Denver’s Brown Cloud and mule deer Colorado pollution climate

A temperature inversion holds Denver’s air pollution over downtown Denver while a pair of mule deer overlook the skyline from Golden’s South Table Mountain.

UPDATE 8/26: Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and seven members of the City Council have reached an agreement on climate-change steps that takes a "pollution tax" proposal off the agenda of tonight's council meeting. Check back with for more later.

As Denver considers asking for a "pollution tax" on businesses, City Council members are concerned that the city isn't on track to meet its long-term greenhouse gas reduction targets — and that those goals don't align with what scientists say is needed to avoid some of climate change's potentially devastating effects.

Denver's 80x50 Climate Action Plan, unveiled by Mayor Michael Hancock in July 2018, calls for the city to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050.

But a landmark report by the scientific community revealed last year that, globally, human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide must reach "net zero" around 2050 — meaning that, in 30 years, any remaining man-made emissions must be removed from the atmosphere through reduction measures.

"In a lot of places, our goals are nowhere near where they need to be, and we are nowhere near meeting those goals," City Council President Jolon Clark told Colorado Politics.

The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated in its October 2018 report that achieving a "carbon neutral" status in the three decades or so could limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius instead of 2 degrees Celsius or more.

Denver's greenhouse gas emissions are trending downward. But they won't meet the target suggested by the IPCC report at the current rate, staffers from the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment have told the City Council's Safety, Housing, Education & Homelessness Committee.

That half-degree reduction, however, could ultimately mean more fresh water, better crop yields, and fewer heatwaves and extreme weather events worldwide in the future, Liz Babcock of DDPHE, told the committee during an Aug. 14 briefing.

The plan is made up of "sector-specific goals" — for buildings, transportation and other areas — that are expected to add up to an 80% overall reduction of emissions by 2050. This year and next year, the city is devising individual "road maps" that will detail how Denver can reach its target in each of those areas.

During those processes, city staff plan to adjust the goals so that they're in line with the scientific community's recommendations, said Babcock, manager of DDPHE's Air, Water and Climate Section.

Department officials have pushed back on the assertion by some city council members that the Denver isn't doing enough to combat climate change or providing adequate funding to meet its goals.

Ann Cecchine-Williams, the department's deputy executive director, said in a statement that the city will meet its 2020 climate goal "ahead of schedule." 

"While we have achieved a lot, we know it is crucial that Denver accelerate carbon emission reductions to achieve science-based goals to cut emissions in half by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050," Cecchine-Williams said. "We will work collaboratively with our entire community to ensure Denver remains a leader on climate action."

The city hasn't created a plan that details the funding that will be needed to reach its goals, she said. "Most cities worldwide have not, either," she said. 

Clark and other Denver elected officials say the looming consequences of climate change demand urgent action. He and six of his colleagues have proposed a "pollution tax" that would tax commercial and industrial property owners for their natural gas and electricity use.

Critics of the proposed tax, including Mayor Michael Hancock, say that it was rushed and that its sponsors didn't gather enough community input.

The City Council is set to vote on Monday whether to refer a question to the ballot this fall asking voters to approve the tax.

"I’ve told a couple people that this is the first step in a marathon that we’re running," Clark said. "There are going to have to be a lot of really tough conversations as we continue to really tackle what it’s gonna take to get there. This alone will not be enough funding."

The other sponsor of the measure are Candi CdeBaca, Stacie Gilmore, Amanda Sandoval, Amanda Sawyer, Paul Kashmann and Chris Hinds.

The seven council members have also introduced a measure that would create a new Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency that would use revenue generated by the pollution tax to provide grants and other incentives for efforts that reduce Denver’s carbon footprint.

About 63% of Denver's core emissions of greenhouse gases — namely, carbon dioxide and methane — come from the energy use of buildings and homes.

The city has taken steps to encourage or mandate energy efficiency in existing buildings, but most of those policies only apply to buildings that are more than 25,000 square feet, said to Katina Managan, Denver's climate smart buildings team lead.

Those buildings are required to assess and report their annual energy performance under the city's benchmarking law. The green building ordinance also mandates that those building owners install a "cool roof" to help with temperature control and choose another compliance option, such as installing solar panels or paying for off-site green space. The ordinance has similar requirements for new construction.

But the policies are relatively new, and the available data show that they haven't made a significant difference in energy use, Managan told the committee during the Aug. 14 briefing.

From 2016 to 2017, the energy use of buildings in Denver feel by about 0.17%. That's low, given the city's near-term goal is to cut building energy use 10 percent by 2020, she said.

"If we aren’t on track a couple years from now, once we start to get data in on how these programs and policies are going, then we could look to what other cities are trying and possibly pursue other policies," Managan said. "I don’t think we need those right now."

The plan also calls for the electrification of homes and buildings so that they are no longer heated with natural gas. But that, too, will be an expensive challenge, Managan said. Electrifying a home's heating system costs $35,000, on average, she said. 

The plan's goals for the transportation sector could also be a stretch. Most Denverites get around in cars, trucks and SUVs — which, altogether, account for 36 percent of the city's greenhouse gas emissions.

If the city wants to meet its climate change goals, it must more than double the number of people who walk or bike or use public transportation to travel over the next decade or so, city Public Works Planning Director Jennifer Hillhouse told the committee last Wednesday at a second climate change briefing.

To help achieve those objectives, the city now aims to build 14 miles or more of sidewalk each year. Last year, however, only six miles were built. And, under the current funding plans, the city only has the money to add about nine miles annually. 

The sidewalk dilemma is just one example of a much larger issue, Councilwoman Sawyer said. 

"What we’re seeing here is a very clear indication, over and over again, of this lack of nexis between planning and funding in the city," she said.

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