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This article is part of a collaboration between the Boulder Reporting Lab and Big Pivots, a nonprofit that covers energy and other transitions in Colorado and beyond, made necessary by climate change. It is published by reporter Allen Best. Subscribe for free at BigPivots.com.

Boulder’s recently released greenhouse gas inventory for 2020 calls to mind a bicycle rider on a grueling uphill journey who unexpectedly finds a small downhill and a blast of tailwind.

The pandemic provided that tailwind for the city on its journey to reduce emissions 70% by 2030. Covid restrictions caused more people to more frequently work from home and travel less. This played a role in reducing emissions during 2020 by 22%, as compared against a 2018 baseline.

Taking a longer view, much uphill remains as Boulder races toward its goal of 70% reduction in emissions by 2030. That’s a more challenging target even than Colorado’s economy-wide goal of 50% by decade’s end. 

Attaining Boulder’s goal will require the city’s residents and workers to reduce emissions an average 5.83% per year in the next decade. Aside from this 2020 breather, the city has been shedding emissions at a rate of 1.3% per year.

Beyond that is another goal: net carbon neutrality by 2035, which was adopted by the Boulder City Council in late October as part of an updated climate action plan. That’s what the United Nations in a 2020 report concluded will be necessary by 2050 for the world to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

Boulder wants to be a leader in upending the paradigm that put the climate in Colorado and elsewhere in the fast lane headed toward disaster.  And, by 2040, the city aims to become a carbon sink, a place that absorbs more carbon than it emits.

That sort of aspiration seems audacious. It makes President John Kennedy’s goal of putting a man on the moon in the 1960s seem almost timid in comparison.

A person in cycling gear drinks from a water bottle on a bike ride, with tallgrass in the foreground and mountains in the background
Reporter Allen Best likens Boulder’s emission reduction goals to a bicycle rider on a grueling uphill journey. Credit: Timothy Hurst

In the Fast Lane

Still, the city’s lead architect on this decarbonization strategy sees cause for optimism.  “I think we are poised to accelerate,” said Jonathan Koehn, the interim director of climate initiatives, speaking of the pace of decarbonization.

Those goals, if daunting, can be achieved, according to Koehn. “It will take a substantial effort. It will take a pretty strong political will,” he said. Achieving them will require a fundamental rethink, as Koehn told city council members in June, which he said has been underway for at least the last two years.

After relatively little change for many years, Koehn said the current is quickening. “We find ourselves in a different landscape today than we did just a few short years ago.”

First, the short-term impact of Covid-19.

“This was an extraordinary year and may not reflect persistent progress toward the city’s goals,” according to the emissions report prepared by Lotus Engineering & Sustainability. “Some of the reductions seen in 2020 are durable; others are relatively unique to the circumstances of the Covid shutdowns.”

Vehicle miles traveled and associated transportation emission have been down 33% since 2018, and the first year of the pandemic provides the major explanation for that blip.  Aviation travel — a significant portion, at 22% of the total travel of Boulderites — was also down. Enrollment at the University of Colorado Boulder altogether dipped, with much university instruction moving to the virtual classroom. The consumption of electricity and natural gas by the commercial and industrial sector also declined during the Covid-induced lockdown.

Of course, this greenhouse gas accounting is never simple. Residential electrical and natural gas consumption rose in 2020, as did waste-related emissions. And for that matter, there was reduced use of mass transit and more e-commerce, meaning more delivery vehicles, more takeout boxes from restaurants — and more waste. 

The granular approach of sophisticated emission tracking is revealed in the report’s explanation of transportation. Boulder’s emissions accounting used anonymized smartphone data to track vehicle miles traveled by cars.  It’s not a new technology, but it’s getting greater use. It has also been used to track the spread of Covid.

Boulder’s emission tracking also has a breakdown on vehicle type and fuel choices, including whether diesel, ethanol or compressed natural gas were used.

Footing the Bill

A common question in such emission accounting is who gets billed for the emissions. If the trip starts in Boulder and goes to Denver, for example, on whose sheet does it go? Boulder’s new accounting now takes responsibility for all miles traveled within the city boundary while taking responsibility for 50% of miles that occur outside the boundary for trips that start or end in Boulder.

How about somebody traveling from Golden to Estes Park? That’s on somebody else’s carbon credit card, not on Boulder’s. A trip entirely within Boulder — well, obviously, that’s all on Boulder’s carbon tab.

Transportation fuels altogether account for 32% of Boulder’s total emissions, and even before Covid-crimped travel, the city was making gains on shaving emissions, if not as much as is needed.

Through this same prism, looking at emissions by fuel source, electricity generation accounts for 41% of Boulder’s emissions. Following transportation, the third-largest source is natural gas, including fugitive emissions, at 25%. Landfill, compost and sewage treatment emissions account for less than 3%.

It’s not that Boulder hasn’t had successes. The city saw a 36% reduction in emissions compared to the original 2005 baseline — and this despite 10% population growth, 12% more square footage in buildings and an 87% increase in gross domestic product, or GDP.

Gains in efficiency have been dramatic. One measure is in the emissions of intensity in electricity as applied against GDP. By that metric, the electricity use per gross domestic product has decreased in the commercial and industrial sector 41% since 2005 and 17% since 2018, the Lotus report notes. Again, Covid may have played a role in this reduction. 

Also notable is the cleaner electricity being delivered to Boulder. The analysis by Lotus used data from Xcel Energy, the city’s supplier, to calculate that the “electricity emission factor” has decreased 42% since 2005 and by 7% since 2019.

More reductions will be coming as Xcel closes four coal-burning units in Hayden and Pueblo in the next seven years and, if it gets approval of state regulators, switches another coal plant at Brush to natural gas. There is much agitation as well for closing the final unit in Xcel’s fleet in Colorado, Comanche 3.

Plans for the Academy at Mapleton Hill project, which borders city open space, include 93 housing units. Residential buildings account for 17% of Boulder’s carbon emissions. Credit: John Herrick

Sector by Sector

A more useful way to look at Boulder’s emissions as of 2021 may be through its sectors. This puts buildings into sharper focus. Commercial and industrial buildings account for 48% of emissions, primarily through electrical consumption and burning of natural gas. Residential buildings account for another 17%.

If you’ve stuck through this story this long, you’ve already done the math: 65% of Boulder’s total emissions come from buildings. And that’s a problem, because switching out houses isn’t nearly as easy as closing coal plants.

Once again, it’s not that Boulder hasn’t had success. Residential natural gas use has decreased per housing unit and also per capita since 2005, before flattening since 2018. However, the number of housing units has increased by 12% and the number of residents has increased 10%. Boulder is using more, not less, natural gas. Ditto for commercial and industrial: Natural gas is used with greater efficiency, but still the demand has grown.

Buildings top the list of the city’s action plan. The plan calls for developing innovative financing solutions for efficiency and electrification, along with use of low-carbon material buildings, retrofits and so forth — all while providing increased affordability and access for residents with lower incomes.

A new series of objects, targets and progress steps have been identified in the revised climate plan. For buildings, the city plan calls for 100% of residential and commercial construction by 2023 to be electric-ready — able to operate without natural gas. By 2031, the plan calls for zero operational emissions in all new buildings.

In transportation, the city hopes electric propulsion will account for 30% of all vehicle miles traveled within the city by 2030. The plan calls for a completely electrified fleet of HOP buses, compared to the current four electric buses.

Nature-based climate solutions constitute a significant, if still undeveloped, component of this climate plan. Such strategies would explore ways to manage both rural and agriculture as well as urban landscapes to capture carbon and enhance urban ecosystem services.

‘We have to do what we can do.’

Boulder’s strategy forward can best be understood in two ways. First, it depends in part on state and federal action. That is already evident in the transportation gains, which can in large part be attributed to improved fuel efficiency standards. 

Future progress will also depend on a team approach. Boulder is a joiner on climate action teams, perhaps the most important being Colorado Communities for Climate Action, a coalition of 34 towns, cities and counties that have become a reliable presence when climate and energy legislation is being reviewed at the Colorado Capitol. The city also belongs to other organizations of communities with a similar sense of urgency about climate change. One is the Urban Sustainability Directors Network. There are many others.

“We need to work more effectively outside our boundaries, and the way we do that is by influencing regulation and legislation at the state and federal levels,” Koehn says.

As befits a place crawling with climate scientists, Boulder has long been at the forefront of climate activities. The city in 2002 was one of the first to sign onto the Kyoto Protocol and officially adopted carbon reduction goals in 2006. Most recently, in April, the city became one of 21 U.S. cities to join the ICLEI 150 Race to Zero campaign.

Along the way, Boulder also adopted a carbon tax. That tax will expire unless renewed next November by city voters. Koehn says one option is to expand the tax, providing more revenue for furthering the climate change programs.

Paul Culnan, a member of Empower our Future, a Boulder-based group devoted to clean energy, says funding will be important to provide incentives for the transitions identified in the report when it comes to buildings and transportation.

“You can’t really force people to change out their cars, but you can incent them, and I want to see what we can come up with,” he says.

Boulder has traditionally been receptive to taxes. “I don’t see that changing,” Culnan said. “If they said we are going from a 3% tax to a 6% tax, that might get some resistance.” Those figures were for illustrative purposes.

“You have to influence the things you have influence over,” he added. “We can’t solve the problem ourselves, but we have to do our part. We have to do what we can do.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story contained misspellings of the names Jonathan Koehn and Paul Culnan. We have also corrected typos regarding the downtick in electricity emissions, which have decreased by 7% since 2019, along with the city’s climate goals — which align with the IPCC goal of keeping global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050.