New government estimate shows big gaps in transportation emissions targets
Colorado is alarmingly behind statutory goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 and 2030, state officials show in a new assessment of progress, prompting clean air advocates to renew calls for more aggressive action on consumer and business driving habits and a shift to spending on transit
The projected gap is largest in the transportation sector, where government estimates suggest carbon emissions in 2025 will be virtually unchanged from current levels unless tough new policy measures are added. State air pollution officials estimate that Colorado needs to reduce annual carbon emissions from transportation by 10 million tons to meet legislative goals of a 26% reduction from 2005 levels by 2025.
“We have a pretty big gap,” Air Quality Control Commission member Elise Jones said in response to a state report on the commission’s progress. “Looks like we need to double up on transportation.”
“Everything has to be on the table,” said Air Pollution Control Deputy Director Clay Clark, who presented the commission with a progress report.
While Colorado has been praised nationally for planning to aggressively shut down coal-fired power plants in its biggest emissions sector, electricity generation, those shutdowns may need to be accelerated further if the state is to meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals, critics said. Analysis of a new progress report by Western Resource Advocates shows a gap of 1.3 million annual tons of carbon emissions in 2025 projections.
“Basically, the rules that are already in place are not doing what they promised to do,” said Heidi Litwood, a climate policy analyst at the nonprofit advocacy group 350 Colorado. “It shows the importance of making sure all the rules are tight enough to allow for a significant margin of error. The world cannot afford not to meet its reduction targets.”
Given the poor track record so far, Litwood said, Colorado should not support electric companies that build new natural gas-fired power plants to fill the gaps when they close coal-fired plants. Nor should they allow more oil and gas drilling or rely solely on the slow transition to electric cars to clean up the transportation sector.
“The state needs to do everything it can to get people off the roads and make sure we all have safe and convenient options for transportation, cycling and walking,” Litwood said.
The stunning results in the transportation sector, which now nearly equals electricity generation in its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, underscore the frustration of environmental advocates who say the state has repealed or delayed regulations that could have had an impact.
In 2021, state officials withdrew a proposal to limit commuting to and from large employers after fierce opposition from business groups, even though the original plans did not include an enforcement mechanism. State air pollution officials have also delayed until 2023 the adoption of so-called advanced clean truck rules, similar to California’s, that would direct owners of large fleets to replace diesel and other fossil fuel vehicles with cleaner electric or other energy sources. .
The state’s progress report showed that a key measure of transportation’s contribution to climate-warming greenhouse gases — vehicle miles traveled, or VMT — is rising again after a sharp drop at the start of pandemic-related shutdowns. Many commuters now work from home, but going back to school, running errands, or other trips pushes VMT back up in ways that negate many of the gains from early adoption of cleaner EVs.
Environmental groups and some AQCC commissioners have urged state officials to push for earlier adoption of another set of clean car rules, Advanced Clean Cars II, which is not currently on the commission’s schedule for consideration in 2022 or 2023.
Colorado is currently following the first phase of a set of Clean Car rules passed in California that require automakers to sell an increasing percentage of electric vehicles in their fleets or buy credits from manufacturers like Tesla that produce more. The second phase of clean car rules, already moving forward in California, calls for a complete ban on the sale of fossil-fueled vehicles by 2035 and an acceleration of the percentage of electric vehicles sold by then.
All the extra steps, environmental groups say, will also help Colorado more quickly meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s limits on ozone, which is created by a combination of emissions from vehicles, power plants and industrial smokestacks, wildfire smoke and the sun. On Friday, Colorado’s northern range was officially listed as a “severe” ozone nonattainment category, triggering new permitting requirements for a wider range of air pollutants and ordering Front Range plants to sell cleaner reformulated gas by 2024.
Despite admitting to persistent ozone violations, Gov. Jared Polis sent a letter to the EPA last week opposing the mandatory switch to reformulated gas and threatening to sue over it, saying Colorado consumers shouldn’t have to pay an extra penny for gallon for cleaner gas.
Jones reminded the air quality commission that they promised in 2020 that if it became clear that Colorado was falling behind its greenhouse gas goals, the commission would take stronger action to limit emissions.
“We made a decision to say we’ll fill in the gaps when we find them. We just found them,” Jones said.
Commissioner Patrick Cummins pointed to the state’s long-standing goal of registering about 1 million electric vehicles by 2030, while a progress report shows 47,000 vehicles on the road by the end of 2021.
“That’s one thing about the clock, it keeps ticking,” Cummins said. “It doesn’t seem so ‘on the right track’ to me.”
WildEarth Guardians is part of a group pushing the commission and other regulators to adopt additional regulations in the transportation and other sectors, both to control ozone and to control greenhouse gases.
“Something has to close the emissions gap — it can’t just be based on hope and aspiration, which is basically what the division is relying on,” said Jeremy Nicholls, director of the group’s climate and energy program. “At the end of the day, the commission is charged with doing what needs to be done.”
Last week, Colorado had some good news in the “compared to” category. The nonprofit clean energy think tank RMI said additional climate-focused legislation passed in the 2022 session puts Colorado on track to make 80% progress toward climate goals. An agreement to close the Xcel Comanche 3 coal plant in Puebla by the end of 2030 has pushed the electric power sector toward 105% of required reductions, according to RMI. Colorado also tops the list of states with the fastest transition to electric vehicles.
“Colorado’s leadership not only serves as a model for other states seeking to set and meet ambitious climate goals, but also serves as a model for federal policy and an indicator of how far states can push the envelope in demonstrating climate leadership,” RMI analysts said. .
However, the RMI noted a shortfall in reducing transport emissions and agreed with those calling for new policies and regulations to speed up progress.
“Not only do we need to focus on transitioning to clean fuels, transitioning to electric vehicles, but also on reducing the way we drive,” said Wendy Jaglom-Kurtz, RMI’s U.S. program manager. “There are investments that need to be made in transit, giving Coloradans more options to get around the state.”
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