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As greenhouse emissions from power plants decline, a new focus on vehicles

Vehicle exhaust now represents the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota. Here are some things we can do to reduce them.

photo fo cars on a freeway
Driving less often may be the most direct recommendation on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions related to vehicles, but it is not always easy for people to do, even if they are aware and concerned about climate change.
Courtesy of MnDOT

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency recently released “The Air We Breathe,” a report to the state Legislature on air quality that state statute requires every two years. One item in the 27-page report that drew particular attention was the fact that for the first time, vehicle exhaust represented the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota, exceeding emissions from power plants. While Minnesota is making progress in reducing emissions associated with global climate change, the state is still short of the goals it set for itself in when it passed the Next Generation Energy Act in 2007, which sought to cut emissions 30 percent by 2025 and 80 percent by 2050.

Robert Moffitt

Nationwide, the news is even worse. U.S. carbon dioxide emissions rose an estimated 3.4 percent in 2018, according to a report issued this month by the Rhodium Group, an independent economic research firm.

So, if vehicle exhaust is now our state’s leading source of greenhouse gases, what can we do to reduce them?

Here are some of the things we could do, and some things we’re already doing that you may not be aware of.

Drive less

Driving less often may be the most direct recommendation on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions related to vehicles, but it is not always easy for people to do, even if they are aware and concerned about climate change. Encouraging the use of public transportation comes to mind, as well as thoughtful planning of our cities, suburbs, and transportation systems.

After decades of designing cities and roads solely for cars and trucks, today there is greater attention to pedestrian and bike routes. With more options for vehicle sharing programs and ride-hailing services, some Minnesotans are rethinking long-held views on driving and car ownership.

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Unfortunately, “The Air We Breathe” report also shows another trend: Many more Minnesotans are buying and driving vehicles that emit more greenhouse gases than sedans. According to the report, 57 percent of our vehicles are pickup trucks, SUVs, and crossovers, which are the source of 70 percent of the passenger vehicle emissions in the state. If this trend continues unchanged, it will be difficult to see significant reductions in the future.

Cleaner alternatives

Most of Minnesota’s fuel for vehicles, trains, boats and aircraft is made from petroleum from the Tar Sands region of Alberta, Canada. This crude has the unfortunate distinction of having an unusually high carbon footprint, due to the extra energy required to extract and refine the oil. Tar Sands oil also requires vast amounts of fresh water to refine into the products we buy at the corner fuel station. All of our petroleum is imported from outside the state, as Minnesota has no oil reserves.

What Minnesota does have is abundant corn and soybean harvests, and with these we have made more progress toward using biofuels than any other state. We lead the nation in E85 (a high ethanol fuel that can be used in flex fuel vehicles); stations, with more than 400 statewide; and we were the first state to require virtually all of our diesel fuel to include a biodiesel blend. In the warm weather months, we use a 20 percent biodiesel blend; in the cold months we use a 5 percent blend. A new blend of gasoline with a slightly higher ethanol blend, known as Unleaded 88 or E15, is also available at more than 300 stations in Minnesota.

Both ethanol and biodiesel help to reduce both greenhouse gas emissions and traditional air pollutants. For example, we estimate that our statewide use of biodiesel last year reduced greenhouse gas emissions by more than 1 million tons – the equivalent of taking more than 200,000 vehicles off the road. Similarly, based on data from the U.S. Department of Energy, using E85 instead of gasoline in a flex fuel vehicle can reduce lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent.

Plug in

There were roughly 6,000 electric vehicles registered in Minnesota in 2018. While this represents a small percentage of the total number of vehicles on the road, each vehicle represents a significant reduction in emissions, and this reduction will only increase as more plug-in vehicles are rolled out and our sources of electricity become cleaner and renewable.

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The number of public charging stations in Minnesota continues to grow, and electric vehicle technology is improving quickly, allowing longer trips between charges. The internal combustion engine will likely be with us for many years to come, but it is now clear that plug-in vehicles also have a place on Minnesota roads, and they will play an important role in reducing emissions in the future.

In some specialized vehicles, cleaner-burning gaseous fuels such as compressed natural gas (CNG) and propane are replacing petroleum fuels. There are already a number of school buses and delivery trucks running on propane fuel, and a growing number of trash haulers, recycling trucks and even commuter buses are running on CNG.

While the challenges outlined in “The Air We Breathe” are real, so is the commitment by many in government, nonprofits, and private companies to find solutions to vehicle-related air emissions. We are driven to save our air, and to help save our planet in the process.

Robert Moffitt is the communications director for the American Lung Association in Minnesota.


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