While plenty of business has been put on hold for the past two months because of the coronavirus pandemic, Denver's climate-change task force convened by city leaders earlier this year has been forging ahead, meeting virtually to help develop strategies for fulfilling the city's greenhouse gas reduction goals. And as the group prepares to finalize its recommendations later this month, one thing is clear: Denver has a long way to go to reduce its emissions to zero, and it's going to take a lot of money to make it happen.
The price tag for the list of clean-energy measures being considered by the city's Climate Action Task Force could start at $200 million annually and rise to $400 million annually by 2030, according to analysis presented during an online meeting on Thursday, May 7. Overall, that could add up to a cost of nearly $3.5 billion over ten years.
"This is just an all-in, ballpark cost for everything on the list," said Celeste Cizik, a consultant with Group14 Engineering, which is assisting the task force. "It's a well-thought-out process, but it's not intended to be a full budget."
Proposals generated by the task force range from expanding the city's existing efforts — like stronger code requirements to improve building energy efficiency and more funding for electric-vehicle infrastructure — to big, new ideas like fare-free public transit. Transportation-related proposals make up nearly two-thirds of the estimated $3.5 billion cost.
Not all of the ideas are likely to end up on the group's final list of recommendations. But climate activists say the list underscores both the challenges of confronting the climate crisis over the next two decades and the short-term opportunities it presents to make Denver a better place to live.
“These investments will improve the lives of Denverites, especially those who are most impacted by environmental pollution from the entire fossil-fuel industry," says Brandon Rietheimer, a task force member and organizer with climate-action group Resilient Denver. "Unfortunately, these are often the same people who are most at risk to weather-related climate disasters. We can build for a more equitable society, and acknowledging the real cost is the first step.”
Mayor Michael Hancock established the Climate Action Task Force after pressure last year from Rietheimer and other Resilient Denver activists, as well as Denver City Council members. Resilient Denver backed a ballot initiative that would ask voters to approve an energy tax to better fund the city's climate programs, while Denver City Council President Jolon Clark led the push for a modified version of the tax measure through council. That proposal was ultimately shelved after Hancock agreed to create a new climate-action office and convene the task force to draft recommendations.
While Denver's overall carbon emissions are declining, much of that progress has come from the electricity sector, which is regulated at the state and federal levels. It's had far less success in reducing emissions from building energy use and transportation, two sectors over which local policy-makers have more direct control.
The task force has set an overarching goal of reducing citywide emissions to net zero by 2040 — a much more ambitious target than the one laid out in the Hancock administration's most recent Climate Action Plan, which aims for an 80 percent reduction by 2050. The task force's new goal is consistent with the latest recommendations from climate scientists, who have urged governments to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 globally, and sooner in developed countries and affluent urban areas like Denver.
At best, Denver is only on track for a 76 percent drop in emissions by 2040, Cizik told the task force on Thursday. If it wants to get to net zero by then, it will need a much more aggressive set of policies to speed up the electrification of the building sector — ending the use of natural gas for heating and cooking — and transportation.
"Until 100 percent of buildings are electric and renewable energy, and 100 percent of all cars and public transportation are electric, we're not able to get all the way to zero," Cizik said.
Those are expensive propositions, and the task force is also reviewing potential new funding sources to help the city pay for them. Resilient Denver's proposal, which is set to appear on ballots in November, would raise an estimated $47 million per year through a small excise tax on electricity and natural-gas consumption. Hancock opposed the measure last year, but he and city council will need to come up with an acceptable alternative to convince Resilient Denver to withdraw its initiative from the ballot. The group says it "remains committed to exploring all proposed solutions and to seek funding for them."
With the coronavirus crisis likely forcing Denver to make deep cuts to its budget, new revenue mechanisms might be both necessary to preserve climate-action funding and politically tricky for city leaders to embrace. But while the pandemic may have dominated the political conversation for the past two months, it hasn't made climate change any less real, or any less of a threat. The climate clock hasn't stopped ticking.
"The sooner we can start to move toward net zero, the better off we will be in terms of hitting those goals long-term," said Liz Babcock, manager of air, water and climate for the City of Denver. "What that exactly looks like, in terms of the phasing — you all have set some pretty ambitious goals, in terms of net-zero buildings. It's going to take a lot of support to get there."
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