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“On the ClearPath” Interview with Aspen, CO

“On the ClearPath” interview series is an opportunity to highlight stories and experiences from ICLEI members as well as ClearPath users in an effort to bring greater awareness to the power of ClearPath. With hundreds of local governments actively leveraging the platform to monitor and track their municipal and community scale emissions, ClearPath is becoming the premiere local government emissions management platform.

We continue our blog series with Aspen, CO, a long standing climate leader and forward thinking community. We sat down “virtually” with Chris Menges, Data Research & Project Planner at the City’s Canary Initiative to learn more about the City’s climate and sustainability goals as well as his experience with ClearPath.GondolaAboveCitySummerSB


What action plans does Aspen have in place to combat climate change and further improve community well-being? 

The City of Aspen finalized the Canary Action Plan in 2007 (our first climate action plan) which outlines our adopted GHG reduction targets and presents mitigation strategies for all sectors. Our “30X20” and “80X50” targets apply to both the community as a whole and to government operations. A comprehensive and continually evolving set of strategies has helped us make progress in both these of areas.

In government operations for example, every city department has an annual climate-related goal to which employee bonuses are linked. This innovative way to ensure that all city staff understand the importance of doing their part has helped maintain the city’s ongoing climate commitment over the past 10 years and made it a part of our organizational culture. At the community scale, Aspen’s municipal electric utility recently began supplying consumers with 100% renewable energy while maintaining some of the lowest rates in the state, and insulating ratepayers from the price volatilities of fossil-derived energy. Our robust transit network has reduced traffic and congestion. These two examples are among many demonstrating the quality of life and economic co-benefits that often accompany sustainability measures.

Aspen is currently developing a resiliency plan/strategy based off a sophisticated region-specific vulnerability assessment that was published in 2014. We are also in the process of updating our community-wide climate action plan to achieve deep GHG reductions by 2050.

Is Aspen reaching its emissions goals?

On the government operations side, the city is tracking well ahead of schedule. In 2014 we had reduced emissions 42% below our 2004 baseline, surpassing our 30×20 target 6 years ahead of schedule. The challenge now will be maintaining that in these post-recession years, as demand for our services continually grows. The magnitude of these reductions can be attributed in large part to major changes in our electricity portfolio, though progress has been made in other areas as well. This also shows that we have considerable work to do in order to reach our 2050 GHG target. At the community scale, our 2014 Inventory showed that economy-wide GHG emissions have been reduced by 7.44% since 2004. Specifically, our built environment sector saw an 11% reduction due to increased procurement of renewable energy. Readers can get the details by checking out our Climate Action Progress Page! Clearly, while progress has been made, the rate of reduction at the community scale will need to accelerate in order to meet our 2020 and 2050 targets.

What are the challenges with emissions data at the government operations and community scale?

As most of the local government community can likely attest, it’s time-intensive to collect and format data while we could be deploying measures. Even though Aspen has a municipal utility, it is challenging to get consistent data across all sectors such as transportation and waste. One specific challenge is the application of broader data sets to our specific geographic area. Some data providers have the ability to do geospatial aggregation and some do not, so ensuring consistency requires both creativity and legwork. One major focus for us is figuring out ways to communicate outputs in a salient way to further motivate action. Another ongoing focus involves collecting more granular data to develop more robust insights for refining and developing policies/mitigation activities. Finally, we know that major opportunities for improved efficiency in data collection and analysis are possible if we can bring all relevant departments together around a singular energy data management platform that serves everyone’s needs.

How has ICLEI’s ClearPath tool helped inform decision making around implementation measures?

Following the recent completion of our 2014 community-wide inventory, we are using ClearPath to forecast GHG emissions through 2020 and 2050. Because the community is served by two different electric utilities (one of which the city owns/operates) and because we needed to create sector and utility-specific growth factors based on historic trends, we are doing modeling in spreadsheets outside of the tool and then plugging our growth factors into it to calculate emissions trajectories. This spreadsheet/ClearPath approach generally follows the one we used during the community-wide inventory process.

Following GHG forecasting, we plan to use the planning module to scale the necessary magnitude of reduction – specific to each sector – in relation to our long term targets. Essentially, we hope the tool (in conjunction with our own process) will enable us identify the gap between forecast emissions and target emissions and then fill that gap with a plausible scale of the potential reductions in each sector. Once we have scaled what’s plausible and necessary in each sector, we plan on using that information to guide and frame a climate action planning process. Ideally, this will be an inclusive and engaging exercise with the community that leads us to an updated and deployable climate action plan. We aspire to cultivate buy-in and continue stakeholder engagement during implementation (which will be ongoing). Once mitigation measures have been finalized and are implemented, we anticipate tracking their efficacy in ClearPath.

What story is Aspen trying to tell with the data generated in ClearPath? 

Essentially, the story of the value and necessity for communities to engage in GHG emissions measurement, management and planning. The emissions measurement and management story is basically that measuring emissions allows a community to adopt a reduction target and craft a plan to meet it. Using ClearPath is a streamlined way to bring the various data components together. Sustained commitment to meeting the target helps engage and motivate community action and more advanced practices like forecasting and scenario planning are ultimately helpful for crafting a quantitatively defensible strategy to get there. In Aspen, the broader story we are trying to tell with GHG tracking is that we’ve come pretty far, but have a lot farther to go. The follow-up lesson there is that city government won’t be able to do this alone or in a bubble – we need the entire community and all sectors involved to get close to 80% GHG reductions by 2050.

What do you like the most about using ClearPath?

It’s a clean and handy platform where everything is in one place; we know that we can always retrace our steps. A centralized platform will help future users with replicability and eliminates much of the guess work as compared to previous tools. I have really enjoyed pairing ClearPath with the US Community Protocol as it adds to the defensibility of our approach and inventory product, and comparability to other municipalities. Given that we have fairly robust staff capacity for a community of our size, we also hope that our early adoption of and feedback on ClearPath will help refine the process so that emissions management can be adopted more seamlessly in other cities and towns. We are very encouraged that ICLEI’s work in developing and refining these tools can help ease the barrier of entry for municipalities that have yet to get started on this process.

Do you have any advice to others starting to use ClearPath?

I would say “jump right in” as the tool is relatively self-explanatory and ICLEI’s support has been very helpful. It’s important to familiarize yourself with GHG concepts and protocols like the LGOP, US Community Protocol and Global Reporting Protocol for Community scale inventories. The tool is easy enough to utilize without having a specific background in inventorying but I’d say that a fundamental understanding of the concepts is helpful to necessary.

What is your favorite climate mitigation or adaptation program in Aspen?

Seeing the media response following our municipal utility’s achievement of its 100% renewable energy goal has been very exciting and seems to be contributing to many broader conversations that are happening all the way up to the international level. Our Mayor is currently at COP21 in Paris where amongst other meetings he’ll be engaging with other members of the 100%RE Cities network. As mentioned, we’ve been able to maintain some of the lowest electricity rates in the state, so it’s a pretty compelling story to share.