Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership
Last week, the State of Minnesota released a greenhouse gas emissions report that, while not an unadulterated success story, is a breath of fresh air for climate action. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has found that Minnesota’s climate emissions fell by 23% between 2005 and 2020, and we are finally on track to hit the 30% by 2025 reduction benchmark set out in the 2007 Next Generation Energy Act if we continue on this course.
While some of these emissions reductions came about because the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted travel and consumption patterns, this trend line is still a win. Even as Minnesota’s economy continues to grow, it’s gotten more efficient and more reliant on clean sources of energy. That’s good news for all of us, especially as Minnesota is one of the fastest-warming states. It’s especially good for low-income areas and communities of color, who suffer disproportionate pollution from fossil fuel infrastructure.
The big challenge now will be tackling the other three-quarters of emissions remaining in order to get us to a net-zero economy – the goal that internationally-accepted science tells us is necessary. Coal, natural gas, and petroleum still provide most of our energy, and it’s going to take a combination of smart land use, efficiency, and electrification to end our reliance on these dirty fuels. We’ll need to embrace real solutions for our future while avoiding half-measures and dead-end pathways that will delay our progress in the long term.
The electric success story
The lion’s share of the credit for this drop belongs to the electricity sector, now our third-largest source of emissions. Emissions from the sector have dropped by a whopping 54% since 2005. That’s largely thanks to wind power, which has grown astronomically in Minnesota the past decade. Solar has played an important role as well, and its continued growth is likely to make it a key component going forward.
The electricity sector is only poised to get cleaner now that Governor Walz has signed the 100% carbon-free electricity bill into law. Minnesota has now set out a path to reach carbon-free electricity economy wide by 2040, one of the most ambitious timelines in the nation.
The 100% bill isn’t the end-all be-all for clean power, but it sets up a framework for Minnesota’s electric utilities to reach zero emissions while providing reliable, affordable electricity. Thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act and the already low price of wind and solar power, our state is poised to ramp up our clean energy growth much faster than before.
Some environmental justice concerns remain – MEP has spoken out about inclusion of large hydroelectric dams, which have had harmful impacts on indigenous communities. While more work needs to be done to these issues, we are pleased overall with this bill’s passage.
Not everyone is convinced that this policy will succeed. During the debate in the Legislature, some claimed – without evidence – that the bill would result in blackouts and higher prices for consumers. Even if clean energy were less reliable, the bill contains provisions that would allow utilities flexibility if they have trouble providing power. But it should be a moot point, because wind and solar are, in fact, reliable sources, when combined with new storage technologies like the iron-air battery farm Xcel plans to build at the old Sherco Coal Plant. And it’s worth noting that the bill doesn’t remove Minnesota’s two nuclear plants from the mix. The only real losers from 100% will be out of state fossil fuel producers, who are likely to continue raising a stink about this policy to prop up their failing fuels.
In some ways, electricity emissions are the low-hanging fruit of the climate action challenge. It’s economical to switch from coal and gas and doesn’t require significant lifestyle changes from most people. But it’s also the foundation for cleaning up our other sectors, which will be far cleaner when powered by cheap, carbon-free electricity.
The transportation challenge
The MPCA has found that, unsurprisingly, transportation continues to be our number one source of emissions in Minnesota. Most of those emissions are from light-duty vehicles – the cars, trucks, and SUVs that Minnesotans use to commute. These emissions have fallen since 2005, but the MPCA says that most of that impact is due to the pandemic’s disruption to driving patterns.
In order to cut back on the carbon from our cars, we need to cut back on the number of polluting gas- and diesel-powered vehicles on the road. Part of the solution is electric vehicles, with those that make frequent stops – like school buses and mail and garbage trucks – especially helpful candidates for electrification. On the other hand, EVs alone won’t get us where we need to go, nor will false solutions like boosting ethanol, which may be as carbon-intensive as conventional gas. But it is important that we dramatically lower the carbon content of our transportation fuel. We’re doing it with electrical generation, now we need to drive our transportation fuel to a carbon free level as well.
Another significant piece is to cut our vehicle miles traveled, especially in the Twin Cities Metro area that is the growing source of most of these miles. It’s not a mystery how this can be accomplished. We simply need to make it far easier for people to get where they need to go without relying on a car.
Minnesota needs a public transit system that is safe, reliable, and convenient for all who ride it. Bus and train service that is too slow, too infrequent, or unpleasant to ride won’t attract riders, in turn costing transit systems revenue in a vicious cycle of service downgrades. The solution isn’t to give up on transit, it’s to make it more attractive – and electric-powered – using state and federal dollars.
Fortunately, the Legislature is considering investments and new, ongoing revenue for Metro Transit that can help fill gaps in the network. There are also proposals to fund rail service between the Twin Cities and Duluth, the two largest metro areas in the state.
Beyond transit, Minnesota communities should make it easier to walk and bike safely to our destinations. Safe routes are a big part of the puzzle – many people who would like to use active transportation can’t or won’t do so because they don’t have sidewalks or safe lanes. And allowing more people to live close to jobs and amenities can make a big difference, not just for transportation, but for preserving natural spaces that would otherwise be replaced by sprawl.
Agriculture and Land Use
Minnesota’s total emissions from farms, forests, and other lands stayed at almost the same level between 2005 and 2020, making this the second-largest sector in the state. Growing row crops – mostly corn and soybeans – and raising livestock in large feedlots has a heavy greenhouse gas toll, especially when it comes to nitrous oxide and methane. On the flip side Minnesota’s forests and prairies counter some of those emissions by absorbing carbon dioxide. The challenge, then, is reducing the emissions from the former and boosting the emissions sinks so that Minnesota’s land can work for us on climate, not against us.
To get it done, we’ll need to reduce the amount of inputs like fertilizers and pesticides that we put on farmland. Emerging groups and farming practices pioneered by the Forever Green Initiative can help by replenishing our depleted soil, which can then better maintain carbon and nutrient levels. Reducing the intensity of animal agriculture would also be a big help, which is why MEP supports small farms, local foods, and grazing practices that help sequester carbon.
Meanwhile, we need to make sure that our prairies, peatlands, and forests are protected and restored. MEP is glad to see investments in these resources in Governor Walz’s proposed budget, including money to replace community forest canopies ravaged by emerald ash borers. As our summer heat waves get harsher, the cooling effect of trees will be a key environmental and climate justice issue.
Minnesota’s industrial greenhouse gas emissions bucked the positive trend of electricity, rising by 14% from 2005 to 2020. They’ve likely peaked, but we still have much to do to replace oil and natural gas with electric technologies. Minnesota’s storied iron industry, for example, is a prime candidate for more electric-powered infrastructure.
Homes and businesses
Minnesota’s buildings are still highly reliant on oil and gas for warmth, cooking, and other purposes. Housing emissions increased 14%, while commercial emissions happily fell by 22%. At this point, the big lift will be investing heavily in insulation and other efficiency measures while replacing gas furnaces across the state with electric heat pumps.
While they’ve been viewed with skepticism by some in our wintery state, heat pumps are proving to work well in cold climates. Cold countries like Finland, Norway, and Switzerland are seeing massive growth in heat pump uptake, partly to reduce reliance on unreliable natural gas from Russia. A similar strategy in Minnesota would help reduce price shocks from outside events like the 2021 winter storms in Texas.
Getting to zero
It won’t be a walk in the park to zero out Minnesota’s carbon emissions, especially as fossil fuel companies continue to fight against the clean energy transition. But it won’t be impossible, either. With rapid advances in technology, newfound political will at the Legislature, and thousands of ordinary Minnesotans working for change, we’re going to get it done.
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