Colorado Is Way Off Track on Greenhouse Gas Targets, Report Finds

Jimmy Thomas / Flickr
Craig Station, a coal-fired power plant in Moffat County, Colorado.
After rising dangerously for decades, Colorado’s planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions are finally on a slight downward trend. But meeting the state’s new science-based climate targets will require a steep decline, not just a slight dip, and a new analysis commissioned by a coalition of environmental groups raises major alarm bells about how much has to change to make that happen.

"Colorado set nation-leading, science-based goals to cut greenhouse gas pollution across our economy by mid-century," Stacy Tellinghuisen, a climate policy analyst at Western Resource Advocates, says in a statement on the report released today, February 18, by WRA and the Environmental Defense Fund. "But this analysis shows that we can’t succeed if we just continue business as usual."

The analysis, performed by energy consulting firm M.J. Bradley and Associates, finds that Colorado is nowhere near on track to meet the emissions goals outlined in its Climate Action Plan, which was passed by state lawmakers in 2019. The law sets a series of statewide greenhouse gas emissions targets, including a 50 percent cut by 2030, and directs the state’s Air Quality Control Commission to develop rules to enforce them.

AQCC commissioners have a lot of work to do, the report finds. Under current state policies, dubbed a “business-as-usual” scenario, researchers found that Colorado is only on track for a 13 percent decline in emissions by 2030. Even under the study’s more optimistic policy scenario — which included speculative measures like the retirement of all coal-fired power plants, new oil and gas regulations and the widespread adoption of electric vehicles — we’re headed for just a 30 percent emissions cut by 2030, not the 50 percent target now set by state law and urgently recommended by climate scientists.

“The potential scale of the emissions gap illustrated in this paper — even considering some high-ambition sectoral assumptions — would be among the factors that Colorado’s AQCC may consider as it evaluates various options to meet the state’s statutory emission reductions targets,” the report’s authors wrote.

The AQCC will formally initiate a rulemaking process to develop greenhouse gas regulations at its meeting on Thursday, February 20, with a final hearing slated for May. Officials from the Colorado Energy Office are currently drafting the state’s own "emissions roadmap" to help guide the AQCC’s decision-making, but that analysis isn’t expected to be finalized until September, after the commission’s initial climate rules have already been adopted — a timeline that some commissioners criticized at a previous AQCC meeting in November, urging the state to speed up its process.

M.J. Bradley's third-party analysis, however, underscores previously released data showing that while Colorado has made significant progress in switching to cleaner forms of electricity generation, emissions from other sources continue to pose a much greater challenge.

A 2019 state report estimated that the transportation sector is now Colorado’s largest emissions source, accounting for over 30 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) annually. Tuesday’s paper paints an especially dire picture of the state’s efforts to reduce transportation emissions; the goal of putting nearly one million EVs on the road by 2030, for example, would only add up to a reduction of about 2.4 million tons of CO2e.

"We need — and Coloradans want — ambitious action that meets the urgency of the climate crisis we face," Tellinghuisen says. "It’s going to take hard work, but Colorado has an opportunity to lead on climate while growing our economy and preserving our way of life."