Emissions reductions and the struggles of Aspen and Whistler

What Aspen & Whistler’s stories say about the challenge of emissions 

by Allen Best

Two of the world’s most high-profile ski towns are showing just how difficult reducing greenhouse gas emissions can be.

Whistler, the municipality, had aimed to knock down greenhouse gas emissions, or GHGs, 33 percent by 2020, as compared to 2007 levels. Aspen, the municipality, in 2005 had adopted a comparable goal.

Both have ratcheted down GHGs, just not near enough.Whistler’s GHG profile has shrunk 8.7 percent compared to the 2007 benchmark. Even better, the per-capita decrease was 5.3 percent. But because of increased population growth, the community altogether has been backsliding. Emissions have actually gained in the last three years.

Aspen knocked down its carbon footprint by 7 percent between 2004 and 2014. A new accounting to be done next year will likely show even deeper cuts have been achieved, says  Chris Menges, a climate planner for Aspen’s city government.

But to hit the city’s 2020 target would require a 6.6 percent reduction each year for the next three years. It won’t happen, he told his city council last week.

Give both towns credit. They’ve done much. Aspen Electric, a major supplier of the community, achieved carbon-neutral status in 2015. Aided by a non-profit group called Community Office for Resource Efficiency, public buildings, businesses, and homes have become more energy efficient.. Ridership on Aspen’s buses and those in the Roaring Fork Valley has grown.

In Whistler, an affordable housing project built as athletes’ housing for the 2012 Olympics uses waste heat from sewage treatment to provide space and water heat. Emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, have been contained from an old landfill. In 2010, the ski area got behind a new run-of-the-river hydroelectric plant in Fitzsimmons Creek. That allows Whistler Blackcomb to produce as much electricity as it consumes.

Still, these are passing grades, not A’s.

Looking deeper into the future, the storyline darkens. By 2050, both Aspen and Whistler have vowed reductions of 80 percent. But if population growth in Aspen continues and reductions continue at the current pace, says Menges, the community will have only reduced its GHG footprint 3.5 percent by mid-century.

Evidence continues to pile up

Civilization will not rise or fall depending upon what Aspen and Whistler get done. But because they are high-profile towns, its leaders and residents educated and engaged, their laggard pace is even more concerning. These are communities that early in the last decade, well before Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” came out, had declared these serous goals.

The evidence that has tumbled in since then has done nothing to reduce the imperative for changing how we live. The greenhouse effect is no mere hypothesis, but a full-blow theory that explains much of what is being observed. Almost every year come new for global temperatures, and glaciers continue to melt even more rapidly than predicted.

Oceans pose the most worrisome evidence. According to “Chasing Coral,” a new movie, the temperature are equivalent of a person having 102 degree temperature when 98.6 is normal. Oceans have absorbed 90 percent of the heat and 25 percent of the carbon dioxide.

The problem has never been completely about what is evident now. Scientists always warned that effects would be delayed, like the effects of a life-long lousy diet suddenly erupting at age 65 with sharp pains to the chest.

Ocean levels have risen 16 to 21 centimeters since 1900. Of that, 8 centimeters (3.1 inches) has occurred since 1993. Sea level may rise up to 8 feet by 2100, according to current projections. “The probability of such an extreme outcome cannot currently be assessed,” says Radley Horton, a climate scientist at Columbia University whose research focuses on extreme weather events, the limitations of climate models and adaptation to climate change.

If the precise risk cannot be given, it still should concern everybody, even those who live at higher elevations. Customers of ski towns mostly  live in coastal cities. Beyond that, imagine the unsettling problem of refugees if cities like Miami are put at risk, a picture that Jeff Goodell paints in his new book, “The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World.”

If Goodell’s book title sounds apocalyptic, he seems relatively mild-mannered compared with the always stern writing of Bill McKibben. “If we don’t win very quickly on climate change, then we will never win,” he says in an essay in Rolling Stone called “Winning Slowly is the Same as Losing.”

McKibben makes the case that a pathway to a low- or no-carbon future can now be seen. He brooks no tolerance for delay. Getting there can’t wait until 2075. “Indeed, the decisions we make in 2025 will matter much less than the ones we make in the next few years. The leverage is now.”

Role of ski towns

Ski towns have an outsized role in this debate. Their high profiles give them an opportunity to speak to influential people. Aspen drew national attention in 2005 when it adopted its climate change manifesto, the Canary Initiative.

But the influence is proportionate to the genuine effort exerted and success achieved. Otherwise, it’s just posturing.

Daniel Kreeger, executive director of the Association of Climate Change Officers, a national organization with whom Aspen and other Colorado ski towns are affiliated, points to the difficulty of completely recalculating energy systems.

“Once you get past trimming the fat of efficiency, you have to go through a substantial change in behavior or a substantial redesign of operations in some way, shape or form. That is going to be complicated under the best of circumstances,” he says. He argues for having the right amount of people, with the necessary skills and resources, devoted to the challenge.

Too, ski towns can only do so much on their own. Their reductions need to be part of state and national efforts. They do not, for example have their own car-manufacturing plants.

Major changes on the horizon may help ski towns meet targets. The carbon footprint from the electrical sector has rapidly been improving.  British Columbia gets most of its electricity from hydroelectricity, but Colorado ski towns—even Aspen—remain tied at the hip to coal-fired plants for their electricity. Such plants are now being closed in droves across North America and remaining plants, if still operational, used far less as the economics of renewables become better and better. If the economics of energy storage improve substantially, even natural gas combustion can be curbed.

Transportation in 2015 overtook electrical production as the leading cause of emissions. But electrification of transportation can ratchet down transport GHGs. Some experts predict six-fold increase in sales of electric vehicles during the next 5 years in the United States. It’s not just Tesla. General Motors plans to end its production of internal-combustion engines in the next few years. With thoughtful time-of-use charging rates, fueling of EVs can be paired efficiently with renewable generation.

In August, the Economist magazine proclaimed the imminent demise of the internal-combustion engine. For the sake of the planet, it can’t come soon enough.

And not least, major businesses and hundreds of cities across North America have now embraced significant climate goals, as Whistler and Aspen did more than a decade ago. The argument can be made that this enlarged movement can help bring ski towns closer to their targets.

They’ve done much

In Aspen, buildings are responsible for 56 percent of the community carbon shadow. (residential 31 percent, commercial 25 percent). Ground transportation follows at 19 percent, the airport and airplanes at 15 percent, and the landfill 11 percent.

Aspen’s new climate action plan identifies 76 actions across six sectors that can be launched during the next three years. None looks easy or simple. No one, two or three things will get Aspen or any other community to its goals.

In Whistler, transportation—mostly from personal vehicles—is responsible for 56 percent of GHGs, followed by natural gas consumption—presumably to heat buildings—at 34 percent.

Whistler has done much and plans more. Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden lays out the municipality’s took kit: “We have a very good transit system here, but we can improve it. We are doing that with an extended bus schedule this winter.”

A new program allows up to three children to take the bus if accompanied by a fare-paying adult. During summer, transit was free on weekends and holidays. For local employees, cost of bus fares has been further reduced. There’s more of her list—and more coming.

Arthur De Jong of Whistler Blackcomb talks with home-builder Matheo Dürfeld at a passive house under construction in Whistler. Photo/Allen Best

These programs have twin parents. They seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, says Wilhelm-Morden, but they also seek to reduce traffic congestion. “We wanted to encourage people to get out of their cars, thereby reducing both congestion and GHGs.”

As for buildings, which are responsible for 34 percent of GHGs, she sees further gains coming in the province-wide BC Energy Step Code. Whistler may push harder than the provincial code requires. “We will be looking at ways to elevate it in serious detail in 2018,” she says.

Waste diversion is another strategy with twin drivers. As Whistlers’ garbage is hauled all the way to a landfill along the Columbia River Gorge in Washington state, there’s expense in the transportation. But if organic waste can be removed, there’s also a reduction in greenhouse gases. A law recently adopted expands diversion requirements to all commercial and strata buildings.

Wilhelm-Morden describes emissions reductions as a “critical issue for us, of course, because we are at risk as a destination. We need to have stable snow and whether patterns, so everybody has a vested interest in doing what they can to achieve reductions in GHGs and reduced energy consumption.”

An ironic motivation for action

Arthur De Jong, who oversees sustainability efforts on behalf of Vail Resorts at Whistler Blackcomb, suggests that there may be ironic hope as a result of the presidency of Donald Trump. Trump wants to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, but that push has activated businesses and local governments to push back.

“We are not getting the job done—yet. But I believe the motivation is now there that never existed before,” he says.

De Jong also contends that decarbonizing energy will also provide valuable health-care benefits, particularly in cities, where about 70 percent of the world’s population lives. “There’s a very pragmatic health-care need to resolve,” he says.

In Aspen, Menges makes much the same point. Most of the measures that reduce GHG emissions will also enhance quality of life for Aspen residents, he says.

McKibben, not one to smile without good cause, puts a grimace on the ending of his Rolling Stone essay by paraphrasing Martin Luther King’s famous quote about the long arc of the universe bending toward justice. That may work for political fights, says McKibben, but not for climate change.

“The arc of the physical universe appears to be short, and it bends toward heat,” he writes. “Win soon or suffer the consequences.”

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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4 Responses to Emissions reductions and the struggles of Aspen and Whistler

  1. Michael Beckley says:

    Fantastic bit of writing AB…….My takeaway is bravo these two for trying but sadly without seismic changes (as you talk about with electric cars and the migration from coal) changes such as Aspen and Whistler won’t win the battle. My huge concern is I don’t believe the planet with it huge and growing population just doesn’t understand the immediacy of the peril of Climate issues. Our planets health is circling the drain and there’s no plug even in sight. On a petty side note please have your crack editor check the cut and pasted few sentences as my brain exploded trying to figure out a man of letters uch as yourself wrote them?

    The pace of extreme weather events poses questions if there part in this climatic shift can still be debated.perhaps the sheer bulk of extreme weather events.

  2. paul says:

    This is such entitled Glop.

  3. Allen Best says:

    Thanks, Michael. I need what some news sites have at the bottom of stories, a link to notify somebody if a typo or other error is noted. Such errors seem to get by more easily in the digital age. You’re absolutely right about the lack of concern relative to the size of the problem. Polls such as that conducted by Yale earlier this year reveal that even in Colorado, there’s strong agreement about the human role in rising temperatures but it rates something like No. 19 on the priority list of concerns. That disparity suggests a yawning gap of understanding of how impregnated our natural systems are with this added heat in ways we don’t yet fully understand.

  4. Phil Nelson says:

    The efforts of Whistler and Aspen, the most motivated of cities to act to halt warming, warn us that the best of local efforts are not enough. We badly need national measures to limit emission of carbon dioxide. People and institutions respond to prices, and a price on carbon will bring about a response. A citizens group (Citizens Climate Lobby), Republican leadership (the Climate Leadership Council), university presidents (30 of them), U.S. Senators (Lindsey Graham (R) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D)), countries (Canada) and even some gas and oil companies (Royal Dutch Shell and BP) call for a price on carbon. What more will it take to get Congress to act?

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