Colorado needs to do its part to avert the worst-case scenarios of global climate change.
That premise is at the heart of a bill introduced by House Speaker KC Becker to establish ambitious pollution-reduction goals. But meeting the targets will be a big ask.
House Bill 1261 would commit Colorado to the short-term targets of the Paris climate accords — a 26 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2025. And it directs state regulators to adopt rules aimed at helping the state meet its ambitious emissions reduction goals.
If it passes the Democrat-controlled legislature, the legislation would effectively enshrine parts of former Gov. John Hickenlooper’s 2017 executive order on climate into state law. The United States signed on to the global climate agreement under former President Barack Obama, but signaled its intent to withdraw under President Donald Trump. That’s left environmental groups turning to cities and states to take the lead on reducing emissions.
“We are not seeing action at the national level,” House Speaker KC Becker told reporters, explaining the need for state-level targets.
The Colorado effort also goes beyond the near-term goals established in Paris, calling for reductions of 50 percent by 2030 and 90 percent in 2050 – targets that scientists say are necessary to limit global warming to 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius. Even at that level, scientists expect severe consequences, such as widespread drought, natural disasters, food shortages and at least $54 trillion in damage.
“There’s a huge recognition that (climate change) is real, that it affects Colorado particularly because of its geography, that there’s a real cost to not acting on climate,” said Becker, who made this issue her top priority this session. “So we have a responsibility in this state to step forward.”
MORE: Environmentalists are demanding aggressive action on climate change. How far will Colorado Democrats go?
Don’t expect much support from Republicans or industry groups. But so far, it hasn’t generated the uproar of Senate Bill 181, the controversial oil and gas measure that would allow local communities to restrict drilling and won initial House approval Thursday. The Colorado Petroleum Council and the Colorado Oil and Gas Association haven’t even taken a position on the emissions bills, with spokesmen telling The Sun that they were still reviewing the legislation.
What is known is where Colorado stands in terms of greenhouse gas pollution and how far the state needs to go if it wants to limit global warming to the degree scientists say is needed to avoid catastrophe.
Here are six charts that explain the situation.
Electricity is a small piece of Colorado’s carbon pollution problem.
The power grid — and easy-to-grasp goals like 100 percent renewable energy — gets the bulk of the headlines when it comes to climate change. But power generation makes up only a fraction of Colorado’s greenhouse gas emissions.
In 2015, the electric grid made up 28 percent of the state’s carbon emissions, the most of any sector. But by 2030, fossil fuel-burning cars and trucks are expected to eclipse power companies as the top emitter in the state, according to a recent analysis of state greenhouse data by Western Resource Advocates, an environmental organization.
The chart above helps explain why lawmakers at the state Capitol this session are pushing a wide range of policies to reduce emissions, such as promoting electric vehicles and tightening energy efficiency standards.
Colorado’s electric grid remains heavily reliant on coal.
But it’s becoming a lot cleaner. Coal went from generating 92 percent of the state’s electricity in 1990 to 54 percent in 2017, the last year for which data was available from the federal Energy Information Administration.
Renewables are gaining, but they have a long way to go to meet the 100 percent renewable goal promoted by Gov. Jared Polis in the 2018 campaign. Wind now generates 17 percent of state’s power, but didn’t contribute even 1 percent until 2005. Solar reached 1 percent for the first time in 2016.
The bill prioritizes the electrical grid, calling for utilities to reduce their emissions faster than other industries, with a 80 percent target by 2030. The statewide goal across all industries calls for a 50 percent reduction by that year.
Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility, has ambitious carbon targets of its own, seeking an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 and becoming completely carbon-free by 2050, though it doesn’t plan to do so with renewables alone. Its CEO recently said nuclear will be a key part of reaching its goal.
(The bill doesn’t lay out explicit renewable energy targets, only specifying that carbon emissions should be reduced. State law already requires investor-owned utilities to reach a 30 percent renewable portfolio by 2020.)
New methane rules have helped, but emissions from oil and gas activities are expected to rise.
When the state last forecast Colorado’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2014, it predicted a steady increase of methane leaks from the oil and gas industry.
New state and federal methane rules have taken effect since then, and an analysis by Western Resource Advocates expects emissions to fall through 2020 as a result. But, the analysis found, the new rules may not be nearly enough to offset an expected increase if drilling activities continue to expand in Colorado.
Reaching the 2050 target may require technology we haven’t even invented yet.
Western Resource Advocates partnered with Conservation Colorado in 2017 to create a blueprint for how the state could reduce its emissions in the coming years. The current trajectory shows a long way to go.
Meeting the 2030 target seems theoretically possible, but politically difficult, requiring things like tougher oil and gas regulations, carbon offsets for agriculture and abandoned coal mines, major boosts in energy and fuel efficiency, and a huge jump in the use of electric vehicles and public transit. (The blueprint proposed by environmental groups that is reflected in the following chart uses a 45 percent target by 2030, instead of a 50 percent reduction).
But to achieve the 2050 target could require technology that doesn’t yet exist, such as better EV batteries, new forms of energy storage and appliances that use less energy.
“I think there are things that we can do today that we know we can do to reduce our emissions,” said Erin Overturf, the deputy director of the clean energy program at Western Resource Advocates. “But we also know that to get to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, that’s going to require technology that we’re not even aware of right now.”
Colorado can’t solve climate change on its own.
Climate Action Tracker, a research project maintained by three climate science groups, shows that virtually every major nation is falling short of the emissions cuts that scientists say are needed to prevent disastrous global temperature increases.
To some conservatives, that’s reason enough not to take drastic action; without the help of other heavy polluters such as China and India, the U.S. can’t prevent a disastrous rise in global temperatures. Colorado’s efforts represent an even smaller drop in the bucket.
But there is a ray of hope for those frustrated by the Trump administration’s decision to back out of the accords. The tracker’s analysis found that if states like Colorado meet their own pledges, the U.S. as a whole could come “within striking distance” of its 2025 target, resulting in emissions that are 17 to 24 percent below 2005 levels by that time.
While the bill sets ambitious goals, it doesn’t establish any penalties for missing them.
Staff writer John Frank contributed to this report.