Has “sustainability” become an eye-rolling buzzword that’s tossed around boardrooms and shoehorned into public policy as an afterthought?
Communities in Boulder County and their leaders are banking against that cynicism — but what do we mean by the term “sustainability”? At its core, when it comes to ecological sustainability, we’re talking about survival. Too dramatic? We mean the ability of communities, organizations, and individuals to behave in a manner that protects and maintains our ecosystems for current and future generations of human beings. No ecosystem means no humans.
Small towns and cities across the country are looking for ways to strengthen and diversify their economies, attract residents, build lasting infrastructure, and ensure resiliency against future climate events. Especially in areas highly dependent on tourism — like Boulder County — they also want to maintain their distinct identities and not lose what makes each place unique to visitors and residents alike.
Colorado is experiencing an alarming increase in climate change-related events — severe and devastating droughts, wildfires, and flooding are becoming more frequent and costly. The oil and gas industry, especially fracking operations, are major contributors to methane pollution. Cutting methane emissions from oil and gas, according to the David Suzuki Foundation, is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to address climate change.
At its core, when it comes to ecological sustainability, we’re talking about survival.
In response to these challenges, the state has set ambitious sustainability goals. In 2019, Governor Polis signed an executive order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050. The state has also set targets to increase renewable energy production, improve energy efficiency, and reduce waste.
While these goals are commendable, achieving them will require a concerted effort from all communities in the state, including smaller towns and cities. With smaller revenues and tax bases than larger centers, is there any way to balance urgent economic needs with ecological preservation at a municipal scale?
Many communities have developed detailed sustainability strategies to address these increasingly complex challenges. Erie has established a Sustainability Advisory Board to advise the town’s board of trustees on “matters that relate to the planning, development, maintenance, and management of sustainability activities throughout Erie.”
According to Alissa Kuzmich, a member of the Erie Sustainability Advisory Board, the town is experiencing a period of growth yet still has a very strong community feel. “We recently had a Hope & Gratitude Project,” she told Yellow Scene. “It was in the old town called Briggs, the main street that the old town is on. School children filled the streets with luminaries talking about what they were hopeful for.”
Many communities have developed detailed sustainability strategies to address these increasingly complex challenges.
The Sustainability Division partnered with the Erie’s Tree Advisory Board and the Parks and Recreation Department to hold an Arbor Day/Earth Day Celebration event. It brought in exhibitors related to horticulture, tree management, the solar industry, and electric vehicles — the latter hosted by Drive Electric Colorado. “There’s no pressure for purchase,” said Kuzmich. Instead, at this event people have the opportunity to ask questions without a sales pitch. This year the event is planned for April 29th.
“One of the things that’s happening right now that’s pretty cool is called Elevate Erie — it’s a comprehensive plan. It sets the vision for the next five years,” Kuzmich told YS. “With all the growth we’ve had, sustainability was invited to be part of that conversation.” The board gives input on Erie’s development, along with members of many other organizations, to ensure equitable representation across the community.
The town also has a noble goal to become a zero waste community. The concept of zero waste aims to minimize environmental impacts throughout the entire lifecycle of a product — beyond recycling and composting — to include design, use, and material management. Erie plans to increase access to recycling and composting while reducing waste that ends up in its landfill. The town claims that recycling and composting are some of the most effective ways to reduce “consumption emissions.’.
Nederland: Small but mighty
Nederland, aka “Ned,” is just west of Boulder with a population less than 1,500. The town attracts tourists with its picturesque scenery, fishing, skiing, cycling, camping, shops, boutiques, and even a vibrant music scene. YS spoke with Sustainability Coordinator Leah Haney who is relatively new to the role. Haney executes the Sustainability Advisory Board’s goals for renewable energy and zero waste by 2025. The board acts as a partner with Boulder County, the state of Colorado, and the local business community to determine resource availability and align these with the needs and wants of residents. The partners “make collective decisions,” said Haney, “coming from and guided by Boulder County’s requirements and what we’ve set for ourselves locally.”
The town attracts tourists with its picturesque scenery, fishing, skiing, cycling, camping, shops, boutiques, and even a vibrant music scene.
One of the initiatives Haney is particularly proud of is Nederland’s Construction & Demolition Debris Recycling Deposit Program “where a credit goes to renovators or builders or demolition companies if they can divert and save some of those materials to reuse. They get a credit back. This was a big program implemented by the town, but it hasn’t been used a whole lot yet, we’re working on the outreach part,” explained Haney.
The town is also working on a community solar garden that Haney hopes will lead to more businesses installing solar panels. Nederland is also transitioning to electric vehicles and is on a waitlist to get an all-electric Ford Lightning truck, which Haney doesn’t believe many mountain towns have. The town will also be adding more EV chargers to accommodate tourists from neighboring Denver as well as locals who wish to make the switch.
Haney was pleasantly surprised that sustainability initiatives were not a hard sell. Local food production is a high priority for many, and building up a community greenhouse and farmers market are a common goal.
What’s challenging in a town of this size, according to Haney, is making sustainability a priority in a community with limited human resources, all while maintaining a small town feel — which is the reason people come to visit. “This was a different town 20 years ago,” said Haney. “It will continue to change over time, and we get to help decide what that looks like. One of the benefits of being a small town is that we get to instigate change — probably pretty well — with just having a small community, maybe quicker than a larger municipality.”
Lafayette: Greening community engagement
Lafayette is a small but eclectic and engaged city full of character, and according to its Sustainability Manager Elizabeth Szorad, this willingness of residents to get involved with sustainability is one of its greatest assets. The downtown is culturally vibrant and art focused. Many popular community events are centered around artists and their creativity. Szorad capitalized on this and held a call for artists to create digital art to place on waste containers throughout downtown.
“Overall, we have a very great community, very involved,” Szorad said. “They care about our downtown, our neighborhood aspects, and building that community. We’re in a really nice spot in terms of growth.”
Lafayette is subject to a heat island effect, especially in the downtown corridor. A “cool roof” solution of shade provided by trees to mitigate this effect is one effort that will be proposed at a Lafayette City Council soon. Szorad said they’re at the beginning stages of analysis to determine how to make the city more resilient against the effects of extreme heat. “Can we find trees to provide shade in our downtown?” Szorad asked. “That comes into the conversation about water conservation — how much water would that need? Do we have enough water to grow the trees necessary to produce shade?”
Szorad has been encouraged by the level of engagement of residents in Lafayette and their willingness to learn how to live more sustainably. She believes the key to implementing sustainability within a community is not a “zero to one hundred” approach but, rather, incremental behavior changes where everyone does their part.
One of Lafayette’s key priorities in “greening” the city has been focused on water conservation. In 2013, Lafayette instituted a permanent water conservation ordinance to protect its resources. The city partnered with local nonprofit Resource Central, offering three programs for residents to conserve water: Lawn Removal Service, Garden in a Box, and Slow the Flow programs are designed to reduce the amount of lawn residents have, replace them with waterwise yards which may include permeable green landscaping or other water-efficient plant material, and evaluate existing outdoor sprinkler systems.
Water conservation projects are top of mind to Szorad: “Due to climate change and earlier snowmelt in general, there’s a greater emphasis on what we’re going to do with our water conservation initiatives. Not only on the policy side — we are looking at different building codes.” The community has xeriscaped facilities that do not require water, such as roadways and medians, and will also be converting a facility in 2023 to be one of the largest demonstration xeriscape gardens in Colorado.
The gardens will be a community gathering space where residents and students can come learn about conservation and wildfire prevention. Lafayette also holds an annual Gas-Powered Mower and Leaf Blower Take Back Event, where residents receive an electric lawn equipment voucher in exchange for the return of their existing gas-powered equipment. This year’s event is taking place on April 22.
“Due to climate change and earlier snowmelt in general, there’s a greater emphasis on what we’re going to do with our water conservation initiatives. Not only on the policy side — we are looking at different building codes.”
“Part of our philosophy is to practice what we preach in sustainability as an organization,” Szorad told YS. “So if we do get calls like, ‘What are you doing about water conservation or recycling?’ We can tell our story to residents, so they understand that this is a priority — and they can look into what resources are available to make those incremental changes,” she explained.
The town is enhancing its sustainability plan by turning it towards a climate action plan. Lafayette will also be introducing a multi-modal transportation plan to include an e-bike rebate program which Szorad says has already been successful in Boulder and Denver. The goal is to change commuters’ transportation mode. In a city of nine square miles with an average trip of three miles, Szorad said that commuting translates very well to e-bike use, even with the addition of cargo. For this initiative, Lafayette is partnering with nearby Louisville. Creating regional partnerships increases the size of sustainability teams, which are usually limited in smaller localities.
Boulder County: A multi-pronged approach
The county refers to itself as a “global leader in climate action,” and the county’s Office of Sustainability, Climate Action & Resilience believes that radical transformation is required to meet the challenges faced by residents impacted by the climate crisis.
YS spoke with Christian Herrmann, the office’s Climate Communications Director. Herrmann said they’re “lucky in terms of being a local government that has a really passionate population that wants governmental action on the climate crisis and sustainability.”
Boulder was one of the first counties in the United States to establish a designated climate action fund to kickstart innovative projects and technologies that fight the climate crisis through carbon dioxide removal. “Instead of just reducing emissions by cutting fossil fuels and reducing pollution, we also believe that’s not enough,” said Herrmann. “We need to start innovating and actively sucking the legacy emissions and carbon dioxide that’s in the atmosphere out of the atmosphere.”
Herrmann points to the Marshall Fire — which was Colorado’s most expensive to date — as an example of the extreme wildfires the Boulder County area is experiencing. The Boulder Watershed Collective, Grama Grass & Livestock, and Boulder Mushroom — a local mycology center — have partnered with assistance from the county’s Climate Innovation Fund to decompose wood chips and inoculate them with mycelium in an effort to help the soil retain moisture and carbon dioxide, thereby making land more resilient and less prone to wildfire.
Herrmann sees the need for communities to partner. Local governments in the western U.S. are pooling resources to remove CO? out of the atmosphere. Four Corners Carbon Coalition, a partnership between Boulder County, Salt Lake City, Santa Fe, and Flagstaff just launched a first round of grants for projects that use removed CO? to produce concrete. Concrete production represents over 7% of all global emissions.
“We need to start innovating and actively sucking the legacy emissions and carbon dioxide that’s in the atmosphere out of the atmosphere.”
“We’ve focused a lot as an organization on agricultural climate solutions,” said Herrmann. “That’s a huge puzzle piece — that local soils and local populations have access to food that’s produced nearby. In addition, farmland, when managed well, can function as carbon sinks.” Carbon sinks are anything natural, such as vegetation, the ocean, or otherwise, that accumulate and store carbon compounds.
BOCO also partnered with Mad Agriculture and the James Beard Award-winning Zero Foodprint to launch Restore Colorado. Restaurants and food businesses can sign up and use 1% of customers’ bills to fund local farms and ranches to support local regenerative and carbon farming practices such as composting and tree planting. Over thirty-two Colorado restaurants and businesses, like Annette, Dry Storage, River and Woods, Somebody People, and all Boulder Subway sandwich locations, are taking part in the program.
The county is also tackling climate change in a more systematic way in the courtroom. The county, along with San Miguel County, filed a lawsuit in 2018 against oil companies Suncor and ExxonMobil demanding that they contribute to the costs associated with climate change, estimated to top $150 million dollars by 2050. The communities are supported by EarthRights International, Hannon Law Firm, and Niskanen Center. The case has been remanded to Colorado state court as of 2020.
The end — and a collectively renewable beginning
Climate activists and organizations have long been sounding the alarm. The Colorado Sierra Club has been advocating for climate change solutions with recommendations from air and water quality to public health, wildlife preservation, and fuel consumption. The social justice and equity component of environmentalism can’t be overstated. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences indicates climate change and extreme weather events have a disproportionate burden on vulnerable populations.
“I think that’s what we need to tackle the climate crisis — we need local action.”
“In general, children and pregnant women, older adults, certain occupational groups, persons with disabilities, and persons with chronic medical conditions are more vulnerable to health stressors, such as extreme heat, floods, poor air quality, and other climate-related events,” the report states. The unfortunate reality is that those with less access to resources have less of a way to impact governmental policies despite being the most affected by a changing climate.
Despite this, there’s an appetite in BOCO and North Metro to fight back. Initiatives are often fueled by passion and a willingness to turn the tide and protect the fragile local ecosystems.
“I think that’s what we need to tackle the climate crisis — we need local action,” Herrmann told YS. “We need people to be thinking about their gardens, improving the health of their gardens, and growing their own food … and you also need to be tackling more systemic action to help shift the system where possible.”
We need to be realistic. Oil and gas companies as well as the military — the world’s single largest consumer of oil according to studies by Brown University’s Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs — are the major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. It’s clear that community initiatives, while laudable, practical, and helpful, will never be enough to stop dangerous emissions from leaking into the atmosphere. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a special report on the impacts of global warming in 2018 with clear conclusions: “Limiting global warming to 1.5ºC would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” The IPCC’s report indicated that we have 12 years to act decisively. That was five years ago already. Proponents of fracking would like us to believe the economic effects of halting fossil fuel extraction would be dire. This ignores the extreme costs of disaster event-related losses — $2.97 trillion over the past two decades according to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction: “While better recording and reporting may partly explain some of the increase in events, much of it is due to a significant rise in the number of climate-related disasters. Between 2000 and 2019, there were 510,837 deaths and 3.9 billion people affected by 6,681 climate-related disasters. This compares with 3,656 climate-related events which accounted for 995,330 deaths (47% due to drought/ famine) and 3.2 billion affected in the period 1980-1999.”
“We need people to be thinking about their gardens, improving the health of their gardens, and growing their own food … and you also need to be tackling more systemic action to help shift the system where possible.”
Focusing on economic impacts of slowing oil and gas also ignores the growth in the clean technology and energy sectors. Clean energy boosts employment levels. Jobs are expected to expand to 43 million worldwide by 2050. It also reduces consumer costs, is commercially viable, and allows universal access to energy. The industry’s “math” simply does not compute.
Coloradoans want to see change, and as a region disproportionately and disastrously affected by the climate crisis, they’re taking initiative and holding their representatives to task. No one is naive here. Residents know that systemic global change is needed to truly halt the effects of the climate crisis.
Even faced with these sobering facts, small changes do make an impact, and local communities are bringing awareness to the severe and devastating effects of climate change to our environment. Our ecosystem depends on it, and thereby so do we.