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by Allen Best

In 2004, Aspen drew national and even international attention when it launched a greenhouse gas program called the Canary Initiative. In this time of smoky skies and summer heat that has actually surpassed that of Florida, city officials have decided those original goals for reduction of emissions fell short.

“We don’t have any fires right here, right now, but the impact of fires across the West, the drought, the rising temperatures that everyone is suffering from—these provide very tangible examples of what we can expect to see a lot more of if we don’t take some very significant and aggressive actions,” says CJ Oliver, the city’s director of environmental health and sustainability.

Climate change has ceased being largely of the future, as was the case when Aspen set its original goals. It’s happening now.

Aspen’s 2004 goals were for 30% reduction by 2030 and 80% by 2050.

Those goals now fall short of what scientists, with increasing alarm, have been saying will be necessary to keep climates from around the world from going off the rails. The temperature increase needs to stay at 1.5 degrees C, they say—and we’re roaring toward that.

Aspen is not the world, of course, but it does like to think of itself as a leader. There’s a sense of noblesse oblige premised on the community’s specialness that is reaffirmed constantly in ways, both good and perhaps otherwise. Barely a month goes by that one of its well-heeled visitors is not mentioned in the national and international news.

Two examples from just the last week: Emerging from his trip to outer space, Jeff Bezos was wearing a cowboy hat that he purchased a half-dozen years ago at an Aspen millinery. And two of the three agents of the United Arab Emirates who were trying to influence former President Donald Trump’s Middle East policy had Aspen connections.

This is from Big Pivots No. 42. For a free subscription, see the box at upper right.

Since embracing the original goals of the Canary Initiative (a name no longer used), Aspen has done modestly well. A chart presented to the city council at a July 6 session showed that between 2004 and 2017, taxable sales in the city grew 38%, population rose 8%, and the greenhouse gas emissions attributed to the city residents and visitors had dropped 20% by 2017.

This reduction has been based, in part, on success by the municipal utility that serves half or more of the city. Aspen Electric managed to secure 100% of electricity from renewable resources in 2015. Holy Cross Energy, which serves the balance of the city, aims to achieve 100% renewables by 2030 and has been driving down the carbon intensity of its electricity and adding renewables, now 40%.

But even if a study of emissions in 2020 shows Aspen coming close to achieving the target, as Oliver suspects will happen, the pace isn’t fast enough.

“Aspen’s GHG forecast shows that the community will fall significantly short of its 2050 GHG reduction targets even if its electricity supply becomes entirely renewable, as planned,” said a memo prepared for a July 6 city council meeting.

The staff recommends actions in three primary areas: reducing landfill waste, electrifying transportation, and tightening the emissions caused by buildings.

Landfill & waste

Aspen has two reasons for focusing on landfill waste. First, there’s the hard reality that the community is running out of space in its existing landfill, located 7 miles down-valley from the town. It will be filled in 2 or 3 years. An application to expand the landfill, lengthen the capacity to 8 to 10 years at current volumes, is pending. Beyond that, the next options are landfills 50 and 75 miles downvalley, west of Glenwood Springs.

A second reason are the emissions associated with the landfill. The city estimates that emissions associated with disposal and transportation of Aspen’s waste cause 9% of the city’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

City staff has identified two trash streams that might be squeezed. One is construction materials, which constitutes 60% to 70% of the landfill waste. Of the balance, about 40% comes from organic matter, primarily food trimmings and other refuse. Aspen wants to institute programs to shrink both.

How this will be done isn’t entirely clear. Aspen isn’t building much new housing stock, although there is some. Mostly, though, it’s housing remodels. Every new owner wants a different countertop, a new style of cabinet. Where could the old ones be diverted? The city is looking at possible markets in Grand Junction and Montrose.

As for diverting organic matter, a 2015 study concluded that about 40% of that waste could be diverted. But Fort Collins, Boulder, San Francisco, and Portland found that voluntary composting isn’t enough, according to a memo issued by the city council, and that  mandates were necessary to increase diversion rates. The biggest gains, says Oliver, lie in working with food vendors, as Aspen has 100 eateries.

Without reducing material landfilled and diverting organics, says the memo, Aspen will struggle to achieve its goals for emission reductions.


The city’s transportation fleet consists primarily of gasoline and diesel vehicles. It has just two electric vehicles. This needs to change, says the city staff, first on passenger vehicles before taking up electrification of medium to heavy duty vehicles.


This is perhaps the heaviest lift, because it’s harder and more expensive to retrofit existing buildings.

Aspen’s sustainability staff sees two approaches. One is to accelerate benchmarking of buildings of more than 10,000 square feet. Detailed numbers of energy use are kept then used in comparisons with other buildings of similar size or energy efficient building, nudging building owners to undertake retrofits that reduce energy consumption.

Colorado made benchmarking a requirement for buildings of more than 50,000 square feet.

Another component is beneficial electrification, a relatively new phrase that means replacing fossil fuel use in buildings, including space heating and warming of water, with electricity. Again, this is easier done with new buildings than retrofitting existing buildings.

Oliver says that the city may seek to demonstrate this in attainable housing projects or other municipally-sponsored building projects. He says the city staff is cautious about trying to move too rapidly until the effects on the supporting electrical infrastructure are fully understand and it is clear that the infrastructure can accommodate increased demand.

In this, Aspen echoes what Xcel Energy said in a position paper it issued last November.

Building electrification, says Oliver, is a long-term goal. We’re not going to electrify Aspen in the next 5 years,” he says. “I think it’s a 50-year project.”

Race to Zero

Aspen council members expressed interest this week in a program offered by ICLEI, global network for more than 2,500 local and regional governments, called Race to Zero. Oliver says the organization offers tools for Aspen to use to help drive down emissions.

Aspen hasn’t completely figured out its agenda, but there’s a sharper focus now on the next 8 to 9 years, with a goal of much more rapidly driving down carbon. It goes far beyond decarbonizing electricity.

Oliver says that the wildfires of recent years provide visual stimulus for more aggressive action. The heat of June has likewise raised eyebrows.

Winter has been shortening, altogether 30 days since 1980. But that’s a creep. It’s been impossible to ignore what has happened lately, including the 95 degree temperatures of June, a time of year many locals consider the best of times.

“It’s hot, it’s dry, the fires are worse, they’re more frequent—all these things are tied together by a common thread,” Oliver says.

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