Critics take aim at climate change recommendations

Sensitive birch
Paper birch trees are extremely sensitive to changes in the environment. In recent years the species has declined considerably in Minnesota. Some think global warming is to blame.
Photo Courtesy of John Rajala

The group spent nearly a year coming up with about 50 policy recommendations for how the state can reduce its carbon footprint.

The ideas include such things as requiring more efficient cars and trucks, changing agricultural practices to keep carbon in the soil, and setting up a carbon-trading market.

The final report is due this week. But several conservative groups teamed up to critique the report. They paid a think tank called the Beacon Hill Institute to analyze it.

Emissions from factories and power plants that use coal and oil contribute to air pollution and climate change.
Photo by Getty Images

David Strom, president of the Minnesota Free Market Institute, says that analysis shows the climate change group's report is seriously flawed.

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Strom says it doesn't provide a cost-benefit analysis of proposed actions, and doesn't back up estimates of costs and savings with real data.

"Essentially, their proposal is a fantasy. It has no correlation to the trends that we actually see," said Strom. "They assume electricity consumption's going to go down when it's going up, 1.5 percent a year. They assume that our biofuel use will go up 35 percent."

"They did no study that indicated that we even have the capacity in terms of agricultural production to do that, and they don't know whether that's going to ruin the soil," Strom continued. "Looking at this report, we came to the conclusion that it simply ignored reality."

At a news conference today, other speakers raised questions about whether global warming is a real problem, and how much people can do about it. They said it's too soon to be taking actions that might harm the economy.

"Looking at this report, we came to the conclusion that it simply ignored reality."

One of the people who served on the Climate Change Advisory Group, Jim Marchessault, was at the news conference. Marchessault runs a printing company in Burnsville. He says it's too soon to write new laws, because there isn't enough information about the various options.

"If we do a bunch of irrational things to drive costs way up, if they make me uncompetitive, then I put those 170 people out of work. That's not a good thing," said Marchessault.

Another group has studied the report closely and warns that some of its projections may be unrealistic. Dr. Peter Reich, a specialist in environmental change and terrestrial ecosystems at the University of Minnesota, researched the potential for carbon capture in the state's soils and plants.

Reich says global warming is a serious problem, and we need to take steps to try to ratchet it down. However, he says the report from the Climate Change Advisory Group relies too heavily on forestry and agriculture to reduce carbon emissions.

For example, one recommendation is to restock 8 million acres of forest land -- half the forest land in the state, according to Reich. Even if there were enough money and people to do that, Reich says, the result would be less than the report expects.

"Stands are at less than full stocking for a number of very real reasons ... they have poor soils in spots, rocky soil, diseases, competition from mature trees," said Reich.

Greenhouse gas emissions
This graph shows the increasing levels of greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota from 1970-2004, by their source. The black bar is emissions from industrial sources; white from agriculture; yellow from electric utilities; blue from transportation.
Graphic courtesy of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

Meaning, he says, that many of the newly planted trees wouldn't grow well enough to hold much carbon. Reich says there are other examples where the report overestimates how much Minnesota's forests and farms can contribute.

"If we put all our eggs in one basket, so to speak -- that this is how we're going to make our major changes in next 17 years -- that may keep us from being more focused on making the other kinds of changes that we think are actually much more effective, and cost-effective," said Reich.

Reich says if we reduce our use of fossil fuels and do more to conserve energy of all types, we'll get quicker -- and cheaper -- carbon reductions.

That can be accomplished, he says, with more efficient cars and appliances, beefed up building codes, and new home development in cities instead of suburbs.

That makes sense to J. Drake Hamilton, who also served on the climate change advisory group. She's with the environmental nonprofit group Fresh Energy.

Hamilton says the advisory group was never supposed to do a cost-benefit analysis. She says its work was a start, and the Legislature will study it carefully before enacting any of the recommendations.

Hamilton says the state has already made moves that are paying off -- like enhancing incentives for energy efficiency.

"You work your way up. So you start with things that make the most sense -- and, simply put, save consumers money -- and you work your way up from there," said Hamilton. "Eventually, we're talking about needing a big energy transition, so eventually you're going to get to a place where things cost more than net zero, but that's not where you start."

The climate change task force report should be released on the group's Web site Thursday or Friday. And then anyone can comment on it.