Paul Andersen: Paying carbon “indulgences” in Aspen
August 26, 2018
Wasting energy in Aspen is a rich man's privilege. Just buy a carbon indulgence from Aspen or Pitkin County, and your sins are forgiven.
Here's how it works: An Aspen homeowner decides they cannot live without an oversized heated outdoor hot tub, a lavish spa and an acre of snowmelt surfaces. But such excessive energy use is not in compliance with city or county energy-efficiency standards.
No problem. The gluttonous energy user simply pays a fee into the Renewable Energy Mitigation Plan (REMP) fund to exonerate their extravagances. Those funds, managed by the Community Office of Resource Efficiency (CORE), are then handed out in grants for energy efficiency offsets to those who may not otherwise be able to afford them.
Such was the brainchild of Randy Udall, who helped establish CORE and REMP, and who described the process as the Robin Hood approach of taking from the rich and giving to the poor.
One person's carbon glut becomes another person's carbon reduction, something I benefitted from over 20 years ago when REMP funds put thermal solar panels on my roof to help cut my propane bills and shrink my carbon footprint.
REMP is a clever means for reducing carbon emissions by assessing climate costs that taint the green hue of Aspen's environmental purity. Make carbon emissions costly, the idea goes, and you discourage carbon-spewing amenities.
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It sounds pretty clean except that the REMP fund is now engorged to a record high of $7 million. Aspen City Council recently questioned whether CORE can actually channel that much money into viable offsets.
The question should not be how to spend $7 million. The question is why the fund has grown so large. The answer is that REMP is not a deterrent to carbon emissions. In some cases, it may actually be an incentive. Why deprive oneself of a super-sized hot tub or a snowmelt patio when you can buy your way out of social responsibility?
The REMP fund becomes an "indulgence" akin to what Martin Luther protested with the Catholic Church. Indulgences made sinning easy — too easy — and it's the same in Aspen and Pitkin County where excessive energy use and high carbon emissions are the privilege of wealth.
For some, REMP payments may even be bragging rights for the wealth exhibited by skirting the moral and ethical implications of climate impacts. That dodge may have been pardonable when CORE and REMP were created 25 years ago, but not now. Wanton carbon pollution is no longer a negotiable sin.
CORE is doing what it can to assess fossil fools for their conspicuous consumption and luxurious waste. CORE knows the stakes are high as director Mona Newton wrote in a guest commentary (in today's Times):
"Climate change is not far off into the future. We can smell it and see it all around us in the form of wildfires and drought. Everyone's involvement is needed to help the community reduce our carbon emissions. There are mountains of work to do, and we know that."
Climate change is here and now, and if local governments are serious about it, they must either raise fees on excessive energy use so they are actually punitive to those who alter the climate for the sake of ridiculous creature comforts, or they should simply prohibit wasteful, climate-changing lifestyle choices.
Until that happens, the newspapers should publish the names of those who pay into REMP along with the amenities for which they buy indulgences. With accountability, energy hogs may not so willfully disavow social responsibility as yet another entitlement.
Individual wealth should not be a hall pass for evading moral and ethical obligations that all citizens must share, especially when so many people of modest means are conscientiously adjusting lifestyles to address climate as the global concern it is.
Those who use cash to cover their huge carbon footprints ought to feel a sting for exceeding reasonable limits and violating the community's environmental conscience, for which Aspen claims high ground.
Only when social responsibility and personal culpability are leveraged on Aspen's most privileged will carbon emissions and climate change be seriously addressed here. The REMP fund will only be successful when it drops to zero.
Paul Andersen's column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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