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Can Local Governments Solve Global Warming?

Local governments vow to press ahead with emissions reductions regardless of the outcome at the upcoming international Copenhagen talks. Can those efforts carry the day?
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BOULDER, Colo. Here's what this affluent Rocky Mountain city of 100,000 does about a revenue shortfall in the darkest economic hour since the Great Depression:

It raises its carbon tax.

The city just west of Denver was the first in the nation to slap a levy on carbon emissions so it could meet Kyoto Protocol obligations. As it became apparent this summer the city was slipping and needed more cash to revitalize emissions-cutting programs, town leaders raised the modest tax - tacked to city utility bills - to its maximum.

With diplomatic efforts to seal a post-Kyoto accord approaching a decidedly uncertain fate this December in Copenhagen, state and local leaders pushing their own emissions reductions efforts see only one choice: Proceed.

The number of cities and regional governments undertaking this transition to a low-carbon economy is growing. These efforts, leaders vow, will continue whatever the outcome of political debates in Copenhagen, Brussels or Washington, D.C.

There are, in other words, two trains heading out of the station: Those driving local change are confident their programs will continue to accelerate even if global discussions get waylaid in Copenhagen next month.

"The community is on board with this," said Sarah Van Pelt, author of Boulder's climate action plan who is now a special projects coordinator for the city's environmental division. "Right now our biggest detractors are saying why aren't we doing enough."

San Diego is tying recycling, water use and energy efficiency to climate; Berkeley, Calif. has rewritten property rules to boost solar installations; New York and California are shifting state policy to encourage a new, low-carbon economy. Twenty-nine other states have some sort of a renewable fuel standard, requiring utilities to mix a certain percentage of those fuels into their power mix.

"If nothing happens on the federal level, it's unfortunate but it's not the end of the world," said Cara Martinson, legislative analyst for the California State Association of Counties. "We'll start to see a lot more of these regional activities. It'll start to be a bottom-up approach if the national framework breaks down."

Need for a global solution

Whether these local efforts can produce the reductions required to avert the worst climate disruption is much debated. Many climate experts are skeptical. The necessary cuts are substantial, they require economy-wide transformation and the initiatives need to be policed by a fixed, enforceable global treaty.

"It's hard to see how they could be sufficient," said Doug Boucher, director of tropical forests and climate initiative at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The Copenhagen talks are seen as crucial for several reasons. It's the date the international community - after years of negotiations - set as the time to draw up a comprehensive global solution to climate disruption.

Industry and governments need to know where emissions targets are headed post-Kyoto. December is the last chance to get a treaty ratified and in place before Kyoto expires in 2012, said Jennifer Morgan, director of the World Resources Institute's climate and energy team who has been involved in global climate talks for more than a decade.

Local efforts help, she agreed. But the global problem needs a global solution.

"It's a huge problem around the share of the commons in the atmosphere, and it's a very large economic issue," she said. "Countries need to have a sense that other main contributors to the problem - and their competitors - are moving together toward a solution.

"It's more than just the sum of the parts."

California, even more than Boulder, exemplifies local determination to curb emissions regardless of national or international stalemate. The state of 37 million people agreed in 2006 to tackle global warming. It has a mandatory greenhouse gas reporting system covering 90 percent of the state's industrial emissions. By law, the state has to ratchet those emissions down to 1990 levels by 2020 - a 24 percent cut from business-as-usual projections.

But scientists say the world needs to slash emissions 80 percent by 2050 to avoid catastrophic climate change. Boulder hasn't met Kyoto's modest target of a 7 percent cut over 1990 levels despite its tax and one of the nation's most eco-conscious populations, though city leaders say they expect to get close.

California faced a $26 billion spending hole earlier this summer that it filled in part by pulling money from local governments. While the state managed to protect many of its climate programs, local efforts aren't so lucky.



"A lot of this stuff might be put on the far back burner for a while," Martinson acknowledged.

California's municipalities, in fact, aren't seen as "agents of reduction" under the state's framework. There's no emissions bar under which cities must slip by a certain date.

"We are looking to forward-thinking municipalities to come up with innovative solutions," said Stanley Young, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board's climate programs.

"They're more nimble, certainly, than the state. In a sense they're able to be the test bed for these new approaches."

But at this point, he said, "it's all voluntary."

Nuts and bolts of emissions cuts

Still, cities are laying an important foundation that must be in place regardless of the target ultimately set by global leaders: They're figuring out the nuts and bolts of how to cut emissions.

"Demand-side reduction requires sophisticated implementation. It needs to show up at the local level and show up for the end-user," said Steve Pomerance, the former Boulder City Councilman who helped write Boulder's carbon tax earlier in the decade.

It's no surprise that Boulder would take the lead here.

The city is affluent - near the top 10 percent in the United States in per-capita income, according to the U.S. Census Bureau - and brainy. The University of Colorado, the National Center for Atmospheric Research and several other research institutions make the city a hub for science and innovation, repeatedly propelling the city to the top of Forbes' annual list of America's smartest cities. (link: http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/250167)

It's also a green city, with a network of dedicated bike and hiking trails and the nation's oldest open-space program hemming development. Trails, sun, snow and mountains draw a young, outdoorsy demographic that boasts one of the most liberal voting records in the West.

In 1982 the city limited building heights that shaded lots to the north to preserve solar access on the neighboring lot. In 1987, long before most city councils had heard of global warming, the city reassessed its water plan to account for lower runoff expected in a warmer climate. It bought a crucial upstream reservoir to secure extra storage.

In 2002, with the Bush Administration stalling, Boulder decided it would meet the Kyoto protocol, and the council quickly concluded it needed a way to pay for the necessary climate change programs. Many argued for a fee, which didn't require voter approval.

Pomerance, a key player in both the solar shading law and the reservoir purchase, pushed for a tax. "Go to the voters. Say straight out here's what you want to do," Pomerance said in an interview. "That way you have a mandate. (Otherwise) you're always swimming upstream politically."

In 2006, 60 percent of Boulder's voters approved the tax.

And the city discovered the hard work had just begun.

The tax is modest - $11 a year tacked to a typical household's energy bill. This summer the council raised the levy to its maximum, $21 per year for the average household. It will bring in $1.8 million next year.

The city offered home energy audits. It pushed biofuels and rooftop solar. It discounted energy-efficient lighting, furnaces and insulation. And six years in, the city found emissions have grown instead of shrunk.

That's the true difficulty in solving climate change, Pomerance says: World leaders can agree on targets. They can agree on a cap. But then what?

"That's just the first eighth-inch on top of a 10-foot pile of work. There's all these other pieces that have to go along with it," Pomerance said. "I'm a local politico. All I'm looking at is the implementation - 'OK, that's fine, now what do we do?' "

San Diego has taken a whack at that question, too.

Eighteen months ago a coalition of environmental groups, utilities, and government agencies decided to combine their various conservation and efficiency campaigns into one umbrella marketing effort - Stand for Less.

Nowhere on the campaign's website or advertising materials are the words "global warming" or "greenhouse gas emissions." Instead, the focus is on using less, recycling more, saving water, consolidating errands.

The goal, said Mark Oldfield, a spokesman for the state's Department of Conservation, which is coordinating the effort, is to see whether by tackling these very concrete efforts, a more abstract goal - California's climate change objectives - can be achieved.

"It's a very simple metric," Oldfield said. "We didn't want to make it brain surgery. We wanted to look at it and see clear-cut numbers."



The program is in its infancy. It has set no targets, and its survival is questionable: After spending $1 million on start-up and an initial media campaign, the department saw its advertising budget slashed as California worked its way out of a budget hole.

"Our mandate is somewhat limited," Oldfield acknowledged. "We can't impact a lot of things directly."

"But we're hoping that by targeting recycling and other things, we can impact indirectly some bigger things."

And this is where an international agreement could truly help, said Morgan, WRI's climate director.

"Local initiatives working very specifically and practically on engaging unions and companies and policy makers in making those shifts are absolutely essential," she said during a telephone interview from the Bonn climate talks earlier this summer.

"You also need to have a national policy. It makes the local job easier - 'If you go for renewables, then you get these tax incentives.' "

"And on the international level, you get a level of ambition that the country is going to work on this with the rest of the world," she added.
"It's really about making people see the interdependencies that exist."

Plenty of work

Local leaders certainly don't mean global efforts should be underestimated.

Back in Boulder, city leaders already are looking for goals beyond 2012, when Kyoto expires. Its ability to establish a post-Kyoto target, said Jonathan Koehn, the city's environmental affairs manager, will depend "most certainly" on the city's ability to decarbonize the energy supply.

And that will require an international push.

"We can meet our current target with energy efficiency (measures) and Boulder residents making differences in their everyday lives," he said. "But to move beyond that we have to have move on a different playing field.

"It doesn't mean we stop the local efforts," Koehn added. But no agreement in Copenhagen would prolong the onset of "meaningful and widespread" changes in the near future.

Of course, that near future holds plenty of work - and change - for local governments - with or without a framework.

"The best we can expect from Copenhagen is targets," Pomerance said. "It doesn't solve problems. It just forces you to start figuring out how to deal with them."

"The high-level targets need to be connected to plans on the ground," he added.

"What's going to happen is Congress puts in cap-and-trade, and they're going to crank (carbon limits) down by 2050 - or hopefully sooner - and issue zero permits to coal plants. And the utilities will say, 'Well, what's step two?' "

"That's where the issue is going to show up. What it's going to eventually come down is plan," Pomerance said. "And what it's ultimately going to come down to is what are cities going to do, what are counties going to do, what are states going to do."

This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.

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