a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency assessment of gas emission sources, prepared for legislators, detailing 2005-2018 data

Deep Dive: The Hopes and Insights of a Long-Time Climate Change Policy Advocate

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March 25 — U.S. Department of Energy Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm announced 33 projects that will be awarded up to $6 billion to jump-start the elimination of carbon dioxide emissions from industries that are hard to adapt to green technologies. The projects will create tens of thousands of jobs and are estimated to lead to a reduction of carbon emissions for each company by an average of 77 percent. They are funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Inflation Reduction Act.

The projects will focus on the highest emitting industries, where decarbonization technologies will have the greatest impact, including aluminum and other metals, cement and concrete, chemicals and refining, iron and steel, and more. States where these jobs will be generated include Texas, Louisiana, West Virginia, Alabama, Iowa, and at least 15 others. One project with Kraft Heinz includes several midwestern cities, including New Ulm in Minnesota.

Together, the projects are expected to carbon dioxide emissions each year equivalent to the annual emissions of 3 million gasoline-powered cars.

The Local Perspective

Sierra Club legislative and political director Peter Wagenius, son of long-time Minnesota legislator Jean Wagenius (in office 1987–2021), talked at a recent forum about Minnesota’s top climate polluters: 1) transportation, 2) electricity, and 3) agriculture.

He indicated that between the Minnesota legislature’s bill for 100% clean electricity by 2040, and the climate provisions in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Inflation Reduction Act,  “I am more hopeful than I have been in 30 years of work around climate change. We have now joined 11 states with a 100 percent clean energy policy. A lot of them are by 2050; ours is by 2040. So we’ve gone from doing virtually nothing to being in the top five or six in the nation.”

Leah Stokes and Jessie Jenkins helped President Biden pass the inflation Reduction Act. “They will tell you that one of the things we need to desperately do quickly in the next 10 years is expand the electricity delivery system, the grid. Because if we rapidly expand the grid, we’re going to be able to take advantage in the Twin Cities of being able to have cleaner power faster because of how close we are to Buffalo Ridge in southwestern Minnesota, which has amazingly good wind power.”

To increase access to solar wind, he added, we have to connect the whole country with a modern grid.

“We have to stop depending on the infrastructure that our parents and grandparents built and start acting like Americans who can build things. Once we have a really great grid co-location with solar and wind, it is going to be less important in terms of where we live.”

Wagenius said, “I’ve had conversations with legislators on the Iron Range. What if we had wind and solar connected to making steel in the Upper Midwest. There are huge opportunities for efficiency there that could be powered by green hydrogen.”

On the Other Hand

However, Wagenius said, the story of transportation in Minnesota “is not quite as hopeful. Unlike electricity, it’s not moving in the right direction. There’s no data to support the idea that we can address climate pollution from the transportation sector with electrification alone. We must also reduce vehicle miles traveled. The efficiencies of electric cars have been obliterated by the fact that we’ve been driving them so many more miles than we used to. This is nothing against electric cars. My family has a Chevy Bolt. But too many people think electric cars will solve all problems. Often times, electric cars get all the attention, and everything else we need to do gets very little attention.”

In the area of solid waste, he said, “We all learned the three R’s: reduce, reuse, recycle, and in that order. It’s not a random list. The first option is the best one. The second one is what you do if you can’t do the first. The third is what you do if you can’t do the first or second. In transportation, we have the same thing. Our first goal should be reduced vehicle miles traveled. The least polluting miles anyone has are the miles you don’t have to drive, because you have alternatives or because the places you want to get to are closer than they used to be.”

The second goal is to reuse existing solar and wind power as electricity for transportation, “which is far superior than liquid fuels, partly because of the efficiency of electric engines compared to internal combustion engines.”

The third step is to lower the use of carbon fuels. “If there is a mile we can’t reduce or electrify, then we should look at lowering the carbon intensity of liquid fuels in trucks and construction equipment, where electrification is not an option. 

“There are people at the state capitol and in the ethanol industry who have this order upside down.”

Wagenius said he has been working on transportation policy for more than two decades. While a college student in Northfield, he visited Cancer Alley in Louisiana, “which is filled with polluting petrochemical facilities, refineries that produce gasoline for cars, and people of color with cancer and many other health impacts. It’s an environmental racism atrocity. I wrote a paper on environmental racism. Thanks to having worked on my mother’s political campaigns, the synergy of electoral and legislative change coalesced for me.”

Housing Density Is Good

Wagenius says that in the late 1990s, “people first documented that where people live makes a huge impact on how much they contribute to the climate crisis. People living in denser areas pollute a lot less per capita than people who don’t. There’s a long list of factors including driving distances, access to transit, heating and cooling efficiencies, and multifamily housing. When people are further apart, there’s a greater carbon intensity at providing the infrastructure that connects them. The old way of thinking was to ask, ‘Where are people polluting?’ Then they asked the question, ‘How much are people polluting per capita?’ The picture literally reverses.”

He added that there is no judgment about where we live. Sierra Club was founded on the idea “that living at Thoreau’s house in the woods at Walden Pond was the environmental ideal. The environmental movement was historically anti-urban. Today, to address the climate crisis, we must recognize that environmentalism and housing looks more like multi-family housing near transit, near parks. We still value green space, but not the idea that everybody has a uniquely large chunk of it, but that we figure out ways to share it. Such as the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis, which is a leading nationwide example of a bicycle-oriented development.”

He pointed out the generational shift that has happened. “People from my generation and my parents’ generation define freedom as having a car and enough money to fill the gas tank to go wherever you want to go. Younger generations define freedom as not being burdened with owning a car, free to connect with the world through the internet.”

“Choices for how to get around — including walking, biking, bus, train, and future electric and driverless buses — is part of our climate future. When I went to City Hall with Mayor R.T. Rybak in 2002, we knew any answer to the climate crisis must include welcoming more people to live in equitable and sustainable cities.”

He said that as a kid, people were talking about the death of cities around the country, which had been declining in population. Family sizes were smaller. “To maintain existing populations, with smaller family sizes, cities would have had to build a lot more housing units. It’s just math. But we weren’t allowing that in Minneapolis or in cities around the country. We actually went the other direction. We tore down housing in the 1960s as a part of urban renewal, to accommodate freeways. The population in Minneapolis in 1950 was 521,000. By 1990, it had dropped to 368,000. Today Minneapolis is up to 429,000.”

With the larger population of the past, Wagenius said, he has “not heard people say that Minneapolis was a terrible place to live in the 1950s. Certainly, for people of color, it wasn’t an equitable place to live, but I haven’t heard people saying that there was something inherently bad having that number of people living in Minneapolis.”

He is a proponent of land use reforms. “The Met Council, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Wisconsin believe that changing land-use patterns are the single biggest thing we could do to reduce transportation emissions. The metro area is the source of the problem. It’s also the source of the solution. Greater Minnesota has been flat in terms of vehicle miles traveled, but in the metro area it’s been drastically increasing.”

In addition to the clean electricity bill, Minnesota also passed in 2023 an omnibus transportation bill “that quadrupled funding for transit in this region. This is a bill that will allow for a huge expansion of bus rapid transit in its highest form.”

Studies show bus rapid transit increases ridership and is affordable for expansion around the metro area. When connected with smart housing development, it works to reduce emissions. The transportation bill also funded hybrid bus rapid transit, and credits for people to buy electric bikes.

“The highest number of people buying electric bikes are people over 60,” Wagenius said.

a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency assessment of gas emission sources, prepared for legislators, detailing 2005-2018 data

a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency assessment of gas emission sources, prepared for legislators, detailing 2005-2018 data

How to Judge Good Climate Ideas

When people are contemplating genuine climate change solutions, he said, there are five questions that need to be asked:

  1. What percentage of climate pollution is reduced or added? “The key word here is percentage. When somebody says, ‘this is the equivalent of taking X number of cars off the road,’ that sounds impressive. But when my mother was a legislator, people told her they would increase the efficiency of low-income housing and she asked, ‘How long will it take to get to 100 percent of the needed housing?’ When they ran the math, it was 250 years. She said, ‘We don’t have 250 years.’ Using the word percentage helps to remind people that we have a goal deadline to stabilize the climate.” 
  2. Can this technology exist in our zero emissions future? Or is it a dead end pathway? “The industry will tell you that natural gas, methane gas, fossil gas, is less polluting than coal. That is a low bar, to be less polluting than coal. That’s not the objective. The objective is to stop polluting. You will hear at the legislature this year a push for a new clean heat proposal, which will gradually electrify heat. Investing in that is investing in a zero emissions future. Anything that extends the network of natural gas pipelines is a dead end pathway. It can’t get where we need to go.”
  3. Are there better alternatives? “You’re going to hear at the capitol this year support for ethanol to address emissions in the transportation sector. About 15 years ago, environmental organizations were advocating for more ethanol. We need to forgive each other for our previous understanding and embrace new information when we learn what’s true. The reduction in price of solar wind batteries is breathtaking. We didn’t know that 15 years ago. But we know it now.”
  4. What are the other impacts, both good and bad? “This is where environmental justice comes in. Remember cancer alley — when we fill our tanks, we’re contributing to that. The same thing is true of ethanol. All across southern Minnesota, family farms are subjected to nitrate pollution. It’s really unsafe for pregnant women and their kids to drink water that has nitrate pollution.”
  5. Who benefits from this? Who loses? Who pays? “When the beneficiary is attempting to have particular policies attempting to extend the life of Big Ag and Big Oil, who have been making our climate worse, we should be skeptical.” 

Wagenius talked about the 2040 plan, which passed in Minneapolis five years ago, based on the realizations out of Chicago that we need more people able to live in the city for pollution control. New zoning allowed people to turn a garage into an accessory dwelling unit (aka granny flat or mother-in-law permit). Senior living facilities are allowed. It is helpful particularly for people who want to stay in their neighborhood as they age, but not own a single-family home anymore.

“People shouldn’t have to move away from their communities. Children should be able to grow up and be able to afford to live in the communities they grew up in. The housing crisis around the country is showing us that they can’t,” Wagenius said. “There was a lawsuit filed against the 2040 plan, which basically put it into legal limbo for multiple years.”

“Some of the people supporting that are genuinely motivated by the environment and misinformed about the data. Some of them are just NIMBYs —not in my backyard proponents — ‘I don’t want more people to live in the city of Minneapolis.’ I want to honor the fact that people come to these conclusions from multiple perspectives. But the bottom line is, policies like 2040 have to pass. There is no solution to the climate crisis that doesn’t include allowing more people to live in places like Minneapolis. The alternative, when you don’t allow building up, is you build out — turning cornfields into the least efficient housing. 

An audience member asked how population control might play a role.

Wagenius responded: “Climate pollution overwhelmingly comes from consumption. As a mathematical formula, population times consumption equals the number of emissions you get. Africa as a continent is responsible for about four percent of global pollution. Overwhelmingly, wealth is the biggest indicator of how much people pollute. It’s not the total number of people. It’s how much people fly. It’s how many products they consume. Population is a factor, but I don’t think it’s the factor we should be focused on, particularly as Americans, when we pollute so far out of proportion to our population. If we’re a generous country, we’re helping higher population countries skip over oil, natural gas, and coal to go directly to renewables. That’s what we should be focused on.”

Other Comments

“The equality of women and girls is one of the best climate solutions. When women and girls are equal, they choose to have smaller families.”

“All kinds of suburbs are recognizing that a huge number of trips that people take are not to and from their jobs. They are to services, to parks, to libraries. Burnsville is developing a downtown. Hopkins is reinvigorating their Main Street.” 

“The Twin Cities as a region is growing. But we’re not growing at a ridiculous rate, like Seattle and San Francisco are. I think we’re in a sweet spot. We’re also in a sweet spot because Minnesota is a great place for both solar and wind. “

“I think one of the things we need to do is have a worldwide effort to do the research and development on algae oil fuel, which is a lot more efficient than growing corn.”

“The cost of solar and wind batteries decreased far more than the most optimistic predictions for 2010. And there’s this wonderful study from Oxford, which predicts that solar and wind batteries are going to keep going down. When we add truly green hydrogen production from electrolysis, powered by leftover electricity, that technology is far more likely to be scalable.”

“There’s a new study from Jason Hill, professor at the University of Minnesota, talking about the true cost of corn. And the amount of land we’re putting into ethanol is the equivalent of five big counties in southern Minnesota. That is land not being used for agriculture or hemp.”

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