Climate change is not inevitable. In recent years in the United States, nudged by government policies, market forces, and voluntary actions, steady increases in levels of heat-trapping emissions have already been checked, and annual emissions have actually fallen somewhat. Much more is needed to bring down atmospheric levels of heat-trapping pollution, but we have made an important start.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, annual heat-trapping emissions in the United States peaked in 2007, and by 2015 had fallen 11 percent below 2005 levels. Emissions from electricity generation were done 21 percent, the biggest change.
Worldwide, emissions of carbon dioxide fell for the first time in 2015, although only marginally. This followed two years of much slower growth of emissions than in earlier years.
These changes are not yet enough to protect the climate, but we have begun to move in the right direction.
In 2015, nearly every nation in the world came together, in the Paris Agreement, behind the first ever specific international goals and framework for actions to reduce emissions.
In 1992, the first international agreement to limit climate change included an agreement to prevent “dangerous” human interference with the world’s climate. It took until the Paris Agreement of 2015 to set in place a concrete plan. In that agreement, 195 nations — nearly every nation in the world — agreed to hold the world’s average temperature increase to well below 2 °C [3.6° F] above preindustrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 °C [2.7° F]. These goals were chosen as necessary to significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.
Nations also agreed to identify how much they would reduce their own emissions to contribute to reaching the Paris Agreement goals.
The Obama administration pledged to reduce heat-trapping emissions in the United States by at least 26 percent by 2025, compared to 2005 levels. President Trump, however, has announced that the United States will withdraw from the Paris Agreement.
The exact commitment made by the U.S. government was to reduce national emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025, compared 2005 levels, with a pledge to use “best efforts” to reach the 28 percent reduction. This would require a doubling of the current path of emission reductions under climate protection policies already being put in place — which the U.S. government declared was both “fair and ambitious.”
President Trump, though, announced in June 2017 that the United States would back out of the Paris Agreement, joining just two other hold-out nations — Syria and Nicaragua.
In July, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper announced that Colorado would join 12 other states in pledging to reduce their emissions as much as the U.S. national commitment under the Paris Agreement. The governor signed an executive order setting that goal as official state policy.
The governor’s executive order sets a goal of reducing statewide heat-trapping emissions by more than 26 percent by 2025, compared to 2005 levels.
Two other goals are to reduce emissions from the electricity sector by 25 percent by 2025, but in this case compared to 2012 levels, and to achieve two percent reductions per year in electricity consumption through 2020. The executive order also directs state agencies to use funds from a court settlement over emissions cheating by Volkswagen/Audi to increase recharging stations for electric vehicles, and to mirror a current federal rule requiring large polluters to report their heat-trapping emission amounts, in case the federal rule is abandoned.
But Governor Hickenlooper also made it clear that, as far as he is concerned, “The plan is voluntary and the goals are aspirational.” By contrast, when California Governor Jerry Brown set even tougher goals for that state, his executive order said that state agencies “shall implement measures” to meet the goals. Similarly, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, after pledging to achieve Paris Agreement-level reductions in emissions, issued an executive directive for the development of new state regulations to reduce heat-trapping emissions from power plants.
Commitments by the nations in the Paris Agreement, if fulfilled, would slow continued temperature increases, but those commitments by themselves would not meet the Paris goals.
Similarly, the United States is not yet on a path to meet the commitment made by the Obama administration under the Paris Agreement. And in Colorado, the latest evidence is that statewide emissions were still going up through 2010, even though national emissions had begun coming down.
The planet’s average surface temperature has already risen about 1.7°F ) since the late 19th century, already about halfway to the Paris Agreement goals. Rather than slowing down, temperatures are still increasing, with the 16 latest years all in the 17 hottest years recorded.
These temperature increases are largely driven by steady increases in the atmospheric concentration of heat-trapping pollutants. The continuing increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, the major heat-trapping gas, is shown here. For explanations of why atmospheric carbon monoxide levels are not yet going down, although annual emissions are, see here. and here.
Full implementation of all national commitments under the Paris Agreement would hold the global temperature increase to about 5.8°F (3.2°C) by century’s end — better than the current pathway, but still well above the agreed-to threshold of dangerous climate disruption.
In the United States, annual heat-trapping emissions in 2015 have fallen in recent years and were 10 percent lower than in 2005. This represents real progress toward our Paris Agreement pledge, although we are not yet on a path to get there.
In Colorado, the most recent year covered by the state’s latest emissions inventory is 2010. Statewide emissions that year were eight percent higher than in 2005 — even though national emissions fell five percent in the same years. This evidence says that over the 2005-2010 time period, at least, Colorado was lagging, not leading.
To have a realistic chance of meeting the Paris Agreement goals, much more action is needed in just the next few years. Otherwise, drastic and expensive actions would be needed later in the century.
According to the United Nations Environment Program, all the national commitments made under the Paris Agreement (including by the United States) would still lead to global temperatures being 5° to 6°F above preindustrial levels — well above that agreement’s goals.
The best hope of achieving the Paris goals is much more action in the next few years. Most heat-trapping pollutants are very long lasting in the atmosphere, and failing to reduce them enough now means that much sharper reductions will be needed later, according to the U.S. government’s third National Climate Assessment.
The U.S. national government has an essential, irreplaceable role to play in protecting the climate — but the Trump Administration is moving to abandon that role. Now, it is more important than ever that state and local governments assume the mantle of climate leadership.
Colorado in recent years has taken some important steps to reduce emissions — but not as much as the states that are true leaders in tackling climate change. Colorado will have to step up, both to meet Governor Hickenlooper’s new goals and to do our share to protect the climate.
On electricity generation, Colorado in 2004 was the first state whose citizens voted to require electric utilities to use clean energy to produce some of their electricity. Even though the General Assembly has strengthened those requirements, other states have now gone further than Colorado.
As revised by the legislature in 2013, Colorado’s law currently requires that by 2020 investor-owned utilities (primarily Xcel Energy) get at least 30 percent of their electricity from clean sources, large electric cooperatives to get 20 percent, and municipal utilities and small cooperatives to get 10 percent.
Across the nation, eight states and the District of Columbia require higher percentages, including California, New York, and Oregon, which require 50 percent, and Hawaii, which requires 100 percent by 2045. Seven states have strengthened their requirements in 2016 or 2017.
Also on power plants, a 2010 Colorado law is leading to the closure of some old coal-fired power plants. But as energy markets have changed recently, other states are moving even faster away from coal-fired power plants, the largest single sources of heat-trapping emissions.
Colorado’s Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act was designed to meet other air pollution standards, not climate goals, but it is good for the climate, too. Under the law, Xcel Energy will close five coal-fired generation units, shifting to more natural gas and clean, renewable sources.
Our 2010 law was pioneering for its time, but other states now are doing more. Notably, Oregon passed a law in 2016 to close the state’s one coal-fired power plant. Across the West and the nation, corporate decisions by utilities, regulatory decisions by governments, and law suits are leading to early retirements of more coal-burning plants. Nationwide, closures of more than 200 coal plants have been announced since 2000.
On electric vehicles, Colorado has a sizable state tax credit to help offset their purchase price — but, again, other states are doing more to get more clean vehicles on the road.
Under the federal Clean Air Act, California can adopt motor vehicle emission standards cleaner than the national standards, and then other states can adopt the California standards. Thirteen other states and the District of Columbia apply the California standards, which include requirements that car makers sell an increasing number of true zero-emission vehicles (electric vehicles powered entirely by batteries). Especially if the federal government now backs away from tough fuel-efficiency/emission standards, the California standards will be key in reducing transportation emissions.
On emissions of methane from oil and gas development, Governor Hickenlooper led Colorado to become the first state to regulate those emissions. But the evidence is growing that methane still remains a major driver of climate change, with higher emissions than earlier thought.
Emission reduction actions at the local level are essential, too. Leading Colorado communities are doing a lot, but still can do more — and often need new state and national policies to create a framework that makes local action possible and effective.
In Fort Collins, local efforts have brought community emissions down, with 2015 levels nine percent lower than in 2005. The city’s goals are for a 20 percent reduction by 2020, and 80 percent by 2050, compared to 2005 — with an aspirational goal of total carbon-neutrality by 2080.
Aspen’s community emissions in 2014 were down seven percent compared to 2004. The city’s goals are 30% below 2004 levels by 2020 and 80% by 2050.
In Boulder, 2015 emissions were five percent below 2005. Boulder’s goal is an 80 percent reduction by 2050.
Progress? Yes. On track to meet goals? Not yet. Local governments have discovered they simply cannot meet ambitious climate goals on their own—they also need a better framework of state and federal climate policies to enable their local actions to be more effective. That reality led to the creation of CC4CA, in which local governments have joined forces to work for state
and federal actions supporting and complementing local climate-protection actions.
Some of the recent progress in reducing emissions results from market forces, especially as less polluting sources have become less expensive and have supplanted some coal in electricity generation. Also, there have been voluntary switches by governmental entities, businesses and other organizations, and individuals to less-polluting alternatives for meeting energy and other needs.
One highly successful community program of voluntary climate action is the ClimateWise program in Fort Collins, which offers simple solutions to help businesses reduce their climate impact, save money, and gain recognition for their achievements. More than one hundred ClimateWise partners have reduced emissions by an amount equivalent to 280,000 round trips between Fort Collins and Denver International Airport, and in doing so are saving themselves more than $1 million a year.
Reducing emissions not only protects our climate — it creates economic growth and jobs, protects people’s health, and improves the quality of their lives. Reducing emissions also avoids what could become the staggering costs of a disrupted climate.
The evidence continues to mount of all the many benefits that come with emission reductions.
Preventing climate disruption also saves money be reducing impacts, which can be very costly. Wildfires and floods, the most expensive natural disasters Colorado experiences, are both projected to become more common with climate change, with much larger increases if future emissions are higher. The Waldo Canyon fire in 2012 caused nearly half a billion dollars in insurance losses, and Colorado’s flood in September 2013 flood caused $3 billion in damage. These costs, too, must be part of the cost-benefit balance.
Among the many other, often intangible, benefits of climate protection are:
As the American Association for the Advancement of Science says, “We’ve successfully faced environmental challenges before. There’s much we can do to respond to the challenge and risks of climate change, particularly by tapping America’s strength in innovation.”
With everything that Colorado has to offer, we can and should be a leader in protecting the climate. We have the West’s can-do spirit, innovative thinkers and business leaders, a strong economy, spectacular landscapes that inspire us, and a sun that shines and wind that blows. Let’s get in the vanguard and lead the way to a better future.