Creating a Low-Carbon Transportation System for MSP: Part One, Baselining

Traffic in downtown Minneapolis. CC licensed by flickr user Drew Geraets

Thrive MSP 2040, the new regional plan for the 7-county metro adopted by the Metropolitan Council, includes moderately strong language about addressing climate change.  But the main implementation tool we’ve seen so far from the Council, the Draft 2040 Transportation Policy Plan, doesn’t go nearly far enough.  In fact, it doesn’t even start where it should, with a baseline of emissions.

In this and future posts, I’ll try to do what I think the Draft Transportation Policy Plan (TPP) should have done – identify where we’re starting from and where we need to go in terms of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions. (In case you need a reminder, it’s vital that we get serious about reducing carbon pollution now.  We can’t afford to wait ten years until the next version of the regional plan, and local comprehensive plans, are drafted.)

Some background

The “Outcomes” section of Thrive MSP establishes the basis for acting aggressively on climate change:

The Council is committed to building a resilient region that minimizes its adverse contributions to climate and air quality and is prepared for the challenges and opportunities of a changing climate. Recognizing the importance of climate change mitigation, adaptation, and resilience, the Council will use climate impacts as a lens through which to examine all of its work. The Council will look for opportunities to use both its operational and planning authorities to plan for and respond to the effects of climate change, both challenges and opportunities.

The Council recognizes they aren’t acting unilaterally; this position is consistent with state law, which says Minnesota should reduce emissions 15 percent by 2015, 30 percent by 2025 and 80 percent by 2050.  The Outcomes document also says that “By tracking regional greenhouse gas emissions, we will identify opportunities to reduce emissions in the region.”  This makes sense, as you can’t determine how close you are to a goal without measuring progress.  In addition, a greenhouse gas inventory helps to identify the multiple sources of emissions, and each source may require different emissions reduction strategies.

The Council has broad authority over land use and transportation planning and funding in the region, and the Outcomes document identifies transportation-related options for emissions reduction. Unfortunately, the recently released TPP (the document that provides implementation details for the regional vision) includes neither an analysis of existing sources and trends in greenhouse gas emissions, nor a serious look at what pathways or strategies would be necessary to get the region to our emissions goals.

(To be fair, the Transportation Strategies section of the plan does contain some language on what the Council will do in the future to inventory emissions and plan reductions.  However, this is really inadequate as the plan already lays out an investment strategy.  If the Council is serious about emissions reduction, they should have a rich understanding of the emissions impacts of different investment scenarios before they make any decisions about priorities.)

Into this void, we can insert some real data to help understand the magnitude of change that would be necessary to reduce emissions from the transportation sector to a level consistent with state goals.

Inventory approach

There are a number of methods or “protocols” for community-scale greenhouse gas inventories, but the most rigorous is probably the ICLEI USA Community Protocol for Accounting and Reporting of Greenhouse Gas Emissions.  The protocol identifies the data sources necessary and methods for estimating greenhouse gas emissions (CO2, CH4, and N2O) from road transportation, as well as other transportation sources.

If I had access to the regional traffic model (and knew how to use it), I could access the data necessary to use ICLEI’s preferred approach for estimating GHG emissions from on-road vehicles.  This approach is called the “Origin-Destination” approach, and does a good job of “assigning” emissions recognizing that we live in a regional travel shed.  However, I don’t have access to that model, and anyway almost no city or region has used that approach for their inventory to date, so I feel comfortable writing about their alternative method.  (When/if the Met Council does an inventory, they should use the Origin-Destination model since they have a lot of smart people who know how to the use the traffic model, plus they could probably brag that they were the first region in the country to do it.)

The alternative method, sometimes called the “polygon” approach, basically estimates all emissions happening within a certain boundary (in this case, the 7-county metro), and assigns those emissions to that political/geographic entity.  You can see the limitations – for commuters from Hudson for example, only the portion of their trips (and associated emissions) from the border of Washington County to their destination will be counted.  Such is the limitation of the polygon method.  Recognizing our estimates will be imperfect should not stop us from taking action however, so let’s keep going.

A major data source for this approach is vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the region, which is meticulously measured/estimated, catalogued and shared by MNDOT.  Other important data points that need to be collected are the composition of the vehicle fleet (heavy vs. light duty, diesel vs. gas), the average fuel efficiency of each type of vehicle in the fleet, types of fuel consumed, and the emissions factor for various fuel types.  All of these assumptions come from public data sources.

I’ve collected all these data sources, and put them into a spreadsheet that calculates fossil and biogenic greenhouse gas emissions from on-road transportation for the 7-county metro using the ICLEI USA Community Protocol methodology.


The results show that while vehicle miles traveled in the 7-county metro has grown very slowly between 2005 and 2013 (about 1.5 percent), greenhouse gas emissions from on-road transportation have actually fallen (probably about 4 percent).

On-road vehicle miles traveled in the metro and related greenhouse gas emissions

On-road vehicle miles traveled in the metro and related greenhouse gas emissions

This is due primarily to increasing fuel efficiency in light cars and trucks. This will continue to improve regardless of any local action thanks to the federal fuel efficiency standards that will improve the efficiency of new vehicles through 2025.  This is important to keep in mind when developing future scenarios, which I hope to do in a future post.  Other changes include the Minnesota biofuels mandate for diesel fuel, which has increased from 2 percent in 2005 to 5 percent in 2010, and increased again in summer of 2014.  This decreases tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions from diesel vehicles.  The biofuel mandate for gasoline has remained the same at 10% from 2005 to 2013.

Emissions results for 2013 have a dotted line in the chart above because they use Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates for fuel efficiency, which seem to frequently change, and are always higher than those produced by the US DOT in their annual National Transportation Statistics report.  So I don’t really count those savings in the 4 percent figure cited above.

Sources of on-road greenhouse gas emissions, 7-county metro, 2012

Sources of on-road greenhouse gas emissions, 7-county metro, 2012

Meeting state goals?

If you assume that Minnesota’s greenhouse gas reduction goals should be split evenly across sectors and geographies (an assumption which could be debated), we’re not doing enough to meet goals for transportation emissions in the metro.  This is consistent with what is being seen in other sectors and other geographies.  To meet the state’s goal for 2015, emissions from transportation in the metro would have to fall about 4 percent each year between 2012 and 2015 (again, I’m assuming MPG numbers for 2013 are still uncertain).  After 2015, emissions would have to keep falling by 2 percent each year to meet 2025 goals.

Observed transportation emissions and linear trend  necessary to meet Minnesota goals.

Observed transportation emissions and linear trend necessary to meet Minnesota goals.

What is missing?

Obviously on-road transportation is only part of our regional transportation system.  I chose it because it constitutes by far the largest slice of the emissions pie, it’s the easiest to inventory, and I would argue the Met Council has the most influence over it versus other modes.  When/if the Council does a full inventory, they should also include emissions from freight and passenger rail, barges, off-road vehicles, and aviation.  Depending on how you count, aviation-related emissions just at MSP could include a third again as much as on-road emissions in 2012.

Looking ahead

Will changes in fuel efficiency standards and current VMT trends be enough to bring metro area transportation emissions down to state goal levels?  What other strategies should be included in the Transportation Policy Plan to actually get the region on the right track?  These are questions I hope to explore in future posts.

In the meantime, I’m also watching the Climate Solutions and Economic Opportunities (CSEO) process, being undertaken by a large group of state agencies and led by the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board.  This process is a reboot of the state’s previous climate action plan, called MCCAG.  CSEO promises to analyze specific land use and transportation “policy options”, like planning for a different urban form, impacts of the current draft Transportation Policy Plan,  transportation pricing, and electric vehicles.  These analyses will undoubtedly be better than mine, and should be very informative for policy makers as they consider adoption of the TPP in January. is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

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5 Responses to Creating a Low-Carbon Transportation System for MSP: Part One, Baselining

  1. Alex Cecchini
    Alex Cecchini December 12, 2014 at 8:33 am #

    Great post! Couple questions:

    – Are transit buses included in diesel vehicles or would those need to be counted separately?
    – Can/should construction and land-use change emissions be included in a more in-depth analysis? “business as usual” land use and transportation means a lot of concrete roads..

    Eagerly awaiting the future posts!

  2. Drew Geraets December 12, 2014 at 8:50 am #

    How about a photo credit? 😉

    Good post though!

    • Brendon Slotterback
      Brendon December 12, 2014 at 9:06 am #

      Drew, there is a photo credit if you mouse-over the image. I’ll add a caption as well.


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