Gov. Jared Polis’ 2021 Greenhouse Gas Reductions Roadmap steers Colorado in the right direction on electricity and transportation, but excludes action on the biggest contributor to climate change originating in Colorado.

Mike Chiropolos

Greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels are the main causes of human-induced climate change. The bad news is that Colorado’s climate action plan ignores more than half of our emissions because it excludes the oil and gas it exports. The good news is that this omission is readily addressed.

Climate is simple, serious and solvable. Simple because the cause is burning fossil fuels at unsustainable rates; serious because the stakes are high; and solvable by replacing fossil fuels with clean-energy solutions.

Ten points make the case for Colorado to walk its climate talk by phasing down oil and gas exports.

First, facts: exported oil and gas accounts for 60% of all greenhouse-gas emissions originating in Colorado, according to the Roadmap documents. The fuel might not be burned here, but it originates here. As the country’s No. 6 oil and gas producer, Colorado matters.

Second, law: Three recent bills support bold action: the Climate Action Plan Act, the Environmental Justice Act and the Protect Public Welfare Oil and Gas Operations Act.

These state laws, according to the Climate Action Plan, make our goal a “modern, resilient, one-hundred percent clean economy;” commit to a “leadership role;” and define climate change as “a cumulative emissions problem” requiring prompt action. They empower Colorado to limit drilling to protect public health, safety, the environment, wildlife, and biological resources.

The laws support discretionary export reductions to complement mandatory reductions of statewide emissions for fuels burned in-state.

Third, science: Colorado law requires a science-based approach to help limit worldwide warming to manageable levels — below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Fourth, math: if we exclude from Colorado’s calculations the emissions that ultimately are created by fuels that Colorado exports elsewhere, we won’t reduce emissions enough to achieve our climate goals – as states, countries or a planet.

When it comes to carbon reduction, the Colorado Roadmap is pointing us in the wrong direction. It allows total emissions to increase from approximately 280 million metric tons in 2020 to an estimated 305 million in 2030. Even if Colorado cuts its own greenhouse-gas emissions by 90% from 2005 through 2050, that gain would be largely cancelled out by the gases from exported crude oil and fossil gas emissions, under production forecasts.

Conversely, reducing exports by as much as the reduction in statewide emissions would result in 90% economy-wide reductions that better meet our Paris Agreement commitments. The numbers will add up when our kids and grandkids look at Colorado’s climate action commitments.

Fifth, timing: Colorado first quantified greenhouse-gas pollutants from exported oil and gas in 2021. Colorado climate action planning has always been an evolving, iterative, adaptive process addressing new data as it has become available. Now is the time to amend our Roadmap.

Sixth, models: Colorado and the U.S. don’t shrink from challenges. Phasing out leaded paint and leaded gasoline protected the health of inner-city children. DDT bans recovered the bald eagle. Bold chlorofluorocarbons and hydrofluorocarbons policies are salvaging the ozone layer.

America’s can-do spirit triumphed over the Great Depression with the New Deal, put humans on the Moon and launched amazing technological advances in the 21st century. In the 20th century, Colorado weathered the fall of the boom/bust hard-rock mining economy.

Seventh, economics:  Benefits include new clean energy jobs, better snowpack and water for food production, more fire-resistant forests, healthier watersheds, cleaner air, better quality of life — not to mention our survival. We’re already experiencing the costs and risks of inaction: record wildfires, temperatures, drought, heat waves and fatal floods.

The opportunity cost of every dollar invested in counter-productive new fossil fuel infrastructure is a dollar not available for clean energy infrastructure and adaptation.

Eighth, equity: disadvantaged communities and populations will suffer most from unabated climate change, and benefit most from effective climate action informed by environmental justice.

Ninth, moral wisdom: Martin Luther King, Jr. observed that “the time is always right to do what is right.” A time-honored Chinese proverb reminds us that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, and the second-best time is today.

Tenth, solutions: Research compiled by the Stockholm Environment Institute shows that reducing fossil fuel supply will effectively reduce emissions. The new “Net Zero by 2050″ report by the International Energy Agency shows that a viable pathway will rely on new output from existing oil and gas assets, consistent with “no new infrastructure investments.”

Colorado’s Roadmap commits to 100% renewable energy in-state by 2040. Cleaner, better, affordable energy technologies are available today, nationwide and globally.

Colorado’s current approach is the equivalent of China shutting down coal power plants, but ramping up mining for coal exports that cancel out domestic greenhouse-gas reductions.

By phasing down oil and gas permits a few percent a year until targets are met, Colorado will accelerate the national and global transition that benefits everybody.

Bold climate leadership requires decisive action grounded in numbers that add up. Let’s do it. 

Mike Chiropolos lives in Boulder. 

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