Midwestern states to tackle carbon cuts when Dems take charge

Two states where Democrats seized total control of government in November’s midterm elections are charting a path to carbon neutrality over the next three decades.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz speaks to the media Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022, in St. Paul, Minn. Minnesota Democrats completed a trifecta Wednesday by winning both houses of the legislature to take full control of state government for the first time in eight years. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

Two states where Democrats seized total control of government in November’s midterm elections are charting a path to carbon neutrality over the next three decades, following other blue states that have taken the lead in addressing the root causes of climate change in recent years.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) in September unveiled a plan to achieve zero net carbon emissions by 2050 that includes accelerating the transition to electric vehicles. 

Michigan Gretchen Whitmer (D) earlier this year also sketched out a path to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, including a substantially increased reliance on renewable energy to power state facilities by 2025.

The two efforts are aimed at getting the Midwestern powerhouses back on track toward meeting earlier goals.

Minnesota already has a statute on the books setting targets for greenhouse gas reductions, but the state is off track so far. Walz aims to go beyond the current target of an 80% reduction from 2005 levels by 2050. 

Walz’s plans include reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector 80% by 2040 and decreasing vehicle miles traveled 20% per capita by 2050.

In Michigan, Gov. Whitmer already issued an executive order in 2020 to achieve economy-wide carbon neutrality by 2050, but that does not have the force of law. She has asked legislators to approve construction of enough infrastructure to support two million new electric vehicles by 2030.

Michigan and Minnesota are starting down a path that other blue states have already blazed. Sixteen states have greenhouse gas reduction targets on the books, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

California has set the most aggressive greenhouse gas reduction targets. The state met its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) this year signed a law aiming to achieve carbon neutrality by 2045.

New York, Washington, Oregon and Colorado — all states where Democrats control the governorship and the legislature — have enacted their own reduction targets.

“There is certainly more work for states to do,” said Romany Webb, the deputy director of Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. “But certainly we have seen some states taking some really important steps forward in recent years, setting these very ambitious targets. For a state like New York, it’s now putting their money where their mouth is and proving that they can actually achieve those targets.”

Vermont’s legislature in 2020 overrode a veto by Gov. Phil Scott (R) to require a 26% reduction in emissions from 2005 levels by 2025. The state’s goal is to reduce emissions by 80% under 1990 levels by 2050.

The state-level push to enact reduction targets began between 2003 and 2009, when the first nine states took steps to set emissions goals. But states largely focused elsewhere in the years during and after the Great Recession, as legislators scrambled to save and rebuild their economies and environmental issues became less of a priority.

A flurry of new legislative activity resumed starting in 2018. 

Environmental-policy advocates argue that statutory greenhouse-gas targets are the clearest metric of a state’s commitment to combating climate change. Laws are more binding than executive orders, they say, and targets provide more certainty about emissions levels than alternatives like boosting renewable energy production without lowering demand. 

“You can increase renewable energy in the state, but if you’re also increasing your load, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s going to be emission reductions,” said Maria Nájera, government affairs director for Western Resource Advocates, an environmental advocacy group.  

Minnesota is one of the states where early emission reduction targets have not quite worked out.

Then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) signed a bill in 2007 that mandated emission reductions of at least 15% below 2005 levels by 2015, and at least 30% by 2025. The state Pollution Control Agency said Minnesota missed its target in 2015 and is not on track to meet its 2025 goal.

Minnesota has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 8% below 2005 levels, the agency said.

After mandating a 40% reduction in emissions from 1990 levels by 2030, and an 85% reduction by 2050, New York legislators had to go back to work to achieve those goals. Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) in July signed a package of three bills, including a measure to update building codes to make them more energy efficient. 

California aims to meet its new ambitious targets in part through tackling car emissions. In 2020, Newsom signed an executive order to ban the sale of new gasoline-powered cars and trucks by 2035, with state regulators approving associated regulations this summer. 

The California Air Resources Board in August approved regulations to carry out the ban.