Greenwashing Growth: Boulder’s Climate Problem

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The iconic Flatiron mountain backdrop in Boulder, Colorado

Boulder, Colorado, is known as one of the more eco-friendly cities on the planet with aggressive climate change policies, surrounded by stunning mountain landscapes, and filled with liberal-environmental citizens. But, its complete denial of the climate impacts of population growth undermine its credibility.

As population growth pounds the Front Range of Colorado, Boulder is in the crosshairs of development and growth. A recent push by Boulder business interests and the new City Council[1] to add more growth is being done under the auspices of addressing climate change by reducing in-commuters and building more dense housing.

What most people don’t also realize, however, is that a bigger Boulder would produce vastly more greenhouse gases (“GHG”) that cause climate change.

The single biggest variable causing greenhouse gas emissions is the affluence of the population, and we all know that Boulder is a very affluent community with median home prices hovering around $1 million[2]. Further, the majority of the housing that has been built in the last decade, as well as what’s likely coming in the future, is “luxury housing”. Simply stated, rich people create more pollution, and emit more greenhouse gases, than middle-income or poor people, by far.

In fact, a 2017 meta-study (summarizing many other studies) in the journal Environment and Behavior[3] found that “wealth” is the biggest factor determining the amount of damage caused to the environment by people because wealthy people are much larger consumers than middle-class and poor people. Another study, in the Journal of Industrial Ecology[4], stated that consumerism plays a huge role in climate change as household consumption contributes to “more than 60% of global GHG emissions and between 50% and 80% of total land, material, and water use.”

Further yet, most of the GHG emissions caused by Boulder’s growing affluent population are not even reported in the City’s greenhouse gas accounting methods. For example, almost all consumer goods are produced elsewhere — the fancy cars, electronics, marble countertops…everything — and so those emissions are not counted in Boulder because they are not produced in Boulder.

Even the emissions from the food that Boulderites eat is not counted in the City’s accounting methods, and it’s no surprise that affluent people are able to buy more expensive food shipped from far-off places to please their palates. Whether it’s strawberries from Mexico or sea bass from Chile, the emissions caused by those farms and shipping are not counted in Boulder. The emissions from food production are estimated to be 25% of the entire GHG emissions calculated on the planet[5].

In addition, the more urban Boulder gets, the higher these uncounted emissions get. A recent report by “C40 Cities”[6] indicated that: “Cities and urban consumers have a huge impact on emissions beyond their own borders since 85% of the emissions associated with goods and services consumed in C40 cities are generated outside the city; 60% in their own country and 25% from abroad.”

Growth itself is a huge GHG emitter, especially the construction of affluent housing. Those steel, glass, and concrete buildings require vast amounts of energy to create and construct, and absolutely none of the emissions created by that new construction is accounted for in the City’s GHG emissions inventory. In fact, up to 10% of global emissions[7] come from the creation of concrete and steel buildings, the likes of which are popping up around Boulder like mushrooms. Further, almost the entire infrastructure system to support new growth — asphalt roads, sidewalks, stormwater pipes and culverts, dams and water supply systems, sewer pipes and wastewater systems — are built with asphalt, steel, and concrete whose emissions occur where they are manufactured which is not in the City of Boulder.

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Google’s campus in Boulder

All of these GHG emissions — often referred to as “embodied emissions” which exist in the body of the product consumed — are what’s called “outsourced” because they are produced outside of the City and not counted in the City’s emissions. The City of Boulder staff has been asked point-blank this question by a councilmember during a council worksession in July of 2019, and have responded that the City does not count “life-cycle supply chain” emissions because there’s not yet a commonly accepted method to count those emissions.

Further, this outsourcing of emissions has obvious impacts on the communities where the products are manufactured, whether it be in China for electronics, Japan for cars, Boulder County (outside of the City) for concrete and asphalt, or in Mexico for food.

Think about it: Not counting “life-cycle supply chain emissions” is like not counting the negative impacts of anything in a manufacturing supply chain, such as labor practices or pollution. As an analogy, a fancy outdoor gear shop on Pearl Street Mall in Boulder could brag that it pays its retail employees $20/hour, while all of its products are manufactured in Chinese sweatshops with near-slave labor and no environmental regulations for the disposal of waste.

Check out this 2015 article in Outside Magazine about that exact thing, “The Dirty Secret Hiding In Our Outerwear”[8]. The same is true for the fashion industry — also proliferating in Boulder — which might pay its local Pearl Street employees good wages and recycle all of its packaging, but gets its products in a place where, “The fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world”[9].

Finally, the argument that “housing” all of the commuters in Boulder will reduce the GHG emissions of traffic is also untrue. One of the few actual studies so far — in Energy Policy journal — that quantitatively analyzed the emissions associated with purposely increasing “density” in urban areas found the reduction in GHGs to be “modest”[10]. Further still, if you read the whole paper, it lists a string of caveats at the end, and it also completely ignores the “embodied emissions” in constructing all of the new dense buildings to house all the commuters.

As such, Boulder’s entire GHG emissions accounting is completely “growth biased” — it simply and purposely ignores emissions caused by growth. Stated differently, you could add tens-of-thousands of people to Boulder and all of the emissions caused by their moving to Boulder, the construction of housing to keep them in Boulder, and much of their lives in Boulder, aren’t even remotely counted by the City. And, Boulder is adding that population growth right now, many of whom are affluent techies moving into the Google campus in Boulder (and the luxury condos surrounding it), with Apple and other tech firms not far behind [11].

Meanwhile, the City falsely brags on its website that its emissions are going down even though its population is going up[12].

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“Climate Emergency” on the City’s website

This greenwashing of growth is not unique to Boulder — almost every city in Colorado does it. Further, it’s not necessarily the fault of any one politician, or the whole lot of them, cycle after cycle, nor is it necessarily the fault of the community at large. Greenwashing growth and purposely hiding “life-cycle supply chain GHG emissions” is a systemic problem in all localized GHG accounting methods. Further, like many cities, Boulder spends a lot of time and resources focusing on cleaning the electric grid, energy conservation, and supporting electric cars as well as trying to get people out of their cars — the new Mayor, in fact, just had a “Community Conversation on Climate” highlighting those efforts[13].

However, Boulder likely holds a top spot in the greenwashing hierarchy as it paints itself emerald green in public relations efforts, endlessly virtue-signals about its climate goals, and even declares a “climate emergency” while supporting and fueling more and more affluence and population growth[14]. And is this climate leadership, or is this hypocritical? — In a high-profile national lawsuit, Boulder is suing two fossil fuel corporations, Suncor Energy and Exxon Mobil, for the climate damage caused by their GHG emissions, while Boulder increases and hides a significant portion of its own GHG emissions fueled by the City’s pro-growth policies and its affluent population[15].

Boulder’s leadership tends to reflect its population which is used to growing, buying, and building its way out of problems. But Boulder can’t grow itself out of climate change, can’t build itself out of climate change, and can’t buy itself out of climate change. In fact, it’s the growing, building, and buying that’s causing the problem.

The best way to slow or cut greenhouse gas emissions is to curb population growth, or even promote “de-growth”. A series of studies over the past few years have concluded that, for individual people, purposely decreasing population growth rates, by having one fewer child, can be up to 30 times more effective at cutting greenhouse gas emissions than the next best action which is “Living Car Free”. These studies and reports have come from the “American Association for the Advancement of Science”[16], The “Drawdown Project”[17], and other academic papers[18], and have been reported widely in the media.

The same holds true for a city, county, state, or a country. More people emit more emissions; fewer people emit less emissions. And, Americans are huge polluters and GHG emitters. In fact, on a per capita basis, Americans are the biggest GHG emitters in the world[19], and Boulder’s growing and affluent population — if their emissions are accurately counted, rather than purposely hidden — is likely near the top of the U.S. emissions list.

The next best way to cut greenhouse gases is to embrace another component of the de-growth movement, “minimalism”[20]. The opposite of affluence, minimalism celebrates sufficiency, beauty, and simplicity…and brevity.

Gary Wockner, PhD, is an environmental activist in Colorado specializing in river protection, climate change, and population stabilization. Web: Twitter: @GaryWockner.






















Global environmental activist saving rivers, fighting climate change, supporting population stabilization. Author 2016 book, “RIVER WARRIOR”.

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