Report: Minnesota’s greenhouse gas emissions dropped, but work still needed

Heavy traffic on a highway
Heavy traffic seen on Interstate 35W in Minneapolis after the first major snow in November 2022. Per a new report, transportation remains Minnesota’s biggest source of greenhouse gases, followed by agriculture.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News file

A new report says Minnesota has made progress overall in cutting greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, but still faces significant challenges to curb emissions from certain sources, including vehicles and farms.

Every two years, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Department of Commerce calculates the amount of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases released by power plants, vehicles, farms and other sources.

Black Dog power plant chimney set for dismantle
Power plants like Xcel Energy’s Black Dog plant in Burnsville, Minn., as seen in July 2022, contribute to carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News 2022

The latest inventory says Minnesota's emissions from all sectors dropped 23 percent from 2005 to 2020.

“If we maintain current trends, we are on track to meet our goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota by 30 percent by 2025,” said Katrina Kessler, MPCA commissioner, during a virtual news conference on Tuesday.

That’s the goal set by the Legislature in 2007 as part of the Next Generation Energy Act. The state missed earlier goals set by the act.

Last fall, Gov. Tim Walz rolled out a plan to combat climate change that included new goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 50 percent by 2030, and achieving a net-zero carbon emissions goal by 2050.

Declining emissions

Kessler said the declining emissions are due in part to people, businesses and local governments taking action to reduce climate pollution.

But another factor was an unanticipated one: the COVID-19 pandemic, which affected all parts of the economy and people’s driving patterns.

However, Kessler said emissions from some key sectors were already trending down before the pandemic.

“So we are cautiously optimistic that we will continue to see a downward trend, but data in the future years will have to help bear that out,” she said.

An electric bus on display
Katrina Kessler, the commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, spoke at an event showing two electric school buses in Brooklyn Park, Minn. in November 2021. “So we are cautiously optimistic that we will continue to see a downward trend, but data in the future years will have to help bear that out," she said this month following the report's release.
Courtesy of MPCA 2021

Transportation remains Minnesota’s biggest source of greenhouse gases.

Emissions from that sector have dropped 18 percent from 2005, largely due to people driving and flying less during the pandemic. Light- and heavy-duty trucks and passenger cars were the largest sources of emissions.

Meanwhile, emissions from electricity generation continued to fall, down 54 percent since 2005, as utilities shuttered coal plants and relied more on wind and solar energy.

Agriculture and forestry

The report says the combined sector of agriculture and forestry is now Minnesota's second largest source of greenhouse gases. Farms actually emitted more methane and nitrous oxide — two potent greenhouse gases -- but that amount was offset by carbon sequestered by forests and grasslands.

As emissions from growing crops and raising animals — including fertilizer and manure use — continue to rise, farmers are bearing the brunt of extreme weather and a changing climate, Kessler said.

Pat Lunemann, owner of Twin Eagle Dairy near Clarissa and a member of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Climate Change, spoke about those impacts.

“What we're really seeing is the weather extremes,” he said. “They're just becoming ordinary, so to speak, unlike anything that we've seen in the past.”

‘Things we know work’

Lunemann said farmers are taking steps to cut emissions, including using technology and soil sampling to make sure they’re applying the right amount of fertilizer, and changing tillage practices to help hold carbon in the soil.

Kessler said there’s money included in Gov. Walz’s proposed budget to help farmers enhance their soil health, as well as restoring peatlands and forests that help capture carbon.

“These are the things we know work,” she said.

Emissions from industries and residential homes have risen since 2005, largely because of their use of fossil fuels such as natural gas for heating, appliances and industrial processing.

The report says emissions from those sectors have begun to decline in recent years.

Richard Graves, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Sustainable Building Research, said transforming how buildings are constructed is important to reducing emissions.

“New and existing homes and buildings should be designed and renovated to not waste energy,” he said. “Better wall and roof insulation, windows, heating and cooling equipment and other measures are essential. And most of this technology exists today and just needs to be scaled up.”