Transportation, agriculture edge out electricity as Minnesota's largest emissions sources

Exhaust pipe
Exhaust flows out of the tailpipe of a vehicle. Vehicle emissions are one of the main causes of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Joe Raedle | Getty Images 2007

Minnesota is still failing to meet its goals aimed at addressing climate change, and it's transportation and agriculture — not coal — that are holding us back, according to a biennial emissions report by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency released this week.

The 2007 Next Generation Energy Act, which passed with bipartisan support, set a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels across Minnesota's economic sectors 15 percent by 2015, 30 percent by 2025 and 80 percent by 2050.

According to the MPCA report, Minnesota's emissions have gone down 12 percent through 2016, the latest year for which emissions data are available.

"Emissions from the electricity generation sector were down nearly 30 percent in that time frame. We're just not seeing reductions across the board in other sectors that allowed us to meet the goal," said Todd Biewen, who oversees the MPCA's environmental analysis and outcomes division.

Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane and hydrofluorocarbons. Carbon dioxide accounts for more than 70 percent of Minnesota's emissions, according to the report.

Cars, trucks and other gas-powered vehicles together now produce more greenhouse gas emissions than power plants. While the state still relies heavily on coal, a quarter of the state's electricity now comes from renewable sources, and that percentage will go up in future years as utilities retire more coal plants.

Agriculture emissions — both from fertilizing row crops and raising livestock — are also significant. The report lists agriculture as the state's No. 3 emitter, but for the first time, the MPCA included negative carbon emissions from forest regrowth in the report's agriculture section. Without the negative emissions from forestry as an offset, agriculture's emissions would roughly match those produced by transportation and electricity, at about 40 million tons of CO2 or the equivalent.

"Those are the big three," Biewen said. "Minnesota was a leader when we set our goals 10 years ago, but now, as some have said, we need to catch up a little bit on that."

"It's really important to understand where the emissions are coming from so that we can target where we need to make the reductions," he added.

The good news, he said, is that Minnesota's emissions are going down despite significant economic growth and a growing population.