Utah think tank says state should cut CO2 emissions 80% by 2050

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Utah electric vehicle charging station, Jan. 6, 2020.

Utah should strive to slash air pollution by half and carbon dioxide emissions by 80% in coming decades, a goal that would demand commitment from government leaders, industry and each state resident, the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute argues.

The University of Utah think tank on Monday published a draft road map for cleaning up the air and confronting climate change in the state. What’s at stake is the health of Utahns, the welfare of the state’s economy and the viability of a 2030 or 2034 Olympic bid, according to the institute.

“It would be a really big step for a conservative red state like Utah to lead on,” Natalie Gochnour, who directs the policy institute, said during a Monday editorial board meeting at The Salt Lake Tribune offices.

Gochnour acknowledged that climate change is still a sensitive topic in the conservative state Legislature — which is why the report focuses on market-based changes and “positive solutions” and highlights strides the state has already taken. For instance, Dominion Energy is helping invest $500 million over the next decade in renewable natural gas projects nationwide, according to the report.

The draft report, prepared over the past six months at the Legislature’s request, outlines 55 strategies that call for everything from reducing tailpipe emissions to discouraging sprawling development. The state should incentivize electric vehicles, lead the way on teleworking, promote the early retirement of coal-fired plants and adopt updated building codes, according to the report.

The report builds on analysis by a 2007 Blue Ribbon Advisory Council on Climate Change convened by former Gov. Jon Huntsman and reflects the Legislature’s 2018 resolution recognizing “the impacts of a changing climate.” Input for the current study also came from a panel of 37 technical experts, including representatives from the state’s largest health networks; advocacy groups; federal, state and local officials; Rocky Mountain Power; Rio Tinto and Dominion Energy.

State lawmakers last year allocated $200,000 to the study, which will be finalized and submitted to the Legislature later this month.

The seven overarching goals contained in the report are:

  • Adopting a 2050 goal of reducing 2017 criteria pollutant levels by 50% and reducing 2005 carbon dioxide emissions by 80%.

  • Setting an example in state government by converting to electric, compressed natural gas and renewable natural gas fleets, adopting energy efficiency goals in state buildings, prioritizing teleworking and investing in reforestation efforts.

  • Establishing a state-level air quality and climate change research laboratory that would focus on monitoring, research and innovation.

  • Progressing more quickly on “quality growth initiatives” by preserving open space, improving building energy efficiency and establishing more transportation options.

  • Promoting the use of electric vehicles by adding charging stations, incentivizing the use of electric vehicles and recruiting Utah’s auto dealers to help increase the zero-emissions vehicle supply.

  • Helping rural communities transition to a new, diversified economy as coal-fired power plants shut down.

  • Engaging in the national-level conversation about reducing carbon emissions.

That last goal was the subject of significant debate within the group preparing the report, Gochnour said.

“But the idea is that we think you should act on a national basis, not a state basis, on carbon emissions,” she said.

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) The Church Office Building rises from dense fog as an inversion settles over the Salt Lake City on Tuesday, December 26, 2017.

The team hasn’t spoken with members of Utah’s congressional delegation about this goal, but Gochnour noted that U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, is already engaging in discussions about climate change.

The 80% emissions target was formulated based on discussions with industry and community leaders, experts and legislators, Gardner Institute representatives said. While the report does not attempt to estimate the cost of implementing its recommendations, Gochnour said the price tag will be one of the hurdles to meeting the air quality goals. The state’s continued growth will also present a challenge; Utah’s population is expected to increase by 1.5 million by 2050 over the current 3.2 million.

“These are very much stretch goals,” Gouchnor said of the report recommendations. “If you do it on a per-capita basis — unbelievable reductions.”

But the potential consequences of inaction are wide-ranging, the institute states.

Winter inversions and other air quality problems have an adverse impact on the economy, making it more difficult to attract and retain businesses, according to the report. There also are serious health risks. Ground-level ozone from emissions can aggravate respiratory and cardiac conditions, and air pollution is linked to a wide variety of problems from decreased birth weight to congestive heart failure.

State Rep. Ray Ward, a physician, called the report a “big step in the right direction” and said he appreciates that it doesn’t create false choices between improving air quality and growing the economy.

“In the end, I think there is a pathway forward that makes these things better and still leads to a vibrant economy,” said the Bountiful Republican.

Ward said he’s already planning on running a bill this session to update the state’s renewable energy goals. Other bills could come out of the Gardner report recommendations, but other parts of the document could be implemented through state policy changes or simply spark community conversations, Ward said.

Editor’s note • Former Gov. Jon Huntsman is a brother of Paul Huntsman, Tribune owner and publisher.