other dynamics that work to hold the causal factors of climate change in place.

Energy systems, materials consumption and ecosystems — all causal factors of climate change — are influenced and shaped by larger forces, including the markets, policy, knowledge and technology, and norms and culture, Senior Sustainability and Resilience Policy Advisor Brett KenCairn said in a Boulder City Council study session on Tuesday.

Given that data from City Scale indicates 8% of local governments in the United States have joined a climate program, it's an important change in thinking, staff said.

"Cities can't do this alone, and the success of a few cities isn't enough," Senior Energy Project Manager Yael Gichon said.

The city is continuing to determine how best to disrupt some of the systems at play in order to force change on a larger scale. However, Gichon noted Boulder is in a prime position to guide the work, considering it has the resources, the political will and the responsibility to do so since the wealthiest 10% of the world's population are responsible for more than 50% of current emissions, according to a 2015 Oxfam study.

New goals and targets

Current science indicates that it's no longer enough to solely focus on reducing carbon emissions. Carbon drawdown also must occur in order to truly impact the changing climate. This change in thinking is part of the reason for Boulder's shift in approach and its desire to become carbon positive by 2040.

"Net zero emissions is balancing any carbon that we emit into the atmosphere by removing an equivalent amount from the atmosphere," Gichon said. "And carbon positive means that an activity goes beyond achieving those net zero carbon emissions to create an environmental benefit by removing additional carbon from the atmosphere."

Another big change is that the city is now proposing to compare emissions levels to a 2018 baseline, instead of the original 2005 baseline that had been used.

Sustainability Analyst Lauren Tremblay said that's due to guidance from ICLEI — Local Governments For Sustainability, which is a global network of more than 2,500 local and regional governments committed to sustainable urban development.

ICLEI manages the ClearPath software that Boulder uses for its greenhouse gas inventories and forecasts. It recommended that cities adopt new baselines between 2016 to 2019, Tremblay said.

Mayor Sam Weaver expressed some concerns about that particular change, largely because he worried people might not understand that the city adjusted its baseline and thus that some might assume Boulder's progress had declined. For example, Boulder reports that it's reduced emissions by 21% since 2005. When the baseline changes, so too will that percentage.

He stressed the importance of thoughtful communication.

Additionally, the staff memo states that there is a growing recognition that previous city greenhouse gas inventories did not adequately account for the full scope of emissions associated with the community. The Global Protocol for Community Scale GHG emissions does not require reporting consumption-based emissions, or those that occur from purchasing goods and materials or food choices.

"Yet, when examining the overall emissions footprint of a typical city, adding consumption-based emissions may more than double Boulder's currently reported emissions," the memo continues.

Weaver said the city must understand its role as an institution when thinking critically about its climate impact. That might mean rethinking its financial processes and considering the ways in which it obtains goods, he noted.

'Step in the right direction'

Overall, Councilmember Mark Wallach said he was struck by the thoughtfulness of the memo but found it frightening. He wondered whether Xcel Energy's electric resource plan, which President Alice Jackson presented earlier in the meeting, was reflective of the sense of urgency imbued in the memo.

Xcel Energy's plan, submitted to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission in March, aims to cut carbon emissions 85% by 2030, based on 2005 levels, leaving it behind where Boulder aims to be at that time. In its proposed changes, the city is now striving for an energy system that delivers 100% renewable energy by 2030. It also is proposing a 70% emissions reduction by 2030, based on 2018 levels, and it wants to be net zero by 2035.

Initially, the climate staff representatives were hesitant to answer the question.

"I would say that it is absolutely a step in the right direction," Interim Director of Climate Initiatives Jonathan Koehn said. "We are having a different conversation today with Xcel than we were just two years ago. But we have to continue to push."

Still, questions remain around Xcel's investment in natural gas, the pace at which the utility company is decommissioning its fossil-based units and the impacts to the communities that Xcel serves, Koehn noted.

The city climate staff intends to return later this summer with a resolution to adopt new climate goals. Later this year it will release a progress report, indicating whether its efforts have been successful. In December, the City Council will review the prioritized set of strategies and talk more about the funding that's necessary to support the work.

The Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan will undergo a major update in 2025, and the city intends to delve into a conversation about land use and its impact on the climate ahead of that time.

"This is going to be an extremely important time for us to look at all the ways that planning and land use shape our ability to both reduce emissions, draw down carbon and prepare our community for all kinds of different climate effects," KenCairn said.

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