Commentary

Measuring greenhouse gases: No time for delays — Opinion

September 8, 2021 6:00 am

Climate protestors interrupt a speech by then-candidate Joe Biden in 2019. Photo by Getty Images.

The world’s climate scientists just rang the alarm bell again, louder than ever. The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirms that today’s unfolding climate crisis is unquestionably caused by humanity, especially our use of fossil fuels. We need to make big changes to avoid an irreversible global catastrophe, and we need them fast. 

How big, and how fast? To keep warming from greatly overshooting the globally-agreed limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius, we must cut our greenhouse gas emissions roughly in half by 2030 and zero them out by 2050. And this means slashing our use of coal, oil and natural gas by 2030 and virtually eliminating these fuels 20 years later. Let this sink in for a moment — especially that 2030 deadline. 

The good news is that there are lots of affordable ways to cut our greenhouse gas emissions and more emerging every day. The bad news is we are not deploying these options nearly fast enough. 

Astonishingly, large construction projects in Minnesota — like new factories, office parks, housing developments and highways — are still routinely permitted and built without anyone even estimating their greenhouse gas emissions or considering the many ways the projects could reduce them. This neglect is surely one reason why climate pollution from Minnesota’s industrial and commercial sectors has actually risen over the past several years, contributing to the state’s failure to meet the pollution reduction targets we put into law in 2007. 

Ignoring these projects’ greenhouse gases is not legal. Both Minnesota and federal courts have made clear that for projects big enough to require an environmental assessment, the project’s impact on the climate must be considered before a permit can be granted. And yet, for most of the 80-90 such projects permitted yearly in Minnesota, their decades of future greenhouse gas emissions are ignored during permitting. 

The state agency that can fix this is the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (EQB). Since 2017, it has been investigating how to update its environmental assessment form to include a climate analysis for new projects. Four years later there is finally a proposal ready to be approved. In a recent subcommittee meeting, though, some objected that the process was moving too fast and it was proposed that the EQB delay implementation another year to conduct a pilot program. 

Why? Because of worries that some units of government are not ready to consider greenhouse gases when assessing environmental impacts. Meanwhile, Minnesotans suffer through heat waves, extreme drought, wildfires and smoky skies, all intensified by climate change. We watch in real time as global warming hurts our farms, lakes, forests, economy and health.

So let’s step back a minute. We face a planetary emergency. Addressing it requires sweeping, economy-wide changes by 2030, and planning for the future, now. Yet, major, long-lived new projects are being permitted without considering these realities, and each is a lost opportunity to make changes we must and can make. Despite the urgency, the EQB is considering another year of delay before amending its form to ask that greenhouse gases be calculated. 

Even worse, certain groups are using misinformation to try to block this effort entirely. Opponents, including the Center of the American Experiment, wrongly claim that EQB would be creating an unreasonable new legal obligation. In fact, the EQB would be helping governments comply with existing law. It would be helping ensure that environmental assessments of major new projects actually address the single greatest environmental threat we face. 

The EQB is not moving too fast; it’s the climate crisis that’s moving too fast. In the past week, we’ve watched one side of our country lashed by hurricanes and flooding, and the other side stricken by unprecedented drought and wildfires. We’re way behind schedule in taking this crisis seriously and can’t afford further delay. The EQB should amend the state’s environmental review process to include climate analysis now. Governments, project proposers and the public need to know these projects’ climate impacts and what options have been considered to reduce them. 

It’s just a first step, but it’s a necessary one, and it’s already long overdue. 

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Barbara Freese
Barbara Freese

Barbara Freese is a staff attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy specializing in climate issues. She has also worked in environmental protection for the office of the Minnesota attorney general and as an energy policy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists. Freese is also the author of two books, on climate and industrial denial (including climate denial).

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