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Denver targets global warming

By Stuart Steers (Rocky Mountain News) - June 11, 2007

Denver is gearing up to fight global warming, and residents may soon be asked to make personal sacrifices to help save the planet.

The new plan is aimed at making Denver a national leader in reducing gas emissions that have been linked to global warming, giving a major push to alternative energy, stepping up recycling and changing building codes to encourage energy conservation.

But the proposal also contains some ideas that may be unpopular, such as penalizing heavy users of electricity and natural gas and basing auto insurance premiums on the number of miles traveled.

The ambitious goal is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 4.4 million metric tons by 2020, the equivalent of eliminating two small coal-fired power plants or taking 500,000 cars off the road.

Mayor John Hickenlooper has made the “climate action plan” a centerpiece of his second term in office. More than two dozen people from business and community groups met for several months with city staff to hammer out the plan. Many of them fear Colorado will be slammed hard by global warming, with more droughts and forest fires.

“There was a sense we have to be bold,” said Beth Conover, director of Greenprint Denver, the city office that coordinated the plan. “What’s the cost of inaction to our water supply and tourism industry?”

Much of the city’s plan involves finding ways to encourage energy conservation by mandating efficiency standards for new construction and setting standards for older homes that would be enforced when the home is sold.

The city also would give incentives for car pooling and the use of hybrids and other low-polluting vehicles, possibly by giving them priority in parking.

To cut back on use of landfills – methane gas from landfills is a major contributor to global warming – the plan would encourage recycling and charge residents for the amount of trash they throw away.

Denver may ask voters to approve higher rates for “excessive” use of electricity and natural gas. The plan also floats the idea of using insurance premiums to penalize people who drive long distances.

“You can think of them as penalties or you can think of them as market signals,” said Conover. “There’s some choice involved.”

$10-a-month trash

Recycling plays a crucial role in Denver’s plan. It would join other Colorado cities that already have moved to aggressively to foster recycling.

Fort Collins, for one, has set an ambitious goal of diverting 50 percent of its waste from landfills. As part of the effort, the city recently banned throwing away old computers, TVs, cell phones and other electrical items, requiring that they be recycled instead.

Fort Collins also has mandated that people who leave extra bags of trash for pickup be charged by the bag.

“The most remarkable difference is that you used to see people with 15 bags of lawn clippings on the street; you don’t see that anymore,” said Susie Gordon, senior environmental planner for the city.

Gordon said the city estimates that almost 30 percent of its waste is now being recycled.

Currently, Denver doesn’t charge for trash collection. The plan suggests a $10-a-month fee per household that would fund the replacement of alley trash bins with garbage cans. That would allow the city to charge households for extra garbage pickup.

The climate action plan is just a proposal, but Denver hopes to start putting it in place by the end of the year. Much of it promises to be controversial.

“I want to hear more about how they expect this to play out,” said City Councilwoman Jeanne Faatz. “When government mandates the stick on private industry it concerns me. I’m not sure you have to manipulate markets to bring about desired results.”

But others say the time has come for Denver to do its part to avert a potential disaster that could affect every human being.

“This is not a trend or a city competition,” said Benita Duran, a CH2M Hill executive who co- chaired the group that put together the plan. “It’s a global matter of serious concern.”

‘Era of denial over’

Denver is joining a host of cities that are taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including Seattle, Portland and Chicago. More than 525 mayors – including Hickenlooper – have signed the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, pledging to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2012.

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, frustrated with the Bush administration’s opposition to ratifying the international Kyoto treaty on emissions, began the effort two years ago.

“There was an absence of federal leadership on the issue,” said John Healy of the Seattle office of sustainability and environment. “Now the era of denial is over and we’re entering the era of action.”

Denver’s plan is similar to Seattle’s, which was adopted last year. Seattle is aiming for a 7 percent reduction in global warming pollution by 2012. But thus far, Seattle has chosen not to impose penalties on heavy users of fossil fuels.

Seattle’s publicly owned electric utility was able to achieve a goal of zero greenhouse gas emissions, mainly through the use of hydroelectric power from the area’s many dams.

The city also has encouraged residents to use biodiesel fuel – made from soybeans – in their furnaces, and biodiesel is being used in buses and at the airport.

In Portland, Ore., officials estimate per capita emissions have fallen 12.5 percent since 1993, the year Portland became the first American city to adopt a goal of reducing greenhouse gases.

The Denver plan will be considered by the City Council this summer, and the Greenprint Denver advisory council will spend the next several months talking about the plan with local business and environmental groups. So far, they say the reception has been mainly positive.

“It’s a fast-moving issue that’s gained a lot of support,” said Duran. “More people are paying attention than ever before.”

Points in proposal

Denver may ask residents to make personal sacrifices to combat global warming. Ideas being considered:

• Making heavy users of electricity and natural gas pay more

•Charging residents who throw away a lot of trash

• Setting energy-efficiency standards for new construction

• Giving carpoolers and hybrids priority for parking

What’s next?

The plan will be presented to community groups in the next several months, and the City Council will hold hearings this summer. Denver’s goal is to have the Climate Action Plan in place by the end of the year.