As we’ve reported in recent weeks, there is much to celebrate in the progress made by Minnesota utilities in reducing their carbon emissions. Those changes not only address climate change— they also mean cleaner air and more jobs, while having little impact on electricity prices, at least so far.
That’s the good news.
More troubling is the fact that other major sources of planet-warming carbon aren’t keeping pace with the state’s utilities, and that’s stymied Minnesota’s progress on reducing all sources of carbon emissions. Back in 2007, the Legislature approved the Next Generation Energy Act with bipartisan support, including the signature of then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty. It set a goal to reduce combined greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels across all economic sectors by 15 percent by 2015, 30 percent by 2025 and 80 percent by 2050.
While many of the state’s electric utilities have made substantial progress, the same can’t be said for the state’s transportation and agriculture sectors. The lack of progress on those fronts is putting Minnesota behind the schedule lawmakers established in 2007. Overall, statewide emissions have declined by only about eight percent over 2005 levels, based on the latest data from the state’s Pollution Control Agency. We should be at more than 20 percent.
Fortunately, Gov. Tim Walz is hoping to keep the pressure on. He announced a new initiative this past week that would push the state’s electric utilities to reach 100 percent carbon-free power production by 2040, ten years earlier than previous targets. Given that utilities are already ahead of schedule, it’s a goal that could be achievable and, if so, it would help the state make more progress toward overall carbon reductions.
But there’s so much more that needs to be done. If anything, we now know that the goals and timelines established here in 2007, aren’t aggressive enough to truly address the threats posed by climate change.
Generating clean electricity is part of the battle, but it’s not the whole solution. Transitioning our transportation sector to carbon-free sources of energy is critical. The Biden administration took an important step in that direction this week with its announcement that it would restore stricter fuel economy standards for U.S. automobiles, a move that was greeted enthusiastically by most U.S. automakers. Those same manufacturers had objected when President Trump opted to roll back gas mileage standards, so the new direction is welcome to most in the industry. Here in Minnesota, the Walz administration should also be pushing incentives for the purchase of electric vehicles.
Even more important is designing a future where we have less need for driving. The transition to remote work is a valuable part of the answer, as we’ve already seen during the COVID-19 pandemic. Highways in many urban areas, which are normally choked with cars during rush hour, have been remarkably uncluttered in recent months as so many workers are now working from home. That change has also noticeably cleared the air in many major cities, which highlights the fact that fighting climate change has a multitude of societal benefits.
In agriculture, we already know how to make progress— it’s just a question of giving farmers the right incentives. Conservation tillage means less fuel is consumed by heavy farm equipment. Reducing nitrogen fertilizer use also helps, and both of these methods provide the additional benefit of reducing soil erosion and runoff of farm chemicals into lakes and streams. Again, fighting climate change brings benefits across the board.
Farmers should also be encouraged to convert marginal lands to perennial vegetation, like shrubs or trees, that provide critical wildlife habitat at the same time that they remove carbon from the air. We need to revamp the Conservation Reserve Program for the 21st century to make this happen.
Perhaps what we need most of all is a return to the bipartisan agreement around fighting climate change that Minnesota and the nation previously enjoyed. Republican leaders need to fight back against the anti-science attitudes that seem to have infected so much of the GOP base. COVID-19 isn’t a hoax invented by China, and neither is climate change. Yet, when large numbers of Americans fall victim to such false claims, it seriously hampers our ability to address such threats.
When it comes to climate change, we don’t have the luxury of delaying action. We’re already behind schedule.