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Minnesota has done a pretty good job reducing greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation. Reducing emissions from transportation could be harder

East 494 traffic congestion
Transportation, including passenger cars, light and heavy-duty trucks, aviation, trains and other modes of transportation, is now the biggest producer of greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota.

The good news is, greenhouse gas emissions have seen declines in Minnesota, even as the state’s adding people and its economy is growing.

The bad news is, the state isn’t meeting the goals it set more than a decade ago to reduce release of these gases, which trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere like a blanket and warm the planet, according to a report released this month by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

That’s despite the fact that emissions from electricity generation — once the biggest greenhouse gas emitting industry — have dropped markedly as the state has turned away from coal and toward less polluting power sources.

But as Minnesota looks toward its future, reducing greenhouse emissions significantly will require tackling what’s now the biggest cause of greenhouse gas pollution: transportation.

Not meeting goals

As part of a bipartisan effort under Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota passed the 2007 Next Generation Energy Act, set specific goals to cut emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane that build up in the atmosphere — by 15 percent between 2005 and 2015.

The state hasn’t lived up to the aspirations it set then. In 2016, the most recent year of data available, it had only cut emissions by 12 percent from the 2005 baseline, 3 percentage points behind its goal for 2015.

Greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota by year, 2005-2016
Source: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

Much of the reduction that did happen came from a dramatic drop in greenhouse pollutants from the electricity generation industry.

Around the time the Next Generation Energy Act was passed, the main reason electricity generation was pushing so much greenhouse gas into the atmosphere was the state’s reliance on coal for power.

While coal is still a big source of energy in Minnesota — and a big source of greenhouse gas emissions — its impact has diminished somewhat. In 2007, coal made up 59 percent of the state’s electricity generation, compared to 39 percent in 2017. In the same period, renewables went from 8 percent to 25 percent of energy generation. Natural gas, which pollutes less than coal, increased from 7 percent to 12 percent, according to the Minnesota Commerce Department.

Emissions by electricity generation source in Minnesota, 2016
Source: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

Those reductions were partly driven by state policies, such as the Renewable Energy Standard, requiring utilities to generate more electricity from renewable sources.

Switching from coal to cleaner sources of power has helped the state reduce its emissions from energy generation by 29 percent since 2005 overall, making it the shining star of industries in terms of greenhouse reductions, said Mary Jean Fenske, MPCA air policy unit supervisor.

“We’re getting more of our electricity coming from renewables like wind, and also more from natural gas, which are much cleaner sources,” Fenske said.

The MPCA expects to see continued reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from power generation as renewable energy becomes cheaper to generate and as utilities retire coal-powered plants. Between 2018 and 2026, nine coal-powered plants are slated to shut down.

Transportation lags

Not all greenhouse gas sources have seen such dramatic drops.

Case in point? Transportation, which has seen a smaller reduction in emissions: 8 percent since 2005. Transportation, including passenger cars, light and heavy-duty trucks, aviation, trains and other modes of transportation, is now the biggest producer of greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota.

Share of greenhouse gas emissions by Minnesota sector, 2016
Source: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

That’s despite cars getting more fuel-efficient. In 2005, the baseline year for Minnesota’s energy goals, the average car or truck went about 20 miles per gallon of fuel, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Today, that average is more than 25 miles per gallon.

But even as cars get more fuel-efficient, they’re getting bigger. As the economy has gotten better and gas has gotten cheaper, Minnesotans are choosing bigger vehicles again, contributing to growing emissions from light-duty trucks (that includes pickup trucks, SUVs, vans and crossovers), which make up 38 percent of transportation emissions, up from 34 percent in 2005. In 2011, light-duty trucks overtook passenger cars as the main vehicles on the road. Today, they make up about 57 percent of passenger vehicles on the road, compared to 43 percent that are smaller cars.

Emissions by transportation source in Minnesota
Source: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

Minnesotans are also driving more miles. After seeing reductions, the number of vehicle miles driven per resident of the state has increased slightly to about 10,800.

Total vehicle miles traveled in Minnesota, 2005-2016
Source: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

Unlike energy generation, where the actions of fewer big actors — power companies — make a big difference,  transportation depends more on the everyday choices made by Minnesotans.

“We continue to see people shifting to some of the larger vehicles, said Kari Palmer, of the MPCA. “Even though the larger vehicles are cleaner (than they were), they aren’t as fuel efficient as the smaller vehicles.”

Further complicating the policy picture for the state, transportation emissions have tended to be the purview of the federal government. The EPA has imposed regulations on vehicle emissions; if states want to impose stricter ones they need to get a waiver from the federal Clean Air Act. Only a few have. (The waivers or the standards themselves may get rolled back, something that President Donald Trump’s administration has discussed.)

Since transportation emissions make up such a big piece of the pie, decreasing them could be a big part of meeting the state’s 2025 goal to lower emissions by 30 percent below the 2005 baseline, and an 80 percent reduction by 2050.

To reach the 2015 reduction goal of 15 percent in just the transportation sector in 2016, the average Minnesotan would have to drive an estimated 1,500 fewer miles per year, wrote Frank Kohlasch, of the MPCA, in an email.

The MPCA expects to see reductions in emissions due to transportation as electric vehicles get less expensive and easier to charge. But even as Minnesotans do start to adopt electric vehicles, the change takes time, since people don’t switch out their cars every year.

Developing less carbon-intense fuel sources, making it easier for people to use public transit, walk or bike to destinations, are among other things that would help Minnesota reduce transportation emissions, Kohlasch wrote.

Reductions in other industries, including agriculture, forestry and land use (22 percent of greenhouse gas emissions), industrial (13 percent), residential (6 percent), commercial (5 percent) and waste (1 percent) would also help Minnesota work toward meeting its emissions goals.

A silver lining

Minnesota may have missed the mark on its 2015 greenhouse gas reduction goal, but there’s a silver lining in the report.

The fact that Minnesota has reduced its emissions even as its population and its economy grows shows the relationship between growth and greenhouse gas emissions is weakening, the MPCA says: average emissions per person are lower than they were in 2005, as have emissions per dollar produced by the state’s economy.

“What this means is that our state economy can grow without increasing greenhouse emissions,” the report says.

Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Keith Butcher on 01/25/2019 - 04:48 pm.

    I appreciate the acknowledgement that “greenhouse gas emissions have seen declines in Minnesota, even as the state’s adding people and its economy is growing” especially in the electric sector. I would like to point out that this is due to a two-prong approach, renewable generation as well as significant investments in energy efficiency. The efforts by the state and our utilities to address how consumers use energy and remain competitive in a world market should not be forgotten or minimized. To address greenhouse gas emissions cost-effectively we must continue to address both supply and demand. We should employ these same strategies in other sectors to continue to reduce greenhouse gas emissions even further. This can be achieved through increasing fuel economy standards and improvement of other end-use technologies.

  2. Submitted by Henry Johnson on 01/26/2019 - 08:22 am.

    Now all we need to do is to find a way to make monster sized trucks and SUV’s not seem ‘cool’ to so many drivers.

    Here we are, having our scientists work so hard to squeeze out every last bit of energy efficiency, while out there on any highway, we have huge numbers of SUV’s and trucks which weigh somewhere around 4,000 – 6,000, being used to haul around 1 person weighing 100 – 300 lbs.

    Talk about inefficient!

  3. Submitted by Alan Straka on 01/26/2019 - 12:19 pm.

    Has anyone done a study on whether bike lanes actually reduce emissions? I keep seeing lanes for motorized traffic converted to bike lanes which hardly anyone uses especially on days like today. This just impedes the orderly flow of traffic and I would guess increases the use of fuel. This isn’t the Netherlands, it just is not practical for the vast majority of people to do anything but drive. City planners seem to be living in a fantasy world where they think that by putting in bike lanes people will stop driving and start biking. They have seen “Field of Dreams” too many times. “Build it and they will come” (yeah, I know that isn’t the exact quote) does not work in real life.

    • Submitted by Edison Wagner on 01/27/2019 - 11:28 am.

      The percentage of bike commuters ticks up a percentage point per year in Minneapolis as we hold onto our status as one of the most bike friendly cities in the country by improving bike infrastructure. Nine times higher than the national average. I commute on my bike every day, so yes! Some lanes, like ones built between the sidewalk and parked cars, seem to put everyone at risk, pedestrian, driver, and cyclist, but in general people use it.

      I definitely appreciate them and hope to see more.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/27/2019 - 02:02 pm.

      Actually, you are completely wrong. It very much does work in real life. Building bike infrastructure leads to more people biking. I’m not sure why that is any kind of surprise.

      I’m also not sure why you think planners are living in a fantasy world in doing this. There is an overwhelming amount of data out there to support the idea that adding bike lanes increases biking. A simple Google search (which apparently is more investigation than you put into your comment) reveals dozens of different studies that support what is a pretty obvious concept.

      • Submitted by cory johnson on 01/27/2019 - 08:11 pm.

        The Star Tribune article said said 1% of all metro commuters bike to work. Granted it’s double .5% it was in 2006 but that’s still pretty low. Not sure the planners noticed but it’s pretty dicey weather here for about 5-6 months

        • Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 01/28/2019 - 07:35 pm.

          Winter weather cuts bike ridership by 2/3, as a general rule. But a lot of that is variable and relative… 25º weather is very nice for bicycling if you have the right gear and there are proper bike lanes.

    • Submitted by Matthew Steele on 01/28/2019 - 01:45 pm.

      We should be reducing lanes for cars, even if bicycles and bike lanes didn’t even exist. Induced demand is a thing. Because we have excess road capacity, people drive more. If we had less road capacity, people would drive less. We have spent generations subsidizing the separation of points A and B for the vast majority of people, and we’re paying a dear price environmentally and fiscally.

      • Submitted by Malcolm Parker on 01/08/2020 - 01:18 pm.

        Re: reduced lanes & traffic flow. It is my understanding from MN DOT & other sources that reducing a 4 lane road to 2 traffic lanes & a bidirectional center left turn lane marginally improves traffic flow & leaves room for bike lanes, albeit sharing the curb lane for a right turn lane.
        This solution (in evidence on 7th St = Fort Rd = 5) allows flow in a single lane without turns impeding flow.

  4. Submitted by Paul Yochim on 01/26/2019 - 05:06 pm.

    Just out of curiosity, how are these greenhouse gas emissions being measured?

  5. Submitted by Jack Bohnhoff on 01/26/2019 - 06:17 pm.

    WRT transporation emissions, I claim that a goal should be to *eliminate end-user emissions* by emphasizing electric vehicles. *Electricity producers* would then be the focus for reduction in the use of fossil fuels, and the emphasis on renewables. Of course, we’d need support for enhanced electricity distribution, charging stations, and for the use of electric vehicles and electrified public transportation. And incentives for electricity producers. There is already a lot of talk along these lines. Let’s support this.

    • Submitted by Malcolm Parker on 01/09/2020 - 06:25 pm.

      I was startled a few weeks ago when the new rapid transit electric buses were replaced by standard diesel buses for a day [or two?] News reports stated that the diesel generators at the end of the line had a problem.
      If I understand this, the electric buses are tied to diesel generators, making them pretty but in effect simply diesel-electric buses, which do export exhaust to the end of the line, but offer no freedom from hydrocarbon energy use.

  6. Submitted by Leslie Davis on 01/26/2019 - 07:34 pm.

    While it’s always acceptable to reduce contamination, the biggest problem is ozone depletion. The ozone layer moderates radiation received by the Earth from the sun and that’s a serious climate and health problem occurring as you read this. A thinner ozone layer means serious problems. How’s your air conditioner doing? CFC’s should get more attention. Look it up.
    Leslie Davis, President

  7. Submitted by Edison Wagner on 01/27/2019 - 11:23 am.

    Thank you for covering this! In a conversation about political expediency as a measure of ideas that keeps viable solutions out of the public discussion, somebody I know gave the example of no one ever suggesting raising taxes to make all public transportation free. If legislators agreed to raise taxes slightly, all public transportation could be free in six months without any changes to infrastructure, and the increased demand would put more drivers and mechanics to work. I asked a group of MPD officers what they thought of it last night, and whether it would cost any of them jobs; they unanimously said, “no.” PD will still have to check the trains for smokers and rule breakers, run outreach operations to the people who live on that rail system, and keep passengers safe. Why not?

    • Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 01/28/2019 - 07:36 pm.

      Great idea. It’d be something like $100M a year in Minnesota, and with the right tax incentives it could be a win-win.

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