Canaries in the coal mine
How Whistler, Aspen's struggles to curb emissions bode for the rest of us

Canaries in the coal mine

Several years ago, Whistler got behind a new hydroelectric plant in Fitzsimmons Creek. That allows Whistler Blackcomb to produce as much electricity as it consumes.

Allen Best - 01/11/2018

Two of the world’s most high-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 percent 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 7 percent between 2004- 14. 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 percent reduction each year for the next three years. It won’t happen, he told his city council recently.

Whistler’s GHG profile has shrunk 8.7 percent since the 2007 benchmark. Even better, the per-capita decrease was 5.3 percent. 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, in a state that still has a heavy carbon shadow. Energy efficiency in Aspen’s public buildings, businesses and homes has improved. Ridership on buses in town and throughout the Roaring Fork Valley has grown.

In Whistler, a housing project built as athletes’ housing for the 2012 Olympics uses waste heat from sewage treatment to warm water and buildings. Emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, have been contained from an old landfill. Several years ago, the ski area got behind a new hydroelectric plant in Fitzsimmons Creek. That allows Whistler Blackcomb to produce as much electricity as it consumes.

In transportation, Whistler has done even more by adding natural-gas powered busses to its city fleet. Aspen hopes to pioneer new ways for getting around that don’t involve pumping gas at its mobility lab next summer.

But for now, these are barely passing grades. Not F’s, but also not A’s. Looking into the future, the storyline darkens even more. Both Aspen and Whistler, setting an example for other municipalities, have both set goals of 80 percent reduction by 2050. But if population growth and reductions continue at their current pace, says Menges, the community will have only reduced its GHG footprint by 3.5 percent by mid-century.

Granted, civilization will not rise or fall depending upon what these town do. But because they are so high-profile, with 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 their lofty goals.

Since then, news from climate scientists has only worsened: new records almost every year for global high temperatures; rapid melting of glaciers; more extreme weather events; warming oceans.

But the problem has never been completely about what is evident now. It’s more about what is locked into the system and 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.

Scientists predict rising sea levels of 20 feet if glaciers in the west Antarctic and Greenland melt. The risk of that happening should concern everybody, even those living at high elevations in the mountains. Most customers of ski towns live in coastal cities. Beyond that, imagine the refugee crisis if cities like Miami are put at risk, a picture painted by Jeff Goodell in his new book, The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World.

If the title sounds apocalyptic, Goodell 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 path-way to a low-or no-carbon future can now be seen, but 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 ability to reach influential people. Aspen drew national attention in 2005 when it adopted its climate change manifesto, the Canary Initiative.

But the influence must be proportionate to the effort exerted and success achieved. Otherwise, it’s just posturing.

Daniel Kreeger, 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 recalculating energy systems.

“Once you get past trimming the fat of efficiency, you have to go through a substantial change in behavior or a substantial redesign of operations. 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 change is on the horizon. British Columbia gets most of its electricity from hydro-electricity, but Colorado ski towns – even Aspen – remain tied to coal. Such plants are now being closed in droves across 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 U.S. sales of electric vehicles during the next five years. It’s not just Tesla. General Motors plans to end its production of internal-combustion engines in the next few years.

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

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