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What the struggles of Whistler and Aspen say about the challenge of curbing emissions

Whistler emissions a critical issue for resort

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Two of the world's highest-profile ski towns are showing just how difficult reducing greenhouse gas emissions can be.

Whistler, the municipality, had aimed to knock down greenhouse gas emissions, or GHGs, 33 per cent by 2020, as compared to 2007 levels. Aspen, the municipality, has a comparable goal.

Both have ratcheted down GHGs, just not enough. Aspen knocked down its carbon footprint by seven per cent between 2004 and 2014. Chris Menges, a climate planner for Aspen's city government, says a new accounting to be done next year will show even deeper cuts have been achieved. But to achieve the city's 2020 target would require a 6.6 per cent reduction each year for the next three years. It won't happen, he told his city council last week.

Whistler's GHG profile has shrunk 8.7 per cent since the 2007 benchmark. Even better, the per-capita decrease was 5.3 per cent. But because of increased population growth, the community altogether has been backsliding. Emissions have actually gained in the last three years.

Give both towns credit. They've done a lot. Aspen Electric, a major supplier of the community, achieved carbon-neutral status in 2015. This is in a state, Colorado, which still has a heavy carbon shadow. Energy efficiency in public buildings, businesses, and homes has improved. Ridership on Aspen's buses and those in the Roaring Fork Valley has grown.

In Whistler, an affordable housing project built as athletes' housing for the 2010 Olympics uses waste heat from sewage treatment to provide space and water heat. Emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, have been contained from an oldandfill. Several years ago, the ski area got behind a new run-of-the-river hydroelectric plant in Fitzsimmons Creek. That allows Whistler Blackcomb to produce as much electricity as it consumes.

In transportation, Whistler has done even more. Aspen, with its plans for a mobility lab next summer, hopes to push the needle, pioneering new ways for getting around that don't involve pumping gas.

But for now, these are barely passing grades. Not F's, but also not A's.

Looking deeper into the future, the storyline darkens even more. Both Aspen and Whistler, setting an example for many other municipalities, have both set goals of 80 per cent reduction by 2050. But if population growth in Aspen continues and reductions continue at its current pace, says Menges, the community will have only reduced its GHG footprint by 3.5 per cent by mid-century.

Is this putting too much on the shoulders of these two high-profile communities? Civilization will not rise or fall depending upon what they do. But because they are high-profile towns, their leaders and residents educated and engaged, their laggard pace is even more concerning. These are communities that early in the last decade, well before Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth came out, had declared with great seriousness their lofty goals.

Since those civic declarations in the last decades, the news from climate scientists has only worsened. Warnings, if anything, have been proven cautious. The evidence now seems to be tumbling in to support the broad tenets of the theory: new records almost every year for global temperatures, rapid melting of glaciers, argument that the extreme weather predicted by the theory is being seen. Most worrisome of all is the ocean, according to Chasing Coral, a new movie, the equivalent of a person having 37 C degree temperature when 39 C is normal.

But the problem has never been completely about what is evident now. It's more about what is locked into the system, what will become evident in 20 or 30 years. Scientists always warned that effects would be delayed, like the effects of a life-long lousy diet suddenly erupting at age 65 with sharp pains to the chest.

Scientists predict rising sea levels if glaciers on the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets melt. Yes, "if" is a mighty big word. But the risk of that happening should concern everybody, even those who live at elevations of 2,000 or 3,000 metres in the mountains. The simple story is that most customers of ski towns live in coastal cities. Beyond that, imagine the unsettling problem of refugees if cities like Miami are put at risk, a picture that Jeff Goodell, in his new book, The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World.

If Goodell's book title sounds apocalyptic, he seems relatively mild-mannered compared with the always-stern writing of Bill McKibben. "If we don't win very quickly on climate change, then we will never win," he says in an essay in Rolling Stone.

McKibben makes the case that a pathway to a low- or no-carbon future can now be seen. He brooks no tolerance for delay. Getting there can't wait until 2075. "Indeed, the decisions we make in 2025 will matter much less than the ones we make in the next few years. The leverage is now."

Ski towns have an outsized role in this debate. They can steer the conversation because of their high profiles and their ability to reach influential people. Aspen drew national attention in 2005 when it adopted its climate change manifesto, the Canary Initiative.

But the influence is proportionate to the genuine effort exerted and success achieved. Otherwise, it's just posturing.

Daniel Kreeger, executive director of the Association of Climate Change Officers, a national organization with whom Aspen and other Colorado ski towns is affiliated, points to the difficulty of completely recalculating energy systems.

"Once you get past trimming the fat of efficiency, you have to go through a substantial change in behaviour or a substantial redesign of operations in some way, shape or form. That is going to be complicated under the best of circumstances," he says. He argues for having the right amount of resources devoted to the challenge and having the right people with the necessary skills involved.

Too, ski towns can only do so much on their own. Their reductions need to be part of state and national efforts. They do not, for example have their own car-manufacturing plants.

The good news is that major changes are on the horizon. British Columbia gets most of its electricity from hydroelectricity, but Colorado ski towns — even Aspen — remain tied at the hip to coal-fired plants for their electricity. Such plants are now being closed in droves across North America as the economics of renewables become better and better. If the economics of energy storage improve substantially, even natural gas combustion can be ended. In the last year, transportation has overtaken electrical production as the leading cause of emissions.

Major changes in transportation have also begun. Some experts predict six-fold increase in sales of electric vehicles during the next five years in the United States. It's not just Tesla. General Motors plans to end its production of internal-combustion engines in the next few years. With thoughtful time-of-use charging rates, fuelling of EVs can be paired efficiently with renewable generation.

In August, the Economist magazine proclaimed the imminent demise of the internal-combustion engine. For the sake of the planet, it can't come soon enough.

And not least, major businesses and hundreds of cities across North America have now embraced significant climate goals, as Whistler and Aspen did more than a decade ago. The argument can be made that this enlarged movement can help bring ski towns closer to their targets.

Whistler and Aspen have somewhat different profiles to explain their emissions. In Aspen, buildings are responsible for 56 per cent of the community carbon shadow. (residential 31 per cent, commercial 25 per cent). Ground transportation follows at 19 per cent, the airport and airplanes at 15 per cent, and the landfill 11 per cent.

Aspen's new climate action plan identifies 76 actions across six sectors that can be launched during the next three years. None looks easy or simple. No one, two or three things will get Aspen or any other community to its goals.

In Whistler, transportation — mostly from personal vehicles — is responsible for 56 per cent of GHGs, followed by natural gas consumption — presumably to heat buildings — at 34 per cent.

Again, the story is that Whistler has done much more. Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden lays out the municipality's took kit: "We have a very good transit system here, but we can improve it. We are doing that with an extended bus schedule this winter."

A new program allows up to three children to take the bus if accompanied by a fare-paying adult. During summer, transit was free on weekends and holidays. For local employees, cost of bus fares has been further reduced. There's more to her list — and more coming.

These programs have twin parents. They seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, says Wilhelm-Morden, but they also seek to reduce traffic congestion. "We wanted to encourage people to get out of their cars, thereby reducing both congestion and GHGs."

As for buildings, which are responsible for 34 per cent of GHGs, she sees further gains coming in the province-wide BC Energy Step Code. Whistler may push harder than the provincial code requires. "We will be looking at ways to elevate it in serious detail in 2018," she says.

Waste diversion is another strategy with twin drivers. As Whistler's garbage is hauled all the way to a landfill along the Columbia River Gorge in Washington state, there's expense in the transportation. But if organic waste can be removed, there's also a reduction in greenhouse gases. A law recently adopted expands diversion requirements to all commercial and strata buildings.

Wilhelm-Morden describes emissions reductions as a "critical issue for us, of course, because we are at risk as a destination. We need to have stable snow and whether patterns, so everybody has a vested interest in doing what they can to achieve reductions in GHGs and reduced energy consumption."

Arthur De Jong, who oversees sustainability efforts on behalf of Vail Resorts at Whistler Blackcomb, suggests that there may be ironic hope as a result of the presidency of Donald Trump. Trump wants to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, but that push has activated businesses and local governments to push back.

"We are not getting the job done — yet. But I believe the motivation is now there that never existed before," says De Jong.

He also contends that decarbonizing energy will also provide valuable health-care benefits, particularly in cities, where about 70 per cent of the world's population lives. "There's a very pragmatic health-care need to resolve," he says.

In Aspen, Minges makes much the same point. Most of the measures that reducing GHG emissions will also enhance quality of life for Aspen residents, he says.

McKibben, not one to smile without good cause, puts a grimace on the ending of his Rolling Stone essay by paraphrasing Martin Luther King's famous quote about the long arc of the universe bending toward justice. That may work for political fights, says McKibben, but not for climate change.

"The arc of the physical universe appears to be short, and it bends toward heat," he writes. "Win soon or suffer the consequences."

Allen Best writes about energy, water and transportation as well as the weekly doings of mountain towns from a base in the "mountain city" of Denver. He can be found at mountaintownnews.net.

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