Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Imagining and Doing the Impossible
distributed 1/31/20 - ©2020

The climate scientists tell us about the need for a rapid transformation of the global energy system if we're going to maintain any kind of climate stability. Within the next 10 years, emissions need to be cut in half, and a wide range of responses need to combine social justice with climate action.

Can so much happen so fast? It looks overwhelming ... but a look at some recent history is very encouraging. Today, I'll sketch out one example of climate action that has already accomplished what seemed impossible, and is pushing hard for continued transformation in the coming decades.

Let's look back 15 years in Colorado, and find hope in what's happened in my home state.

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In the fall of 2004, a proposed ballot initiative in Colorado was facing a tough fight. Eco-Justice Ministries was part of a very diverse coalition backing "Amendment 37" which asked voters to approve a state-wide Renewable Energy Standard. The campaign brought together the normal clean energy advocates and rural communities who saw wind power as an exciting economic development prospect.

At the time, Colorado produced only 2% of its electricity from renewable energy. The proposed amendment required the state's largest utilities to obtain 3 percent of their electricity from renewable energy resources by 2007 and 10 percent by 2015. The electric utility companies -- and especially the biggest one, Xcel Energy -- put up strong resistance to the proposal. The utilities claimed that it was unrealistic to get to 10% in just ten years.

The amendment did pass, and it was the first time in the US that voters -- not legislatures -- had approved such a set of renewable energy standards. That was exciting news, but the really interesting thing is what has happened in the 15 years since Amendment 37 passed.

The state's Energy Office now reports, "The legislature has increased the minimum requirements three times since 2004, spurring the development of hundreds of new renewable energy projects across the state." The standards were increased each of those three times because the utilities kept meeting the targets ahead of schedule.

As of last fall, the state generates 3 percent of its electricity from solar and just under 18 percent from wind. That's about 21% renewable generation for electricity now from both large and small utilities.

And what about Xcel, the state's largest utility, which led the fight against a 10% target in 2004, because it wasn't considered realistic? "Xcel Energy as of 2018 reported a 28% percent mix of renewable sources." That means that Xcel is on track to pass the current goals of 30% renewable by 2020. "By 2026, Xcel plans to boost that percentage to 53% through shutting down most of its Comanche coal plant near Pueblo."

In 2004, a 10% renewable standard for electrical generation was called impossible. We're now at more than double that level statewide -- with Xcel on track for triple that percentage -- and making rapid progress on further steps.

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The past 15 years in Colorado saw some strong moves toward clean energy. The next 10 to 30 years will be critical in the state's role in vigorous climate action.

In last year's legislative session, Colorado lawmakers passed a bill (HB 19-1261) that set new goals stretching out another three decades. Here's the language of one key section of the bill (highlights added):

Colorado shall strive to increase renewable energy generation and eliminate statewide greenhouse gas pollution by the middle of the twenty-first century and have goals of achieving, at a minimum, a twenty-six-percent reduction in statewide greenhouse gas pollution by 2025, a fifty-percent reduction in statewide greenhouse gas pollution by 2030, and a ninety-percent reduction in statewide greenhouse gas pollution by 2050. The reductions identified in this subsection 2(g) are measured relative to 2005 statewide greenhouse gas pollution levels.

Remember that in 2004, just 2% of the state's electricity came from renewable sources; the 2019 legislation looks for a 90% decrease in emissions by 2050. That's a remarkable turn-around.

And it is very important to note that the bill passed in 2019 speaks of all greenhouse gas pollution, not just that coming from electrical generation. This new standard also looks at emissions from transportation, the heating and cooling of buildings, manufacturing, and oil and gas production.

In 2004, the utilities said that getting 10% of the state's electricity from renewables in ten years was unrealistic. The latest legislation talks of cutting 90% of all emissions in the next 30 years. I don't think any of us could have imagined such a thing in 2004.

Of course, a 90% by 2050 reduction isn't enough to meet the goals that climate scientists have named. The Colorado Coalition for a Livable Climate (Eco-Justice Ministries is a member) lobbied hard for even higher standards last year. After the bill was signed, the coalition issued a statement calling on the legislature to improve upon the goals in the next sessions. "Specifically, we urge that the legislature move the 50% emissions reduction goal currently set for 2030 up to 2028 compared to 2005 levels. Achieving that goal, together with the 2025 goal of 26% emissions reductions, would put Colorado on track to reaching net zero GHG emissions by 2035."

In 2004, the idea of getting 10% of electricity from renewable sources seemed crazy. Now there's serious conversation about the state of Colorado getting to "net zero" greenhouse gas emissions by 2035.

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I acknowledge that getting a state -- and the world -- to zero greenhouse gas emissions won't be easy. There are hard challenges ahead. In this work, Colorado -- with lots of wind and sun -- is better positioned than many other states, and certainly than many other countries.

But the story for today is an important one to remember. What seemed impossible 15 years ago has now been done, and now tripled. Plans are on the table to do far, far more, in all areas of greenhouse gas emissions.

I think of the words of biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann, who carries the mandate of the prophets into our day and age. As he writes about the great challenges of bringing God's shalom into our world, he says:

So the first question is, How can we have enough freedom to imagine and articulate a real historical newness in our situation? ... We need to ask not whether it is realistic or practical or viable but whether it is imaginable. We need to ask if our consciousness and imagination have been so assaulted and co-opted by the royal consciousness that we have been robbed of the courage or power to think an alternative thought.

We don't know all the details of how to get to a carbon-free world, but we can imagine that it is possible. And we can look at recent history to see that those who imagined the "impossible" then went on to get it done.

In faith and in hope, may we imagine a future of climate justice, and may we work creatively to bring it about.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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