Boulder’s mitigation, resilience, equity trifecta

City of Boulder updates its Climate Action Plan, reporting progress toward old goals, charting the course for new ones


In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (ICPP) released a rather urgent warning: If we cannot keep the planet’s temperature from rising 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 C) by the year 2100, there will be irreversible — and likely catastrophic — effects. 

Some governments around the world are starting to respond to that warning. The EU commission on climate change recently raised its 2030 emissions ambitions to reflect the ICPP’s report. And Boulder isn’t far behind in updating its own: In 2019, the City initiated the development of its “next-generation climate action strategy” for its progressive Climate Action Plan (CAP). 

This June, the City released an update to that strategy — outlining its progress and raising Boulder’s sustainability bar even higher — in part to set some loftier mitigation goals to match the accelerating pace of global warming, says Jonathan Kohn, the interim director of the City of Boulder’s Climate Initiatives. But also to address the challenges of resilience and equity in the face of climate change.

“We know the politics of climate planning are changing. I think the public is demanding bolder and more concrete actions by local, state and federal governments,” Kohn says. “We recognize that our approach really needs to be courageous and needs to be visionary and it needs to be collaborative.”

The City of Boulder’s Climate Action Plan (CAP) has been helping direct the community’s efforts to offset climate change since 2007. It sets the City’s goalposts for reducing energy use, increasing the use of renewable energy sources, reducing vehicle emissions and making strides toward meeting other goals set in the 1997 Kyoto protocol. It’s made this city one of the foremost leaders in sustainable city management over the years. 

As Kohn points out, Boulder’s Zero Waste recycling and composting system is one of the most progressive management programs in the entire nation, constantly striving to achieve a more circular waste economy; the City’s renowned “greenbelt” of open space is a pinnacle of land-use conservation, acting as a carbon sink and ecosystem sanctuary; and Boulder’s decade-long attempted to emancipate itself from Xcel Energy and control its own electricity generation ultimately pressured Xcel into beginning to transition away from coal-based electricity generation.   

“Boulder is leading the way on much of that work, not just regionally, but nationally and internationally,” Kohn says. 

Currently, Boulder’s targets as outlined by the CAP have been to achieve 100% renewable electricity use by the year 2030 and to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emission levels by 50% from 2005 levels by 2050. 

The recent update outlines a number of mitigation benchmarks the City is adding to that list. Now, it aims to reduce Boulder’s GHG emissions by 70% from 2018 levels by 2030; it wants to achieve net-zero status by 2035; and it even hopes to become a carbon-positive city by 2040.

The update also outlines a lot of goals for increasing the community’s climate change resilience. Actions like increasing shade within the city to decrease urban heat island effects, and increasing Boulder’s carbon capture capacity by planting more trees and vegetation in and around town — which also helps improve mental health and community trust, according to the report. 

“It’s not only about mitigation and [resilience] at this point, though,” Lauren Tremblay, sustainability data and policy analyst for the City of Boulder, adds. It’s also about equity. 

The update illustrates and explains how emissions from the richest 1% of the global population account for more than twice the combined share of the poorest 50%. At the same time, globally it will be the poorest populations that experience climate change the earliest and the most severely, and who will be least equipped to cope with it. 

That’s why the City of Boulder is also adding new core equity principals into its CAP. The City wants to do what it can to help address those structural inequities. Options like offering low-income neighborhoods energy efficiency assistance can help to provide equitable solutions for problems like energy insecurity. 

“The community benefits most from designing solutions that don’t just focus on one of those elements, [mitigation, resilience or equity],” Tremblay says. “But one that can really drive home all three.”

It’s that line of thinking that’s led the City of Boulder, like many other cities, to recognize the need to move beyond the city-centric paradigm of climate action. Kohn says the City is now starting to consider climate action from a systems-level approach.

“Climate change is a wicked collective-action problem — meaning that individual change can’t alone fix it, but the climate can’t be fixed without [the individual],” Kohn says. 

As such, the City’s CAP now outlines goals to increase its work with private partners, other municipalities and state and federal agencies on an even larger basis. The stronger its network, the City reasons, the more power it has to actually meet the ambitious goals it’s set.

Which are inarguably ambitious, both Kohn and Tremblay admit. It won’t be easy to reduce the City’s carbon footprint so much — it will take effort from both individuals and the City government to achieve that. It won’t be easy to increase Boulder’s resilience to climate change, or to fight for equity — it will require systemic change and action from the City of Boulder in concert with private partners, other municipalities and government agencies. 

It’s a formidable challenge the City is taking on, and employees like Kohn and Tremblay know it — but they’re also aware that the scientific warnings from the ICPP are not to be taken lightly. 

“Do I think [these new goals] are achievable? Yes, I absolutely think that they are achievable. It’s where we have to be,” Kohn says. “We have heard the dire warning that has been sounded by our climate scientists and we and local jurisdictions need to respond … Now is exactly the time that we need to be as aggressive as we can to mitigate the worst impacts to the global climate catastrophe.”   

Shutterstock BOULDER, CO, USA – OCTOBER 18, 2020: A plume of wildfire smoke rises into the sky from the Left Hand Canyon just hours after the Left Hand Canyon fire broke out in Boulder, Colorado.

Straight from the source

In June 2021, city staff published an update to the City’s Climate Action Plan: “Scientists tell us that we have until 2030 to make the massive, societal, systems-scale changes required to stave off the worst effects of climate change. While the situation is urgent, we are also in an incredibly inspiring moment. Every day, new leaders join the cause from every corner of the globe, including here in Boulder. Our community is poised to take the next step in this work, however, the city’s climate action work moving forward must look different than it has in the past.”

City staff distilled key areas of action and focus. Specifically, the City, working in concert with the community, must: 

• Act beyond its boundaries, collaborating with partners, other cities and government agencies to achieve impact at a larger scale, on topics within the city’s sphere of influence.

• Focus city actions in support of achieving larger regional and national climate targets including:

• Reduce emissions 70% by 2030 against a 2018 baseline 

• Become a Net Zero city by 2035

• Become a Carbon-Positive city (Carbon-Positive means that an activity goes beyond achieving net zero carbon emissions to create an environmental benefit by removing additional carbon dioxide from the atmosphere) by 2040

• Allocate necessary time and resources to address the impacts of climate change in an equitable manner

•  Resilience and strengthen community capacity to adapt and thrive

• Focus attention on natural carbon drawdown (which is becoming an increasingly important tool for managing emissions)

• Account for the full scope of emissions in our community (including emissions associated with the creation of the goods and food purchased)

• Address new focus areas for climate action (including land use and financial/economic systems)   

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