Coronavirus and racial equality have mesmerized public attention this year, but climate change has continued to percolate in the background. The response to the global pandemic of COVID-19 has highlighted the potential for effective global action in response to the threat of climate change. And the public response to the death of George Floyd has demonstrated how quickly public opinion can pivot.
Even before the pandemic, 2030 had become the new, more urgent focal point for climate change among the science community. Cut the emissions in half by then, scientists said in a 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), or face the risks associated with rising temperatures, including more wobbly weather. The report has galvanized calls for action from local to global forums.
Setting the Agenda
Resorts and their communities are among those beginning to act on that timeframe. Mountain Towns 2030 was one response. Held last October in Park City, Utah, the conference, organized by the Park City Community Foundation and the town of Park City, drew representatives of 30 municipalities from western states and many ski area operators. The premise was that mountain resorts must accelerate actions in their own operations but also step up their advocacy.
“The world’s climate scientists agree—to control global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the earth needs drastic reductions in carbon emissions by the year 2030,” conference organizers wrote. “There is a significant gap between current policies and pledges to get us there. We need to act on effective and proven solutions today.”
Remember, the world is already two-thirds of the way toward seeing that 1.5-degree increase. Global temperatures have risen by nearly 1 degree Celsius since pre-industrial times. To limit the total rise to 1.5º, worldwide emissions need to peak in 2020 and tumble dramatically by 2030 before achieving net-zero level by the mid-century, according to the latest timeline identified by scientists. Reaching those goals means most of the known fossil fuels must be left in the ground.
That’s a formidable challenge. The 2030 goal is like starting to write a term paper at midnight the day it’s due. Reaching the goal will require more than just replacing coal-fired power plants with wind and solar farms. It involves decarbonizing the economy, replacing fossil fuel combustion in transportation, industry, and buildings.
Why Aim for 2030?
Luke Cartin, environmental sustainability manager for the municipality of Park City, sees two reasons for focusing on 2030. First, there’s that 2018 IPCC report, which set the 2030 goal. It concluded there was a 50-50 chance of the global temperature increase being kept to 1.5º Celsius (2.7º F), if emissions can be reduced by half by 2030.
Second, 10 years is a workable timeframe. The human mind can grasp a decade, but 30 years, less so. There’s a very human element involved when adopting goals.
“With 2030, you have to force yourself to make challenging decisions now,” says Cartin, who formerly oversaw sustainability for Vail Resorts. “If we want to go after our climate goals, we need to start buying electric buses today. A 2050 climate goal is too far out into the future. It doesn’t have that kind of burning need. That’s why 2030 for us is really a key time. It gives us a decade to act and make serious, serious headway.”
Towns, cities, and states have been adopting greenhouse gas emissions targets for a while. Vermont, for example, set a goal in 2007 of reducing economy-wide emissions 50 percent by 2028 compared to 1990 levels. California five years ago set a 50-percent reduction target by 2030.
What has changed is that electrical utilities, companies such as Google, and other states have more recently embraced similar or even more ambitious targets. This drive has identified new pathways even as federal action has stalled.
The urgent need for action was reflected in the January announcement by Boyne Resorts that its Big Sky Resort in Montana had adopted a goal of achieving net-zero carbon in its operations by 2030. Boyne’s other ski and golf resorts have the same goal.
Stephen Kircher, Boyne CEO, describes it as a simple but galvanizing goal. “The timeline speaks to the urgency, getting people to understand this is not your grandchildren’s issue,” he says. “This is our issue in our lifetime, one for which we have responsibility.”
Other problems have been solved through broad collaboration, says Kircher. He cites global action to close the ozone hole and the coordinated action by the U.S. and Canada on poisoned fish in Lake Erie. He hopes climate change can be similarly conquered.
Climate change, though, poses greater risk than these earlier challenges, in part because of the many possible feedback loops. For example, the Arctic has been warming far more rapidly than more southerly latitudes, causing not just glaciers to melt rapidly, but also tundra. Thawing tundra may result in release of methane, a short-lived but powerful greenhouse gas. And that, in turn, could accelerate the warming already underway. It’s imperative to stop the train before it becomes a runaway.
Kircher is in turns optimistic and alarmed, but always pragmatic. He has seen dramatic environmental advances in ski hill operations over the 71 years his family has operated resorts. For example, snowmaking today requires 96 percent less energy than it did a half-century ago. “The message is that you can innovate your way into some solutions,” he says.
Other solutions await creation. But that’s where Kircher sees a united ski industry having power. For example: If enough ski area operators ask for electric snowmobiles, the market will likely deliver.
The built environment also demands reinvention, and people are responding. Net-zero has become a buzzword in architecture. New building designs aim to both reduce energy use and the carbon component of the building materials themselves. One core concept is that electricity—produced from renewable resources—can replace propane, natural gas, and other fossil fuels to heat buildings. The concept is called beneficial electrification.
But cleaning house isn’t enough, says Kircher. Advocacy matters even more. If the ski industry is relatively small, it enjoys unusual prominence. “We have an opportunity to educate a lot of people about the importance and the urgency of this issue and to accelerate change,” he says. NSAA’s Sustainable Slopes Initiative, Kircher believes, provides a road map that will be part and parcel of those efforts.
Mountain Towns 2030 has become its own road show in the Rocky Mountains. Rob Davies, a physicist at Utah State University, spoke at Park City; he has since presented his thinking at about a dozen ski communities, drawing upwards of 150 people each time.
On a snowy evening in January, he told 400 people at Battle Mountain School, the public school serving the Vail-Beaver Creek area, that the atmosphere can absorb carbon dioxide at current levels of emissions for only 8 or 10 more years. To avoid hitting that wall, and to achieve long-term sustainability, emissions must be cut by roughly half each decade going forward, which requires change, Davies pointed out. “Last year, we increased the rate of emissions by about 2 percent,” he told the group. In other words, he said, we’re accelerating when we need to put on the brakes.
Davies also spoke about radical vs. rational. Radical, he said, is knowing about a crisis and not responding. To act in response to the known information constitutes a rational response.
He also distinguished between viable and necessary. The task, he said, is to create “not what is viable but what is necessary. Making it viable is just the next step.”
An Electrifying Example
The electrical sector illustrates just how much progress can be made when we have the right set of incentives and policies in place. Consider Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy, which delivers electricity across eight states, including directly or indirectly to a dozen ski areas in Colorado. In 2004, Xcel fought (and lost) a voter-initiated mandate in Colorado for a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) of 10 percent by 2020. It just didn’t know how to do it, Xcel said.
Well, Xcel learned how. It had to. Today, 37 states have adopted RPS or renewable energy goals that mandate up to 50 percent reductions in fossil fuel power generation.
These mandates have worked as intended. In late 2018, Xcel said it was confident it could achieve 80 percent renewable sources by 2030—and at lower cost than could be achieved with fossil fuel plants. As for 100 percent, said company officials, they did not know how to get there. But they believed technological innovation would produce answers.
More difficult than electricity will be other sectors. By 2030, New Mexico is aiming for 45 percent overall emissions reduction; Colorado has targeted 50 percent fewer emissions. Architects of these targets realize it won’t be easy to achieve this shift. But perhaps, as happened with the RPS of 15 years ago, the market can innovate once given guidance.
That sort of guidance applies at the local level, too. Vail Resorts launched its Commitment to Zero in 2017. That was shortly before it took ownership of Crested Butte Mountain Resort, where the nearby town of Crested Butte in 2008 had adopted a resolution, along with dozens of towns across the country, pledging dramatic carbon reduction. Of course, there was no pathway to that reduction at the time—it was simply a goal.
That’s changing. In October, long-time Crested Butte mayor Jim Schmidt attended the Park City conference. He returned to Crested Butte energized to make a difference in whatever ways are possible given budget constraints. That involves buying an all-electric police car, for example, and making an all-electric unit of affordable housing planned for this summer. The town’s electricity at present comes from coal-fired power plants, but the wholesale supplier for Crested Butte plans to close all its coal plants in Colorado and New Mexico by 2030.
Schmidt, who is 72, has also been inspired by adolescents who have stepped up. There’s Greta Thunberg, of course, the Swedish teenager who took a slow boat across the Atlantic to testify before the United Nations. But in Crested Butte, it was a local teen who showed up at a town council meeting. The 17-year-old wanted to know why she should care about the environment if the town council didn’t. It was, says Schmidt, very striking—and he has carried it with him.
The voices urging action on climate change are growing louder. And increasingly, governments, businesses, and industries are stepping up. The lingering question to ponder—but not for long—is whether the reaction is appropriate to the scale of the challenge.