CU and the Boulder Climate Commitment
by Abigail Ahlert, CSTPR Writing Intern
While Americans come to terms with divisive national politics, there’s still a lot of hope in city-scale climate action. This December, the Boulder City Council is expected to formally adopt the Boulder Climate Commitment (BCC), and leveraging local knowledge and engagement from the University of Colorado will be an important factor in its success.
The main goal of the climate plan is to reduce Boulder’s greenhouse gas emissions to at least 80% below 2005 levels by 2050. The BCC energy objective is to ensure that 100% of Boulder’s energy comes from renewable sources by 2030, with 50% or more of that created locally.
Through conservation programs that focus on outdoor irrigation and recycling efforts, the BCC aims to reduce emissions from waste management by 2% and reduce water usage by almost 20%. The BCC also plans for the planting of 1,500 trees per year by 2050 in order to protect Boulder’s urban ecosystem.
The University of Colorado Boulder (CU) is taking advantage of multiple opportunities to coordinate with the BCC, including the implementation of energy efficient facility upgrades. For example, the athletic facility completed in April 2016 has 2,604 solar panels which generate about 1,200 MWh of power per year. CU is also continuing its support of public transit resources and student “Energy Green Teams” that outreach to the University community about sustainability.
In addition to these projects, the City of Boulder hopes to utilize CU’s academic resources for climate planning. During the week of October 10, Brett KenCairn, Senior Environmental Planner for the City of Boulder, and Dr. Sarah Thomas met with CU faculty and students to discuss the BCC.
Students and faculty agree that their engagement in the BCC is productive, considering the important role that the University plays in Boulder’s culture. “CU is a large part of the Boulder community and as academics we like to solve problems. It’s a natural fit to bring in the tremendous talent from all parts of campus to the issue of climate change and starting with our local government makes a huge amount of good sense,” says Dr. Rebecca Jo Safran, Associate Professor in CU’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.
However, the BCC also brings to light some of Boulder’s most pressing problems. A leading concern among members of the University is the relationship between greenhouse gas emissions from commuters and Boulder’s relentlessly climbing housing costs. In 2012, 17% of Boulder’s transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions came from non-resident employees. While this is still less than what was emitted by Boulder residents, there is worry that emissions from non-residents will continue to climb. Dr. Shelly Miller, Professor of Mechanical Engineering in CU’s Environmental Engineering Program, says, “I think it will be difficult to do anything meaningful with housing and transportation. People cannot afford to live in Boulder and so commute and people like their cars and don’t want to be inconvenienced by increasing bus and bike ridership initiatives…just look at what happened when they changed the bike lanes on Folsom earlier this year,” referring to the recent backlash to bike lane expansion designed by Boulder’s Living Lab.
The issues of housing and transportation also raise crucial questions of justice. “In terms of challenges, I think the questions are how to do this in an equitable way, one that doesn’t further marginalize and push out the non-wealthy. This is not an impossibility—as some might argue—but rather requires us to rethink what implicit or explicit biases might be smuggled into ideas of ‘our values’, ‘our way of life’, ‘our quality of life’ in Boulder,” says Dr. Emily Yeh, Chair of CU’s Geography Department. The City of Boulder recently introduced the Just Transition Collaborative to address these issues.
Despite concerns, there is hope among faculty and students that Boulder can become a success story and example of climate action. The sentiment seems to be that Boulder has the resources to limit its greenhouse gas emissions, and thus the obligation to do so. Michael Rush, a graduate research assistant in CU’s Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering Department, says, “Boulder must be an example of climate action for other cities…This country has a proud tradition of ‘laboratories of democracy’ wherein individual states or communities test new and innovative policies before they are enacted on the national level. Boulder can show the world that it is possible to reverse antiquated housing laws, eliminate unsustainable transit habits, and update energy policy to lay the foundation for long-term ecological sustainability.”
Rush is particularly excited about the Boulder Energy Challenge—grant money that the City of Boulder has offered to fund sustainability projects. These grants were last offered in 2014, and an application period for a new round of grants will open at the end of November. The City also hopes to host an “Energy Futures” summit in 2017.
The October BCC meetings made it clear that Boulder is a small city uniquely equipped to limit its greenhouse gas emissions, but that it will also face new and complex challenges in the process.