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The Dilemma in Combating Climate Change

October 18, 2007 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
Do you expect to do half as much driving in the year 2025 as you do today? That's one suggestion to combat global warming coming from a state task force appointed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and it's already stirring controversy and highlighting dilemmas for Minnesota policymakers.

The transportation and land use subcommittee of the Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group has overwhelmingly adopted a proposal to roll back total road travel in the state to the levels of 1990 - when the state had 800,000 fewer people and barely four-fifths of its current prosperity, as measured by per capita personal income adjusted for inflation.

That means 21 billion fewer miles traveled in cars and trucks in 2025 than this year's 60 billion -- in a state expected to add nearly a million people by then. Could that actually happen?

Proponents say it could, if Minnesota makes stunning policy about-faces toward compact "smart growth" development and a speeded-up commitment a comprehensive transit network. People would work and shop closer to home in mixed-use neighborhoods cross-hatched by bicycle and walking trails.

And think about this: Twin Cities traffic jams would practically disappear, maybe without even raising the gasoline tax.

OK, back to Planet Earth.

"The goals are just completely unrealistic and need to be revisited," said Scott Lambert of the Minnesota Auto Dealers Association, a dissenting member of the subcommittee. "The idea that we're going to go back 35 years in miles traveled just isn't realistic. It's nuts."

The panel's vision, of course, would spell economic hardship for car dealers. Pushback may also come from big-box retailers, suburban sprawl developers and tourism promoters who have thrived in America's auto-centric culture.

These groups and more will have the ear of Pawlenty and other policymakers as the state designs strategies and incentives to reduce Minnesota's greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050, a broad goal set in state law this year with the governor's support.

"It's politically unpalatable to a lot of people," said Jim Erkel, a subcommittee member from the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. "There's a substantial political problem in all this."

But the proposal to reduce driving is a serious attempt to address global warming, even if auto exhaust isn't the state's greatest polluter. Fuel burned on Minnesota's streets and highways accounts for less than one-fifth of the carbon dioxide pumped into the state's atmosphere. Generating electricity and heating buildings each adds more carbon than driving, and farming isn't far behind.

Overall, carbon emissions in Minnesota increased 31 percent from 1990 to 2005, according to a draft inventory of greenhouse gases from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Center for Climate Strategies.  With no major policy or economic changes, the increase will reach 59 percent by 2020, the report says.

Some argue that cleaner-car technology - ethanol fuel, gas-electric hybrids, plug-ins, hydrogen power - can meet the challenge without any changes in our driving habits. But that begs the question of where the energy to produce these wonders, such as electricity to charge hydrogen fuel cells, will come from. And, Erkel said, any true benefits of technological fixes would be nullified by Minnesota's projected increase in vehicle miles traveled - to 82 billion in 2025 if current trends persist.

Barb Thoman of Transit for Livable Communities, another subcommittee member, said California and some New England states are also aiming for deep reductions in carbon emissions using similar strategies to those being considered in Minnesota. Their targets, she said, are transit-, bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly communities modeled on, say, Copenhagen, Denmark.

"That's a pretty successful place," Thoman said.

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