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St. Paul joins Minnesota cities planning for action on climate change 

St. Paul
MinnPost file photo by Rita Kovtun
St. Paul is joining the ranks of Minnesota cities with official plans aimed at combating climate change.

By now, everyone has memorized the lede. Climate change is a global problem posing an existential crisis for human society. Fossil fuel energy is baked into our economy and culture, making political solutions seem impossible. Many nations, especially the United States, are moving backwards on reducing carbon emissions. And every week reveals new, alarming facts about sea ice, permafrost, weather disasters, and/or mass extinctions. 

The daunting problem makes meaningful change seem impossible, so most people post something on Facebook, slap a sticker on their car, and carry on with their lives. But it turns out that city governments are trying to step into the vacuum of climate inertia, and this summer St. Paul is joining the ranks of Minnesota cities with official plans aimed at combating climate change. The big goal is to become carbon neutral within 30 years.

“Whether these goals are extremely ambitious is an open question, but a lot of folks are coming to the same conclusion,” explained Russ Stark, the city’s chief resilience officer. “These are the goals we need to hit, but they are going to be very challenging given current conditions.”

The draft plan reflects a promise that the previous mayor, Chris Coleman, made coming out of the Paris Agreement in 2015. The commitment by city governments is important because, even as Minnesota is making progress on overall electricity generation — the state’s largest utility, Xcel Energy, has promised to become carbon neutral by 2050 — other sectors of society are not seeing the same levels of progress.

“The plan focuses our attention more on [the city’s] two other big areas of contribution of emissions,” explained Stark, nodding to the progress on renewable energy. “[One is] building heating or thermal energy. Even if we move to 100 percent renewable electricity, we’re still heating buildings with natural gas. Just over 60 percent of emissions from St. Paul  come from buildings and another 30 percent comes from the transportation sector.”

In addition to boosting energy efficiency through a variety of audit subsidies and new construction ordinances (more on that in a moment), the city’s plan is ambitious about reducing transportation emissions, a longstanding problem in St. Paul. It aims to decrease carbon emissions from the transportation sector by boosting electrification and reducing driving. 

“Those basic tools in the toolbox aren’t much different today than 20, 30, 40 years ago,” admitted Stark, pointing at the need for transit, and to design streets for bicycling and walking. “But now we’re identifying the need to accelerate them by, for example, getting rid of parking requirements in new developments so that, at the very least, the city is not the driver of encouraging the continued use of more automobiles.” 

The draft goal is to reduce the overall vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in St. Paul by 2.5 percent each year. Another key plank of St. Paul’s approach is the electrification of the city’s fleet vehicles. For example, the most widely used city vehicles are police cars. Stark is hopeful that the Police Department can begin investing in an electric fleet: in the near term, for pool vehicles, and maybe someday moving to electric squad cars.

St. Paul 2015 greenhouse gas inventory
City of St. Paul
St. Paul 2015 greenhouse gas inventory

Once a plan passes, then what?

“A plan is useful, but the devil is always in the details,” said Kim Havey, the director of sustainability for Minneapolis, and Stark’s counterpart to the west. Compared to St. Paul, Minneapolis is ahead of the curve on climate action. Its plan has been on the books for more than five years, and the challenge now is finding the right policies to achieve the city’s stated goals.

As a result, Havey is focusing on a combination of regulation and behavioral approaches to reducing carbon emissions. “We need to combine the ethical with the social, and create strategies that ask, ‘What are the human-based outcomes that motivate people?’” Havey said.

The idea is for Minneapolis to move away from a quantitative approach to changing behavior, and to think more about what drives day-to-day decisions. For example, Havey pointed to the problem of speeding up the city’s buses, so that they become more competitive with driving. 

“Trying to educate people about their carbon footprint can be helpful, but only to a small segment of society,” explained Havey. “How do we get people to understand that the goals that align with action are also goals that create a cleaner city, and a healthier lifestyle?” 

Compared to St. Paul, Minneapolis has had more success reducing its overall vehicle-miles-traveled levels; they are actually down 2 percent over the last decade, making Minneapolis one of very few American cities where that’s the case. (That said, that pace of reduction in driving is still far from meeting the city’s goals.) Policymakers are thus shifting more of their focus to energy used for the heating and cooling of buildings. The result is a complicated series of ordinances, requirements, inspections, and behavior nudging. For example, new buildings are offered a choice of conforming to LEED certification or participating in Energy Star evaluations.

These efforts culminate in a citywide “benchmark” — which, Havey is happy to point out, shows good progress for commercial energy reductions.

“Typically, benchmarking focuses on transparency and behavior,” Havey said. “Nudging property owners to compete and try to reduce energy to ‘keep ahead of the Joneses,’ so to speak. [That gets you to a] 1 or 2 percent annual reduction, but in places with more progressive policies, buildings have been seeing 4 percent average energy-use reduction.

Earlier this year, the city floated a change to the “truth in sale” ordinance that aims to reduce energy for the thousands of residential homes in the city. The new rule would require energy audits during the sale of homes, with the aim of encouraging investments in insulation, windows, or other carbon reduction technologies.

“Research shows that there is a very high level of interest in making improvements to a home immediately before you sell and immediately after you buy a home,” said Havey. “With this truth-in-sale housing rule, typically speaking, there are between 5,000 and 6,000 homes sold [each year]. This requirement will kick in for any home going on the market.”

St. Paul 2050 reduction scenario (click to view fill size)
City of St. Paul
St. Paul 2050 reduction scenario (click to view fill size)
Both Stark and Havey realize that city policies alone won’t be enough to alter the course of the earth’s atmosphere, but something has to be done, and change has to start somewhere. Climate Action Plans might lead the way for future efforts at other levels of government.

“There’s certainly a growing number of Climate Action Plans,” explained Ben Passer, the director of energy access and equity for Fresh Energy, a local energy nonprofit. “Minneapolis, St. Paul, St. Louis Park, and Grand Marais have all developed or started the process of developing these plans. We know that this is not a priority currently at the federal level, so there’s a critical role for cities to play.”

The hope for St. Paul’s Stark is that climate action spreads to other cities and states, and winds up making a difference. He sees St. Paul taking a leadership role in working with others.

“We’re going to need to up our game, and our participation in the regional, local, and statewide conversation,” said Stark. “Those transit investments are the backbone of how we‘re going to create a city in which having a car is less necessary for people’s daily lives. You really get a lot of benefits when you get to the point where more people don’t have to own a car for their daily needs both for them as individuals, as households, and for the city.”

St. Paul’s plan is currently in draft form, and the city is accepting comments right now, aimed at improving the plan before it goes before the City Council. 

Meanwhile, Stark’s more positive message is one shared by Kim Havey, who has been trying to emphasize climate action as a way to improve people’s lives.

“I always end by talking about the future this brings us,” said Havey. “It’s one where people are healthier, happier, have more leisure, are more connected with people socially, and we have more equity. If we use this as a way to also create a more equitable society, this can have a tremendous amount of benefit for everyone, but we need to stop being pulled in the wrong direction by fossil fuel companies and large investor-owned companies which don’t have society’s best interest at heart.”

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Alex Schieferdecker on 06/25/2019 - 01:46 pm.

    The attention being paid to building energy is encouraging. Everyone can get behind more efficient ways of heating and cooling buildings, and there’s a clear political and public pathway towards making progress.

    In contrast, the lack of progress made on transportation emissions is extremely discouraging. St. Paul in particular seems completely unable to take actions that would discourage driving. While the city paints the occasional bike lane and supports the occasional transit project, it puts most of its money on enabling and improving the experience of drivers. From Ayd Mill Road to the RiverCentre ramp, the city is spending and proposing to spend millions of dollars on infrastructure to spare drivers even the slightest inconvenience.

    Ultimately St. Paul is going to need to come to terms with this failure of leadership and imagination. Let’s hope it’s not too late!

    • Submitted by Kellan Mcdonald on 06/25/2019 - 03:53 pm.

      You can’t bike from the outer suburbs to St. Paul. Buses don’t stop on every corner in the suburbs. You don’t want cars in the city, yet you need the people in the suburbs money to pay the taxes.

    • Submitted by John Evans on 07/01/2019 - 05:06 pm.

      That’s not true! We’ve got lots of “sharrows.”

  2. Submitted by Kellan Mcdonald on 06/25/2019 - 03:51 pm.

    So St. Paul in the name of the church of global warming, global cooling, climate change has decided to burden the citizens with taxation and regulation under the guise that it makes a difference. 1st thing 1st. The absolute naivety that 200,000 people think they can affect the climate is beyond imagine. 2nd the idea that climate change is anything but a money and power grab reveals the absolute ineptitude of the voters who continue to send these climate “warriors” back to city hall. These regulations and burdens the city is going to lay upon the citizens living thier today and those living there tomorrow will only hurt those communities they portend to be helping and alienate and push away those communities who earn enough money to fill the city coffers to pay for this garbage. Those poor communities who these climate champions claim they care so much about will be disproportionately affected and harmed by the new housing regulations these people propose. Builders will not be eating any new costs and they will pass them on the buyer. Affordable housing will become non existent and builders will be instead look to buy property cheap, demolish, and build expensive condos or apartments for those making well above the poverty limit. Increasing homelessness and crime within the minority communities in St. Paul. Wealthy and middle class tax payers will flee to the suburbs to escape the increase taxes, poor schools, and crime, look at what is happening in Minneapolis. Lastly, the metro area is home to 3.5 million people. St. Paul and Minneapolis combined don’t add up to 1 million. Meaning the businesses within these cities and urban cores need people from the suburbs to come into the city and shop and spend money. Not everyone wants to live downtown. Some people want to put thier kids in good schools and not have to deal with increasing crime. To demand and build downtown(s) for Mass transit and punish those people who would drive only forces the very thing you wish to avoid, suburban sprawl. Developers are now building retail and apartment spaces in the inner ring suburbs because parking and traffic within the city are horrible. These ideas and policy are doing the exact opposite of what these people claim they will do. However, their voters will continue to believe that the elected officials care about them. News flash! They dont!

    • Submitted by Drew Gmitro on 06/25/2019 - 06:12 pm.

      I couldn’t agree with you more. Very well said. I’m planning my exit from Minnesota in the next few years taking my business too. I’m not going to contribute more of my pay check, nor my employee’s, to this garbage. Why should the US suffer under these ridiculous “global warming” taxes when most other large countries, ala China, Russia, India, Pakistan and other’s, take advantage. No way. I’m not buying in to any of it. The liberals want this garbage, let them pay. I refuse to. Can’t wait to leave this liberal state. Minneapolis, St. Paul, Rochester, and Duluth are ruining Minnesota.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/26/2019 - 10:21 am.

        Sorry its not working out for you. The good news is that despite all the people who leave or threaten to leave (I know people who have been leaving St. Paul “soon” for 20 years now) far more people are coming here and the population is growing rapidly.

      • Submitted by Brian Gandt on 06/26/2019 - 07:09 pm.

        That sounds like you’re not willing to take personal responsibility.

        There was a time our nation led, but we are quickly descending to a “milk it for all that is left” mentality.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/25/2019 - 06:47 pm.

      First of all, lets use some paragraphs next time around.

      Second, St. Paul voters understand and believe in climate change because they are scientifically literate. If you are someone who doesn’t recognize the effects of man-made climate change, that kind of colors how seriously any of your opinions should be taken.

      Third, and finally, I see a lot of people recite this kind of doom and gloom about St. Paul. But the weird thing is that people keep coming here – it had the biggest population growth in the state in 2017. And our current mayor was elected in a landslide. Don’t worry, we know what we’re doing here.

  3. Submitted by Sid Pranke on 06/26/2019 - 10:50 am.

    Great piece, but I worry we need big changes by 2030, not 2050.

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