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Opinion: Why population growth is destroying Colorado’s hopes to rein in climate change

The last time the State of Colorado reported its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2014, the news was bad — emissions had gone up, year after year, and were expected to continue doing so, and they almost certainly have.

The cause was due to the increased emissions from an increasing number of oil and gas wells in Colorado, as well as the increasing emissions from Colorado’s exploding human population by which more and more of us drive more miles in gas-powered cars and heat/cool/electrify our homes and offices with fossil fuels.

The direct causation of increased GHG emissions by population growth is clear to see by the naked eye as well as the highly trained climate scientist.

Gary Wockner

As bad as the impact of population growth is on the reported GHG emissions, there’s an elephant in the room that makes it worse — the emissions that are hidden and not reported. Climate scientists call this elephant “embodied emissions,” which are emissions that are not reported in state or local GHG inventories and may be completely overwhelming the numbers that are publicly reported.

What’s an “embodied” emission, and why does it matter?

When you buy a new car, a lot of energy was spent, and GHG emissions were created, to manufacture that car as well as to ship it here to Colorado. However, neither the energy nor the emissions are counted in state or local GHG inventories.

We call these “embodied” emissions because they are embodied in the car but were emitted somewhere else. It is sometimes said that embodied emissions are “outsourced” to the location where the car was manufactured.

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Scientists estimate that the emissions created to build a car are about the same as operating the same car using gasoline over its 15-year lifespan.

So, as a million people have moved to Colorado over the past 15 years, they’ve bought, or brought with them, a few hundred thousand more cars. In 2017 alone, Coloradans purchased 30,000 more new vehicles than in 2016.

To put a finer point on it, every additional new gas-powered car bought in Colorado completely negates the emissions reductions of switching to an all-electric car fueled by a zero-carbon energy grid.

And cars are not the biggest of the “embodied emissions” problem caused by population growth in Colorado. At the local level, this problem is much worse.

The massive construction industry — with cranes towering over the Denver metro area, and even in Fort Collins and Boulder — is a large-scale source of embodied emissions for local communities that are almost never counted or reported in local GHG emissions inventories.

The production of cement, for example, is a huge source of GHG emissions — in fact, a recent global scientific report indicated that cement production accounts for 9 percent of all GHG emissions worldwide.

Large-scale embodied emissions also come from the production of steel, as well as all of the other construction materials that go into a high-rise building — and even into a suburban house.

The entire gamut of construction materials, including drywall, granite countertops and stairways, and even flooring are rarely produced at the local level, and so the emissions of their production are not counted or reported at the local level either.

Further, the embodied emissions in a home can be up to one-half of the emissions of operating that home or building over its 50-year lifespan.

To put a finer point on it — for every two new houses that are built, those embodied emissions may negate the savings of switching one house to an all-electric zero-carbon energy grid.

Worse yet, one scientific study in Vancouver indicated that if you tear down an old house and build a new energy-efficient house, it takes 168 years to offset the embodied emissions caused by building the new house.

Further, the U.S. Building Council estimated that the embodied emissions in a new office building are up to 10 times the emissions created to heat and cool the building every year.

How bad is this hidden embodied emissions problem?

The City of Boulder and the City of Fort Collins are both growing rapidly (Fort Collins much faster), with the number of office buildings and homes mushrooming inside their boundary.

These office buildings are generally pricey and upscale, and the homes are generally affluent. However, none of the emissions created by the construction materials is counted in either city.

For example, there is no cement production plant inside either city’s boundary, nor is there a steel production plant, or a forest products plant, etc.

And here’s the kicker — both cities publicly claim that their GHG emissions have decreased over the past 10 years, but the cities are not even counting or reporting any of the embodied emissions generated by the booming construction industry as well as the increasing number of cars.

What may be worse is that this “outsourcing” of emissions lets affluent communities falsely claim that their emissions are decreasing, while communities where the goods are manufactured bear the brunt of the pollution.

In Colorado, some of our emissions are outsourced overseas to China (steel, TVs, consumer products) or to Germany and Japan (cars). Other emissions are outsourced outside of a city’s boundary into the unincorporated county or into neighboring industrialized zones.

Boulder and Fort Collins, for example, outsource their emissions into the surrounding county for cement production, asphalt production, and almost all construction products, while much of the City of Denver’s emissions are outsourced to neighboring industrialized areas like Commerce City.

This outsourcing not only dramatically increases pollution in those outsourced areas, it escalates increasingly severe environmental justice problems whereby already marginalized people and their communities become depositories of the emissions and the pollution that population growth and affluence creates.

We’ve been trained to think of “climate change” when we see smokestacks and oil and gas wells, but there’s another image that’s equally accurate in fast-growing places like Colorado — condos, new cars, and shiny office buildings.

The Front Range of Colorado is turning into a “Concrete Metropolis” and it’s this construction boom, all caused by explosive population growth, that is creating a large increase in GHG emissions, many of which are completely hidden and not reported at all.

Gary Wockner, Ph.D., is an environmental activist in Colorado. Twitter: @GaryWockner

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