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Committing to Equitable Climate Action in Colorado

Ariana Gonzalez's picture
Energy Policy Analyst Natural Resources Defense Council

Ariana Gonzalez is an Energy Policy Analyst in NRDC's Midwest Program. Her work is focused on the analysis and advocacy of clean energy in state policies, utility portfolios and Clean Power Plan...

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  • Sep 28, 2020
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A new report outlines pathways for the state to achieve the greenhouse gas emissions reductions required by HB-1261—as well as the health and equity implications of statewide climate actions. 

Dennis Schroeder/NREL

A new report out today in Colorado envisions a future where every community can enjoy clean air and water, every family can afford to warm their home in the winter, every Coloradan can participate in and build a clean and just economy, and every household can avoid the worsening wildfires, droughts, and floods that climate change is already bringing to our doorsteps. 

The report, “Committing to Climate Action: Equitable Pathways for Meeting Colorado's Climate Goals,” brings together new analysis from Evolved Energy Research, GridLab, NRDC, Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Health Energy (PSE), and Sierra Club to outline pathways for the state to take effective climate action and achieve the statewide greenhouse gas emissions reductions required by House Bill 1261. The report also analyzes the health and equity implications of each pathway to chart how various solutions, timelines, and delays impact air pollution and energy costs that most heavily burden Colorado’s low-income communities and communities of color. 

Colorado policymakers have an opportunity to foster a rapid transition to clean energy that results in steep reductions in deadly air pollution. Our analysis shows they can achieve this transition and meet the state’s climate goals with little to no increase in energy costs—and potentially even savings. When planning this transition, Colorado policymakers must ensure that low-income communities, communities of color, and high-pollution communities feel the full benefits of pollution-reducing and cost-saving clean energy technologies. 

Key findings of our analysis for the electric, transportation, buildings, and oil and gas sectors include:

Dennis Schroeder/NREL

Electric

  • Colorado needs a rapid transition to clean electricity over the next decade to meet its climate goals. The lowest-cost pathway to meeting the emissions reduction goals relies on almost entirely decarbonizing (98 to 99 percent) the electric sector by 2030—meaning creating our electricity from renewable resources such as wind and solar power. This pathway requires all coal units to retire by 2025 and the state to accelerate the buildout of new renewable power plants.
  • The overwhelming majority of fossil fuel power plants in Colorado are located in communities with higher poverty rates, high percentages of the population that are people of color, or both. If the state instead chooses a more expensive pathway with a slower transition to clean power, then significant power plant air pollution will remain in these communities.
  • Energy efficiency, rooftop solar, and other clean distributed energy resources can reduce costs, but the low-income households who could benefit the most have not been able to afford or access these improvements. Families with less money tend to have a higher energy burden, meaning they spend a higher portion of their income on energy needs.
  • Our analysis shows the highest-earning Coloradans (top 20 percent of households by income) have adopted rooftop solar systems at 16 times the rate of the lowest-earning households (bottom 20 percent). Residents of rural areas also tend to have a higher energy burden than residents in urban and suburban areas.​

National Renewable Energy Laboratory's Vehicle Testing and Integration Facility - Dennis Schroeder/NREL

Transportation

  • Transportation emissions must drop by at least 35 percent by 2030.
  • Meeting the climate goals requires rapid electrification of the vehicle fleet. Almost all new cars and light trucks must be electric by 2035. Adoption of zero-emission trucks for medium- and heavy-duty applications must also accelerate, making up a significant share of new sales by 2030 and 100 percent of new sales by about 2040. 
  • Vehicle electrification provides massive cost savings to the state because electric vehicles (EV) are less expensive to operate and maintain than gasoline alternatives. But current barriers to EV adoption prevent those savings from reaching low-income households who could benefit the most. Our analysis shows the highest-earning Coloradans (top 20 percent of households by income) adopt electric vehicles at eight times the rate of the lowest-earning households (bottom 20 percent).
  • While meeting the climate goals will cut overall transportation sector pollution, pollution from medium- and heavy-duty trucks could increase in certain areas because adoption of zero-emission vehicles for these applications will likely lag behind adoption for light-duty applications. Moreover, low-income families and communities of color are more likely to live in areas with more pollution from diesel trucks for medium- and heavy-duty applications, so policymakers must plan accordingly and address the disproportionate impacts.

Nest thermostat in Denver - John De La Rosa/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

Buildings

  • Emissions from the buildings sector must decrease by 10 to 13 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.
  • Meeting the climate goals requires rapid electrification of building heating, accelerated adoption of energy efficient appliances, and increased adoption of more efficient building shells.
  • Colorado residents in rural areas and low-income households in urban areas spend, on average, a higher portion of their income on heating, cooling, and cooking than other households.
  • Buildings are a major source of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) pollution—exceeding PM 2.5 emissions from power plants and vehicles in Colorado. Residential PM 2.5 emissions are highest in rural areas, especially where wood is burned for home heating.

 

Oil rig in Weld County, Colorado - CL.Baker via Flickr

Oil and Gas

  • Curbing methane emissions from oil and gas production is essential for the state to meet its climate goals. Oil and gas methane emissions must drop to at least 54 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
  • Industrial point sources—including oil and gas wells and other infrastructure—are more highly concentrated in locations with higher numbers of people of color.
  • Air emissions from industrial point sources are more highly concentrated in areas of the state with more people of color.

Taken together, these findings paint the picture of a Colorado that has endured the inequitable distribution of pollution, energy burden, and access to clean energy technology. But that’s not where the story ends. The findings of the report also show how feasible and necessary it is for policymakers to commit to climate action now and move all communities forward in a cleaner, more equitable way.

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