The Cost of Cars: Why Transportation is Holding Back Colorado’s Climate Goals

In May 2019, Colorado’s state legislature passed lofty goals for reducing greenhouse gas pollution over a 30-year period. Here’s a look at the state’s progress — and how transportation emissions are holding us back.

Coloradans have seen first-hand the impact of a warming climate: destructive wildfires, prolonged drought, hotter temperatures, and poor air quality. That’s why, in 2019, state lawmakers passed the Climate Action Plan to Reduce Pollution, in which they set ambitious targets: reduce 2025 greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent, 2030 emissions by 50 percent, and 2050 emissions by at least 90 percent of the levels that existed statewide in 2005. Five years into that plan, though, and with only one year ahead of the first target goal, transportation emissions remain a particular problem.

Is Colorado on Track to Meet its Goals?

“Overall, I think the answer is yes,” says Will Toor, executive director of the Colorado Energy Office. He points to the state’s progress on lowering electric, oil and gas, and industrial emissions. However, transportation progress is lagging, as Colorado is still largely dependent on internal-combustion-engine automobiles and many people live in suburbs. Getting people out of cars — or into electric vehicles — is a struggle. Owing largely to high vehicle emissions, a recent study showed Colorado is on track to hit just 79 percent of its 2025 goal and 84 percent of its 2030 goal.

What’s Holding Colorado Back?

Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. The same is true in Colorado, where light-duty vehicles (passenger cars) account for the majority of the impact. Vehicle exhaust is a major producer of harmful chemicals like nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter, and other volatile organic compounds, which contribute to worsening air quality and, ultimately, have deleterious health impacts. Over the past five years, Colorado has seen some of the world’s worst air quality, and a recent study by University of Colorado scientists found that minority communities in metro-Denver are the most impacted.

Looking to the Future

In February, the state released an updated roadmap for its climate goals, noting transportation is a key factor. “The most challenging sectors are the ones where we can’t just work with a handful of utilities,” Toor says. Transportation emissions are hard to address because progress relies on individual behaviors — like choosing electric vehicles or living closer to public transportation. Toor also notes that creating denser housing near jobs — opposed to having people commute from suburbs — is a major issue, too.

Because of the reliance on the automobile, the state will likely fall short of its near-term goals. And if the state is going to improve air quality and meet its 2050 goal, it will have to get gas-burning cars off the road, build walkable and bikeable communities, and incentivize people to live closer to their workplace and public transportation. “There’s a lot more work that’s going to be done,” Toor says. “We don’t pretend that we’ve solved all of these problems.”