Thursday, March 12, 2009

Boulder is Proving Kyoto Critics Correct

If George W. Bush wasn't going to save the planet, then by golly Boulder was!

So the college town, like many other American cities, showed its determination to think locally and act globally (or is it think globally and act locally?) by mandating citywide greenhouse gas reductions fashioned after a Kyoto Treaty never ratified by the U.S.. City leaders may have harbored hopes that their grand gesture would shame the former president into finally signing on, even though critics said meeting the treaty's benchmarks (cutting greenhouse gas emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012) would be costly, unachievable and could cripple the U.S. economy.

And Boulder is proving the Kyoto critics right.

The effort (much like Kyoto itself) is turning out to be a complete flop, according to a recent report in the Boulder Daily Camera, except when it comes to extricating taxes from businesses and building a nice little climate change bureaucracy for the city. About 32 percent of the $869,000 in "carbon taxes" collected by the city in 2008 went to "staff and administrative costs," according to a summary in the Boulder Camera, which was more than the $263, 684 the city spent trying to boost residential energy efficiency (which moved it 0.60 toward its Kyoto goal).

So the city government has grown its carbon footprint, by adding personnel and providing them with energy-sucking office space and office equipment, even while lecturing the rest of Boulderites about their environmentally-incorrect lifestyle choices.

Despite seven years of effort and a significant expenditure of tax dollars, the outcomes have been disappointing across the board. And that has a little more realism infusing the debate. Writes the Camera:

"Last year, staff from Boulder’s Office of Environmental Affairs told the City Council that without more funding the city will only make it a third of the way to its emissions target.

Now the Kyoto clock is ticking, and Boulder’s City Council is considering whether to raise the city’s carbon tax, passed by voters in 2006 to pay for greenhouse gas reductions. But even if the tax is increased to the maximum rate approved by voters, the city is likely to get only two-thirds of the way to its 2012 goal if it sticks to the current strategy.

Watching Boulder, well-known for its progressive environmental regulations, struggle to reduce emissions on its own has some people wondering if hitting the Kyoto goal is possible — or even desirable.

“Efforts to meet the Kyoto targets are arbitrary, especially for cities, and mostly symbolic,” said Roger Pielke Jr., an environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado who is known for picking apart climate policy. “To the extent that cities engage in shenanigans like offset schemes, such efforts give the appearance of doing something while doing little or nothing, which is probably worse than doing nothing.”

Arguing about who will meet Kyoto and who won’t is a distraction, he said.

“It is a waste of time for Boulder to try and meet the Kyoto goals,” he said. “A far better strategy would be to set targets for carbon intensity of energy supply and efficiency gains, and then see how well we can meet these targets.”

But rather than admit they erred -- and admit, by extension, that Kyoto skeptics may have been right -- backers of the program, like all good zealots, argue for soldiering on, believing that increasing the carbon tax, boosting public education and adopting more coercive methods can still turn this into something more than a grand but empty gesture.

All that matters, really, is that they tried.

"And even if none of the 900-some “Kyoto cities” meet their emission targets, there is still power in signing the agreement, according to Annie Strickler, spokeswoman for ICLEI, Local Governments for Sustainability. As a group representing a quarter of all Americans, the mayors make a powerful lobby for state and federal climate policies.

“In general, what we’ve seen as one of the most important pieces of what local governments are doing is the leadership they’ve shown pushing this issue nationally and internationally,” Strickler said. “The U.S. has been absent on the issue of global warming. That void has been filled by local governments.”

Strickler said there are many roadblocks for many local governments trying to reduce emissions, including an inability to set fuel-economy standards for vehicles or regulate utilities. But, she said, it’s local governments who are educating people and laying the groundwork for their residents to support federal action on climate change. “They’ve inspired people and inspired action,” Strickler said. “It informs the changes that people make in their daily lives and also what they are willing to get behind.”

Boulder can perhaps take solace in the fact that few if any of the American cities that jumped aboard the "Kyoto cities" bandwagon have even come close to meeting their goals: 2007 study on the progress of "Kyoto cities". But as this study shows, few of the mayors who signed on gave much consideration to the practical or economic implications of what they were doing. It was all about "symbolism" and short-term partisan politics, since the vast majority of "Kyoto cities" were (and still are) run by Democrats, who couldn't resist the temptation to take shots at a Republican president.

But you can drop the whole thing now, Boulder. The Republican is out and a Democrat is in. The all powerful and all-benevolent Obama will save the planet, even if he has to break the back of the American economy to do it.

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