The doomed fight to fix Hickenlooper’s impotent climate plan
To do its part toward fulfilling the Paris climate agreement, Colorado needs specific, measurable state goals. But Gov. John Hickenlooper nixed such goals from the state’s climate plan, and a bill to require them will likely fail.
It was historic. It was magnificent. It was one of the finest demonstrations of diplomacy Hunter Lovins has ever seen.
And it was, of course, wholly insufficient.
Lovins, an environmentalist and founder of Longmont-based Natural Capitalism Solutions, admits that witnessing 195 countries agree to a climate deal in Paris this winter was cause for celebration. But the green business pioneer is adamant that the real work is still ahead of us — and that it has to happen close to home.
“What we got to is the starting line,” she said during a panel in Denver following the Paris climate talks, which she attended.
Getting to the finish line, Lovins and other Coloradans who took part in the Paris negotiations say, will require meaningful work from so-called “sub-national actors.” These are the regional, state and local governments and agencies whose cooperation is the crux of the climate accord.
Unlike climate change negotiations in years past, when, Lovins said, “We were a distraction to them,” the United Nations is now recognizing the importance of state and local action. Mayors, regional environmentalists and other “subnational folks” — including Lovins, who attended the talks on behalf of her own organization — enjoyed greater prominence in Paris. A whole series of meetings focused on the premise that capping warming at safe levels will require cooperation not just from nations, but also from state and local governments setting specific policy goals with well-defined, measurable targets.
“That’s where we’re going to save the world — or not,” said Lovins.
Although plenty of Coloradans are motivated to put such goals into place here in the Centennial State, so far Gov. John Hickenlooper isn’t one of them. Five years ago, under Gov. Bill Ritter’s leadership, Colorado was a national leader in the fight against climate change. But Hickenlooper has done away with the state’s specific climate emissions goals, which means Colorado now has the dubious distinction of having a climate action plan with no quantifiable plan for action.
Unless a bill requiring measurable goals somehow passes Colorado’s Republican-led Senate this session, the state’s climate plan will remain as Hickenlooper approved it: targetless and, in the eyes of many environmentalists, defeatist and maddeningly inadequate.
A plan without a plan
In 2007, then-Gov. Ritter signed Colorado’s first climate action plan, making us only the third state, after California and New Jersey, to do so.
Ritter’s plan was ambitious. It called for a reduction in state greenhouse gas emissions, using a 2005 baseline, by 20 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050. It also urged investment in clean coal technologies, created an agricultural carbon offset program and made it mandatory for big polluters to report their emissions.
Gov. Hickenlooper’s climate plan, signed in 2015, scaled back Ritter’s goals significantly. Widely criticized for being vague and unsubstantial, the new 93-page document mostly summarizes the threats climate change presents to Colorado and reviews existing efforts to combat them.
Hickenlooper’s climate plan is certainly comprehensive in its description of how climate change will affect various sectors like water, public health and agriculture. But it largely promotes adaptation over mitigation, taking climate change as a given and prioritizing ways to ready the state for climate change rather than preventing it. Prepare for drought, it says. Prepare for fire.
Climate change experts say there’s no question that adaptation is important. Ritter’s plan addressed it, too. Although a full version of Ritter’s plan is no longer available online, an article from Georgetown Climate Center notes that 14 of its 70 strategies focused on adaptation for increased risks of extreme weather events.
But Ritter also set goals for mitigation. His specific, measurable greenhouse gas emissions targets held his qualitative strategies accountable in both the long and short term.
Hickenlooper’s climate plan doesn’t set any measurable emissions targets. It mentions Ritter’s ambitions for the state and the “handful of measures that would help in reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions” the former governor set forth. And it notes that Colorado has moved forward on many of these measures, and will continue to do so in the future. But it leaves out specifics.
That’s the rub. No specific goals. No targets. Nothing measurable to work toward and, therefore, nothing with which to hold Colorado accountable as a so-called “sub-national” doing its part to save the planet from over-heating.
Setting statewide emissions targets may have been groundbreaking when Ritter took the lead in 2007, but it certainly isn’t in 2016. Nineteen states and Washington, D.C. have now all set their own measurable greenhouse gas emissions targets. Omitting clear goals from Colorado’s new plan leaves the impression that the state has abandoned its commitment to emissions reduction, replacing it instead with a promise to simply try its best.
A leading environmental think tank says that’s not enough post-Paris, especially for a state so dependent on the environment for its food production, water supply, tourism dollars and quality of life.
“Without targets for emissions reductions, incentives for cleaner technologies, or other clear policies, climate action plans will not achieve real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions,” reports the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, the successor to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. The organization tracks and reports the climate change measures enacted by states nationwide.
More simply, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” said John Powers, founder of the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado. “The plan needs to have measurable goals,” he added. “How else are you going to have a target and know if you hit the target?
Right on track?
Kathy Green, Hickenlooper’s spokeswoman, refutes the claim that Colorado’s plan lacks quantifiable targets.
“The Climate Plan introduced last year has both measurable goals, such as the 30 percent emissions reduction by 2030, and more qualitative goals, designed to be a foundation for the development of more robust and specific measures should they be necessary,” she wrote in an email to The Colorado Independent.
But the 30 percent emissions reduction Green cites isn’t a state-level target. It’s the goal set out by President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which uses the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed 2012 emissions baseline, a far less ambitious target than the 2005 baseline set by Ritter.
Baselines matter. Greenhouse gas emissions have increased over time, so if all else is equal, older baselines signify more ambitious goals. It’s thus easier to reduce emissions to 2012 levels than to those from 2005.
Further, the new state climate plan notes that Colorado “anticipates requesting an extension under the EPA’s proposed timeline and would adopt a state plan no later than September 6, 2018.” In other words, Hickenlooper’s plan of action in 2015 was to wait until 2018 to enact one.
Another troubling part of Hickenlooper’s plan is a chart on page 19 that projects a 16 percent increase in statewide greenhouse gas emissions above 2005 levels — that’s 77 percent above 1990 levels — by 2030. The increase comes largely from natural gas drilling, of which Hickenlooper, a geologist originally drawn to Denver for a job with a petroleum company, is an ardent proponent.
Despite this troubling emissions projection and Hickenlooper’s anticipated delay to implement the Clean Power Plan’s emissions target, the climate plan is underscored by the administration’s signature optimism.
“Colorado is on the right track,” it reports.
But some environmentalists question what, exactly, Colorado is on track toward accomplishing when it comes to clean energy. They lament that Colorado — a state known for the importance it places on its environment — has regressed so much much since Hickenlooper came to power.
“When Ritter was in office, I thought that he was entirely too timid,” Hunter Lovins recalled. “I now realize he was the best governor we ever had.”
Comparing Hickenlooper to Ritter, she said, “One is wholly beholden to the oil and gas industry, one was coming into his own as a proponent of unleashing the clean energy economy.”
Then, as if to drive the point home, Lovins repeated herself.
“Hickenlooper is so beholden to oil and gas,” she said, and sighed.
Natural gas has been praised as a cleaner-burning alternative to coal that will help achieve short-term CO2 emissions goals. But many of those benefits are offset, or even outweighed, by the release of heat-trapping methane as it’s extracted from the earth.
Notably, Hickenlooper passed legislation that made Colorado the first state to limit methane emissions from oil and gas production. Although the state’s regulations are strict, leaks still happen.
The only way to ever achieve the greenhouse gas emissions cuts we need under the Paris accord, critics argue, is to transition away from fossil fuels entirely — and, as a state, to put policies in place to achieve that.
“Moving toward natural gas, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, is potentially worse than burning coal,” John Powers said.
Methane, which is 88 percent more heat trapping than carbon dioxide, has a shorter half life than CO2 and thus doesn’t stay in the atmosphere as long. But Powers says it’s long enough.
“By the time it degrades,” he said, “We’re cooked.”
Why goals matter
Taryn Finnessey is the lead author of Hickenlooper’s state’s climate plan. She works for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the same agency that last year crafted the state’s first water plan.
Critics of that plan say it reads more like an encyclopedia of state water issues than an actual plan. Without a list of legislative action items or a specific path forward toward conserving enough water to meet the dire water shortfall projected for 2050, the water plan — like Hickenlooper’s climate change plan — is more aspirational than strategic.
But Finnessey insists the exclusion of measurable goals wasn’t meant to render the state’s climate plan ineffective. It just shows a shift in priorities.
“One of the criticisms we hear a lot is that these numbers and goals are all great and well, but if you don’t have the programs in place, then you can’t achieve them,” she told The Independent. “Instead of focusing on the number, we decided to really focus on the programs that result in greenhouse gas reductions and improved adaptation.”
Still, it’s hard to see how effective strategies and measurable goals are mutually exclusive. Numerical goals without strategies, of course, are useless. But if the state is truly confident that its policies will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, experts say it should be willing to say by how much.
In defense of the state climate plan and the absence of measurable goals, Finnessey noted that there are limitations to the state greenhouse gas inventory, which Ritter used to calculate emission levels. Imperfections in measurement, she said, could lead to goals that are either too optimistic or too easily achievable.
It’s true: The greenhouse gas inventory is, in fact, imperfect. Accounting for an entire city’s emissions from transportation, agriculture, energy and other sectors requires more than a little guesswork.
But that’s no excuse to give up, some environmentalists have said.
“We need a better inventory,” said Stephen Saunders, president of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization.
“But not yet having a better inventory is not really a meaningful explanation for why we’re not taking action to get to the goals,” he continued. “I certainly would not think we need to wait for a better measuring device before we continue making progress.”
Proponents of a tougher state plan point to jurisdictions in Colorado that have enacted their own climate action plans, most of which pivot on specific numeric targets.
Boulder, Denver and Fort Collins, for example, all have put in place citywide plans that call for the emissions reductions Ritter ordered in 2007: 20 percent by 2020, and 80 percent by 2050. Fort Collins actually amped up its own target recently, calling for a 100 percent reduction — full carbon neutrality — by 2050.
Brett KenCairn, a senior environmental planner from Boulder who helped author that city’s own climate commitment, agrees there’s no excuse for excluding emissions targets.
“For those of us in Boulder and other places who have been working hard to develop rigorous emissions reduction objectives, it’s disappointing to see no quantitative commitments in the state’s plan,” he said.
Eyes on the prize
Three Democratic state lawmakers this session have introduced legislation to prod the state into enacting a climate plan that’s more than just hot air.
House Bill 16-1004 calls for the state’s climate plan to include not only specific policy recommendations, but also measurable goals. Reaching these scientifically-based goals, the bill says, “will both reduce Colorado’s greenhouse gas emissions and increase Colorado’s adaptive capability to respond to climate change.”
The bill calls for setting near-term, mid-term and long-term deadlines for these goals, much like Ritter did.
“There’s really no prescriptive action in the climate action plan,” said House sponsor Jeni Arndt, a Democrat from Fort Collins.
Her defense of the bill sounds almost comically understated.
”If you’re going to have a plan, it’s good to have goals,” she said.
The measure was just added to the Senate’s schedule, and several Republican senators who were contacted had not yet prepared comments. But because the bill passed the Democratic-controlled House along party lines, it’s expected to fail in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Sen. John Kefalas, a Democrat from Fort Collins, agreed to sponsor the bill in the Senate.
He says he’ll be ready with testimony when the measure is heard, but isn’t optimistic. Over the phone, as he lamented the increasing politicization of environmental issues in Colorado, his quiet resignation to the bill’s failure was loud and clear.
“We’ll have a hard time with this bill. Chances of success in the Senate will be minimal,” he said. “But I believe there’s still value in raising these issues, and that’s what we’ll do.”
Frank Swain, an energy advocate with the environmental group Conservation Colorado, had stronger words about the bill’s slim chances.
“It’s mind boggling that…we have to fight tooth and nail to move forward on common sense climate reduction goals in the state Senate,” he said.
The Clean Power Plan promise
Despite what Swain calls Hickenlooper’s “slow start on environmental and climate issues in its first few years,” he and other environmentalists credit the governor for his support of the federal Clean Power Plan.
The CPP aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions by a third nationwide by targeting existing coal-burning power plants. Hickenlooper went head-to-head with Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman when she joined two dozen other states in a lawsuit challenging the EPA’s authority to impose the plan.
Even now that the U.S. Supreme Court has issued a temporary stay on the plan, Hickenlooper has been adamant that the state should prepare to implement it.
Taryn Finnessey, who wrote the state’s climate plan, explained why this preparation is key. “If part of the Clean Power Plan is upheld, we don’t want to be left behind,” she said.
The emission reduction goals the CPP sets forth are less ambitious than what Ritter’s plan called for. And the CPP’s 2030 deadline — compared to Ritter’s longer term goal of 2050 — encourages shorter term transitional strategies, like increased reliance on natural gas, that aren’t enough to achieve the end goal of 100 percent renewable energy Colorado must ultimately reach.
Still, environmentalists say Hickenlooper’s support amid the opposition of 27 states, including his own, is commendable.
“Governor Hickenlooper has been and is being great about the Clean Power Plan, and that is very important and probably the single most important set of actions to be taken right now,” Saunders said.
But, he added, “It’s far from the only thing that needs to be done.”
The state’s own climate change plan, if it’s going to be meaningful at all, will require leadership the governor hasn’t yet shown. Questions about his leadership are likely to arise if he’s as serious as he seems about snagging either a vice-presidential nomination this year or a cabinet appointment if Hillary Clinton — his pick for president — is elected.
Politically, there’s growing evidence that leadership on climate change action is a calculation Hickenlooper can likely afford. The Center for Western Priorities recently reported environmental stewardship is an increasingly nonpartisan issue.
Swain, too, pointed out that a majority of Coloradans — including a diverse chorus of stakeholders from business leaders to clergy leaders to health professionals — are now calling for climate action. In the eyes not just of environmental activists, the federal Clean Power Plan simply cannot be considered a substitute for an ambitious, targeted statewide strategy.
“We’d like to think that a large factor in the governor’s moving forward on these issues is due to his desire to protect the environment and maintain Colorado as a special place where people can enjoy and play in the outdoors,” Swain told The Independent. “But the honest reality is that he’s the governor, and those business interests are an influence. We welcome those voices and that diverse chorus of others calling for climate action.”
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