Aspen’s race to net zero a long haul
Latest greenhouse gas emissions report shows a 23% reduction in past five years but energy consumption in buildings and community’s waste production still problematic
While greenhouse gas emissions within the city of Aspen have been reduced 23% in the past five years, the municipal government has a long way to go to meet its ambitious goal to get to net zero by 2050.
That’s according to the city’s greenhouse gas emissions report that took measure of energy use, pollution and waste output in Aspen 2019 and 2020.
Residential and commercial buildings accounted for the greatest amount of emissions, comprising 57% of the total, according to the city’s report released last week.
Transportation emissions were the second largest contributor, with 15% of Aspen’s emissions coming from aviation and 11% from on-road transportation.
The amount of waste being generated within the city translates into 16% of Aspen’s total emissions in 2020 and 15% in 2019, with almost all of it coming from the landfill.
On average, 17.3 pounds of waste is produced per capita every day in Aspen, which is four times the national average of 4.5 pounds a day. However, the report states, “this per capita value only reflects Aspen’s full-time resident population, and doesn’t consider the fact that Aspen is a tourist-based economy. Therefore, all waste produced by out-of-town visitors is attributed to residents.”
Construction and demolition waste accounts for 58% of the tonnage being deposited into the Pitkin County Solid Waste Center, and total emissions from community-generated solid waste have increased 2% since 2017, which is the last time the city commissioned a GHG emissions report.
It states that Aspen residents generated almost 26 tons of emissions per capita in 2020 and while that is higher than the national average of approximately 20 tons per person, the influx of population that Aspen experiences during the summer and winter tourism months is not reflected in the per capita total.
Tim Karfs, the city’s sustainability programs administrator, said he recognizes reducing waste is a key component to reaching the municipal government’s goal of eliminating GHG emissions.
“I look at the waste totals and we’ve got work to do there,” he said, adding he and the team in the city’s climate action office on Monday will present options for organic waste diversion ordinances.
The emissions report will be used to inform Aspen City Council on policies it may consider in the future, as well as for the city’s climate action plan, which is due for an update in the coming year, Karfs said.
“I think it’s essential for staff’s long-range planning and it’s a baseline for City Council’s climate action goals,” he said.
Last fall council agreed to adopting updated climate action goals and a waste reduction plan that includes mandatory composting and reducing construction and demolition waste.
Ordinances related to those efforts are expected to come in front of council this year.
Council this spring will consider an ordinance related to a program called Building IQ that will require commercial and multi-family buildings to benchmark energy and water use.
Secondly, it will require the buildings’ owners to work toward achieving a performance standard and reducing energy consumption.
While energy consumption in buildings accounts for the highest generation of GHG emissions, residential and commercial energy emissions have decreased significantly, the report indicates.
Residential emissions decreased 30% and commercial emissions decreased 18% in the past five years, according to the report.
“This can largely be credited with the adoption of renewable energy policies and programs by the city’s electric utility providers: Aspen Electric has transitioned to 100% renewable energy and Holy Cross has been actively greening its fuel mix over the past several years,” the report reads.
Natural gas generated the most emissions at 32% of the community’s total, followed by electricity at 26%.
The city has been tracking GHG emissions since 2004 and is considered a leader in fighting climate change with its policies adopted over the years, according to Karfs.
“I think Aspen is a leader in this space and we have secured substantial wins since 2004,” he said.
Council last fall adopted new climate goals based on updated science-based targets established by a nonprofit organization called ICLEI.
So rather than reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, which was a goal established 14 years ago, the city is aiming for a 63% reduction by 2030 and a 100% reduction — net zero — by 2050.
Councilman Ward Hauenstein, who sits on the board of directors for the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, said he was recently informed that 81% of aviation emissions come from private jets and 19% from commercial planes at Sardy Field.
Within the transportation sector, aviation is the greatest emitter, accounting for 58% of transportation emissions in 2020 and 57% in 2019, according to the report.
Since 2017, aviation emissions have increased by nearly 63%.
Local officials have very little control over that type of activity and with the consumptive lifestyles of the rich and famous here, getting to net zero will be challenging, Hauenstein acknowledged.
“I do not have high confidence in that,” he said Friday.
Karfs also acknowledged that the goals are lofty.
“It’s ambitious but it’s necessary,” he said.
The report’s introduction cites the 2020 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issuing a “code red for humanity,” warning that human activities are changing the climate at an unprecedented rate. The report states that, “unless rapid and deep reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions occur,” global warming will exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius in the coming decades.
“The climate crisis could have long-term impacts on the local economy, environment and human health in Aspen,” the city’s GHG emissions report reads. “The region could see temperature increases between 2.5-6.5 degrees Fahrenheit; hotter and drier summers; and greater amounts of winter precipitation falling in the form of rain rather than snow.
“Observed changes in regional conditions, such as the fact that Aspen is experiencing 31 more frost-free days per year than it was between 1980-1989, provide evidence that climate change is already manifesting itself locally,” the report continues. “As is the case globally, the degree to which Aspen will be affected by climate change over the medium and long term is directly tied to current and future emissions trajectories.”
The most recent accounting of GHG emissions inventories is a regional effort led by the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, with the city, Pitkin County, and the towns of Basalt and Snowmass Village participating.
Those governments have not released their results yet, according to Karfs.
CORE oversees the contract with Lotus Engineering and Sustainability, LLC to do the GHG emissions reports, and the city’s contribution is $19,000 for its document.
Phi Filerman, CORE’s community sustainability manager, said the other jurisdictions should be completed soon, and they will provide a picture of both the individual community’s and the region’s emissions so that officials can consider if there are opportunities for more meaningful impacts.
“All of our communities are stepping up,” she said, “and if anyone has the ability to tackle these challenges it is us.”
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