The Corporations Are Here to Save Colorado From Climate Change

The Corporations Are Here to Save Colorado From Climate Change
Mayor Michael Hancock / Twitter

One year ago, a historic report released by U.N. climate scientists issued a stark warning to governments around the world. Limiting average global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and thus averting the most catastrophic consequences of climate change, was “possible within the laws of chemistry and physics,” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said, but would require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”

On Thursday, November 14, Governor Jared Polis, Mayor Michael Hancock and other high-ranking officials gathered outside the State Capitol to once again deliver an inspiring message: The corporations are taking care of it.

“This is really what the future looks like,” Polis said on the Capitol’s west steps, where a small group of reporters and staffers from ride-hailing app Lyft had gathered to hear an announcement. “Getting creative, saving people money, creating jobs and reducing our emissions. It’s important that so many companies are stepping up to become leaders in the renewable-energy revolution.”

Executives from Lyft joined Polis at the podium to celebrate the company’s announcement that it plans to add 200 electric vehicles to its fleet in Denver over the next several months. Billed as one of the largest single deployments of an EV fleet in U.S. history, Lyft’s initiative will allow employees — er, "independent platform-using driver-partners" — to rent and drive one of the company’s brand-new Kia Niro EVs through its Lyft Express program.

“One of the main reasons I joined Lyft is because I’m deeply committed to making electric vehicles more accessible,” said Cal Lankton, Lyft’s vice president of fleet and global operations. “And really tying that to Lyft’s mission to improve people’s lives with the world’s best transportation.”

"Thanks to Lyft, today Denver got cleaner and healthier," Hancock beamed. "Thank you, Lyft."

Electrifying the transportation sector will be a critical step for Colorado and other states that have committed to sharply cutting their greenhouse gas emissions over the next few decades, and Thursday’s press conference was the latest sign that under Polis, Hancock and other key policy-makers, Colorado's path toward clean energy runs straight through the private sector. As activists, world leaders, 2020 presidential contenders and others continue to debate how best to confront the climate crisis, it's clear what kind of approach Colorado has settled on — few new mandates, little expansion of government, and a consistent emphasis on technological solutions and market-based incentives for clean energy.

As Polis and others highlighted on Thursday, Colorado in August became the first state in more than a decade to pass a Zero Emissions Vehicle rule, requiring automakers to sell a certain number of EVs as a percentage of their overall sales — but not before engaging in lengthy negotiations about a possible "voluntary alternative." Regulators ultimately passed the rule accompanied by a compromise with automakers that offered some concessions and effectively softened its initial requirements. (A coalition of oil and gas and car-dealer groups is suing the state anyway.)

Lyft’s EV announcement was reminiscent of an event held by Xcel Energy last December, at which company executives announced their commitment to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2050, and Polis — who hadn’t yet been sworn in as governor — cheered Xcel's progress toward his 100-percent-renewable campaign promise. Colorado lawmakers haven't enacted any changes to the Renewable Energy Standard that would actually enforce such a commitment, and it remains unclear whether the state's other electric utilities will follow suit. But both Polis and Xcel got some great press out of it. Aren’t those commercials great?

Welcome to climate policy-making in a state whose leaders almost never talk about environmental issues without mentioning the "outdoor industry," where the Sustainable Denver Summit is being sponsored by Suncor Energy, where FanDuel and DraftKings are going to save the Colorado River from drought.

There's little doubt that Colorado's elected leaders mostly agree that climate change is a major threat, and are earnestly working to confront it. But for now, at least, they're making Coloradans an implicit promise — that we're going to be able to make one of the most sweeping, aggressive technological and economic transformations in human history without any real disruption to our day-to-day lives.

Just keep doing what you're doing, the thinking goes, and everything will be fine. Lyft and the Hyundai Motor Company will decarbonize the transportation sector. (Never mind the transit system that's falling apart.) VF Corporation and Ski Co will make sure you get to keep enjoying the high country. (Don't worry about Big Rec's absence on conservation issues where there isn't a buck to be made.) No need to bother with strict new regulations in the electric sector when the price of wind and solar is making clean energy so cost-effective. (Good thing most experts agree that current economic conditions will likely last forever.)

We'll know more about the merits of this approach by next year, when state officials are set to complete a "blueprint" for achieving their ambitious new emissions goals, including a 50 percent cut below 2005 levels by 2030.

Right now, of course, we're nowhere close to being on track — but, man, those "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes" urgently recommended by the world's leading climate scientists sure sound like an awful lot of work. Isn't it more comforting to think that there's an app for that?
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Chase Woodruff is a staff writer at Westword interested in climate change, the environment and money in politics.
Contact: Chase Woodruff