Dangerous air quality is Denver’s new summertime normal, setting an ominous new record of 65 Ozone Alert Days between June and August. While worsening wildfires mostly beyond Colorado’s control — along with oil and gas drilling — often are blamed for our toxic air, a major culprit for this issue is the hazardous air pollution pouring from cars and trucks.
Research shows fossil fuels burned by cars and trucks is making Colorado’s air worse. So, we must cut tailpipe pollution for Denver — and all of Colorado — to breathe cleaner air. Fortunately, solutions to curb this pollution are available if Gov. Jared Polis, our state government, and the General Assembly act now.
In 2019, Colorado set nationally-leading targets of 50% greenhouse-gas emissions reductions by 2030, and 90% by 2050, becoming the first oil- and gas-producing state beyond California to put such reductions into state law. In 2021, the Polis administration released a Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap to achieve the goals.
But cutting transportation emissions is where the rubber meets the road. As Colorado Energy Office Director Will Toor told the state Air Quality Control Commission on September 17, reducing transportation emissions is the “most complicated” piece of Colorado’s climate puzzle.
The Colorado Electric Vehicle Plan has set a target of 940,000 electric vehicles statewide by 2030, but with just under 41,000 on our roads today, the task seems daunting. And while the Colorado Department of Transportation is proposing new rules to cut transportation emissions, the current draft falls short of Gov. Polis’ own Climate Roadmap goals. And the rules also should address environmental justice considerations by directing clean investments into disproportionately impacted communities to reduce pollution.
The Climate Roadmap recommends accelerating the shift to electric vehicles while cutting “vehicle miles traveled” by changing transportation and land-use planning, but it doesn’t carry the power of law. So how do we reach this clean transportation future?
Transportation emissions keep rising as more gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles get on our roads, so Colorado should prioritize policies that accelerate vehicle electrification while investing in public transit and other non-driving options.
Independent modeling by Energy Innovation and Boulder-based RMI shows existing state policies such as electric-vehicle tax credits and partnerships to build charging stations simply aren’t sufficient to meet our state’s emission-reduction goals.
An important first step for Colorado is increasing the stringency of its zero-emission vehicle policies. In 2019 state policymakers joined 14 other states and Washington, D.C., in adopting zero-emission vehicle requirements for light-duty vehicles. Since then, California set a goal of 100% zero-emission vehicles by 2035 en route to a clean, electrified transportation future. Colorado should forge ahead by passing our own strong sales targets for zero-emission vehicles, and adopting an advanced clean-trucks policy to electrify large diesel trucks and tractor trailers.
The Energy Innovation-RMI modeling shows a strong electric vehicle sales standard is the most effective way to reduce transportation emissions, and we should ensure this policy does not leave lower-income families behind. Our leaders should carve out electric vehicle and charging infrastructure incentives for these households, and expand incentives to cover used electric vehicles, as proposed in the federal reconciliation bill.
Colorado also must prioritize alternatives to passenger-car travel through policies enabling people to use public transit, walk, and bike. Increasing public transit expands affordable transportation options and can provide much-needed relief from local air pollution in frontline communities located closest to highways. The Energy Innovation-RMI modeling found policies such as these could cut passenger-car travel, and its corresponding pollution, 20 percent by 2050.
Third, while Gov. Polis’ Climate Roadmap targets reducing statewide vehicle-miles traveled by 10% by 2030, the proposed CDOT rule doesn’t include that target, despite forecasts that such a target could deliver $40 billion in economic benefits by 2050. Incorporating the governor’s target into the state’s official transportation policy, then adding policies to reduce vehicle-miles traveled, is a common-sense move that will benefit all Coloradans.
While Colorado can’t single-handedly prevent wildfires burning across the Western U.S. from clouding our skies, we can keep transportation pollution from choking our air by switching to electric vehicles and giving Coloradans more non-driving transportation options to reduce the miles we drive.
What we can control, we must. We want kids to be able to play outside without harming their health. As climate advocates with decades of experience, we know cutting tailpipe emissions strengthens our economy and benefits consumers’ pocketbooks. As Coloradans who vote, we urge our elected officials to act now and clean our air.
Decarbonizing transportation is critical to hitting the state’s own emissions reduction targets. Gov. Polis, our state public health and transportation agencies, and the General Assembly must accelerate their efforts. Our air will be cleaner and our economy will be stronger for it.
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The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggested writers and more to firstname.lastname@example.org.