Dems set carbon-cutting goal of 50% by 2030; activists call it weak tea

John Herrick | April 8, 2019 | The Colorado Independent

Update: The bill, HB-1261, passed the House on April 16 by a 41-23 party-line vote. 

Political realities inside the Gold Dome are tempering lawmakers’ efforts to slash Colorado’s planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.

Democrats who earlier in the session called for strong reductions in carbon emissions have dialed back their ambitions and written HB-1261 with goals even some supporters say are too lax.

HB-1261 calls for a 50% emissions reduction by 2030 and 90% by 2050, both compared to 2005 levels. While those cuts are ambitious, some advocates say they should be even steeper — 63% by 2030, for example — to achieve the goals set out by the bill. 

Current mood at the Capitol played a role softening the bill’s reach. A huge partisan divide, accusations of Democratic overreach and threats of recalls have persuaded climate-change activists in the legislature that compromise is needed to pass the bill.

House Speaker KC Becker, bill sponsor, is navigating these choppy waters.   

“We’ve got to start somewhere that is a reach, but still attainable, and try to bring people along and show them that [cutting carbon emissions] is doable,” Becker said.

And while the revised bill may be more palatable to some electric utilities, it’s still pushing many lawmakers and lobbyists out of their comfort zones, she said.

Cutting carbon emissions, no matter what the level, will create major disruptions for utilities, government and private companies. The near-term emissions targets proposed in the bill effectively mean cutting all emissions from oil and gas drilling and relying on renewables such as wind and solar to power the state’s entire electric grid.

The hope is that by setting the emissions reductions targets, Colorado will come up with a model for other states and countries for how to cut greenhouse gas emissions.  

“Can this state alone fix the problem? No. But we are and ought to be a leader of states in this nation,” said Rep. Mike Weissman, a Democrat from Aurora.

Several environmental groups and activists are united in supporting the goals, despite projections by scientists that such emissions reductions targets would still fall short of staving off some irreversible impacts of climate change. Carbon capture technology to implement more aggressive goals, supporters say, simply does not yet exist.

Other environmental groups worry the goals in the bill are too little, too late.

Scott Denning, an atmospheric scientist with Colorado State University, said the planet must effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050 in order to keep temperatures within 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This is the temperature threshold that the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says will cause more irreversible impacts if breached.

Denning, who said he’s not advocating a position on the bill, said a computer model he created suggests global emissions must be cut by about 63% by 2030 (instead of 50%, as the bill calls for), to prevent long-lasting and irreversible impacts.

“The targets that are being proposed by the state of Colorado, if implemented globally, would fail to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels,” Denning said. That is what the language in the bill calls for, he added. “It may be better to set a target that would actually put you on track to hold the temperatures to 1.5 degrees globally, because that’s what it says at the front of the legislation. That’s your goal.”

Denning’s findings are being trumpeted by the Colorado Coalition for a Livable Climate, which includes 350 Colorado, a state environmental advocacy group. It is asking lawmakers to set the goal of 63% reduction by 2030, and net zero emissions in the mid 2030s.

On the other side, groups representing businesses in the mining and transportation industries oppose the bill because of potential economic impacts and the authority it gives to the Air Quality Control Commission, a nine-member board appointed by the governor.

Republicans, even those who agree anthropogenic climate change is happening, said Colorado alone cannot reverse climate change and that any solution should be market-based.

“I don’t think we need the heavy hand of government telling us what to do,” said Rep. Larry Liston, a Republican of Colorado Springs. He added, “The best solutions come from the free market and capitalism.”

The push and pull — industry urging looser regulations on one side and environmental groups pushing hard for stricter regulations on the other — has public relations advantages, some lawmakers believe. The bill may have a better chance of passing if it appears Democrats were willing to compromise.

“Don’t you think? If you have some people saying ‘it goes too far’ and other people saying ‘it doesn’t go far enough.’ That’s kinda where we’re at,” said Emily Sirota, a Democrat from Denver who is sponsoring the bill and who wants to see more stringent targets.

“I think nearly every piece of legislation that makes significant policy change ends up being a compromise in some way to move through this body,” Sirota said.

Democrats may be trying to avoid the kind of partisan, headline-grabbing squabbles that bogged down SB-181, the controversial bill regulating the oil and gas industry.

Before the oil and gas bill was introduced, Democrats held a ceremonious — and, at times, sober — news conference at the state Capitol. In contrast, the emissions targets bill was announced at 8 p.m. via a news release.

“I think Democrats have taken on a lot this session; the noise of the Republicans and the oil and gas opposition is catching up to them,” said Anne Lee Foster, communications director for Colorado Rising, an anti-fracking group. But, she added, “We don’t have the option to have a balanced bill when we’re talking about the climate.”

When the bill passed the House Energy and Environment Committee last week 7-4, all Republicans voted against it. In an unusual exchange, Rep. Tim Geitner, a Republican from Falcon, called out Rep. Alex Valdez, a Democrat from Denver who co-founded EcoMark, a solar company, and asked if he considered he might have a conflict of interest. Valdez said he did not. Other Democrats came to Valdez’s defense, too.

There is another yet compromise in the bill: It requires the Air Quality Control Commission to develop rules and regulations to ensure the targets are met, but includes no penalties, no timelines, and no provisions to allow citizens to sue the government if the state fails to meet the targets. The regulations must also be “cost effective.” 

Gov. Jared Polis, a former tech entrepreneur with a libertarian bent, opposes any enforcement mechanisms, including timelines for when the rulemaking should be completed, sources say. His office did not respond to a request for comment.

The bill does not include any language to help workers in the fossil fuels industry transition to a different line of work, but House lawmakers on Friday introduced a separate bill that would create a so-called “just transition” office within the Department of Labor and Employment. 

Other supporters say they hope to change the bill in future years to both strengthen the targets and put more teeth in them. They say more severe drought, wildfires and beetle kill will make it easier to secure the “yes” votes. After last year’s fires and floods, public opinion polling recorded an unprecedented jump in the percentage of people worried about climate change. 

Said Kevin Cross of the Fort Collins Sustainability Group: “We’re pretty sure the climate will do all the talking for us.”C