Climate Change Warming Great Lakes Region Faster, a New Report Says

Lake Erie

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Experts say accelerating renewable energy development, energy efficiency programs and electric vehicle adoption is critical in the Midwest.

Great Lakes states should lead the U.S. in reducing pollution because climate change has caused a greater temperature increase in the basin than the mainland average, says a new report released Thursday.

The states in question account for more than 25 percent of national carbon emissions and 5 percent of the world’s, mostly due to the Midwest’s high concentration of old, heavily polluting coal plants, according to the Environmental Law & Policy Center study. The Midwest is also the country’s transportation crossroads.

Regionally the 1.6-degree increase between 1985 and 2016 is 0.4 degrees higher than that of the contiguous U.S., and greater upticks would be detrimental to drinking water quality, fisheries, recreation, and commerce in the basin, according to ELPC.

“The sound science is clear,” Howard Learner, executive director of ELPC, told Route Fifty. “Climate change impacts threaten the Great Lakes ecology and economy.”

ELPC’s policy recommendations primarily target the energy and transportation sectors because they’re the biggest polluters, he added.

First and foremost, the center recommends the Midwest speed up its shift to renewable energy sources like solar and wind because more than 90 percent of the electricity the region generates still comes from coal- and natural gas-fired power plants. Resulting greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants harm air and water quality while increasing public health costs and sick days.

“Our states can become much more ambitious in accelerating the development of renewable energy,” Learner said. “Most of the Midwestern governors view renewable energy development as a win-win-win. It’s good for jobs, good for the economy and good for the environment.”

While the Trump administration is “unfortunately stepping back from climate realities,” Learner said, governors J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, Tony Evers of Wisconsin and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan—all Democrats—have committed to increasing renewable reliance. U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, is one of the biggest proponents of wind power in Congress because his state is the largest producer per capita, Learner added.

Energy efficiency programs like Retrofit Chicago are the fastest, cheapest ways to reduce emissions, Learner said. That program encourages households to use smart thermostats, so consumers save money on their utility bills while installation jobs are created.

Great Lakes states should also boost public and private adoption of electric vehicles, particularly in dense urban areas, because transportation is the leading source of carbon pollution, according to the study.

Electric vehicles are cleaner and cut maintenance and fuel costs, and their charging stations can be powered with renewables through on-site installations, contracts with energy producers and renewable energy credits. Stations should be placed in cities and across the Midwest’s interstate highways, possibly using funding from the Volkswagen settlement, according to ELPC.

Current transportation policies and funding at the federal and state levels encourage auto-dependent communities and limit transportation choices, according to the report. The federal government funds between 80 and 90 percent of road projects but only 50 percent of public transit projects, while holding them to higher environmental and economic development standards.

ELPC said preference should be given to any project that reduces the most emissions and vehicle miles traveled.

Strong national emissions reduction policies are key, but in December the Trump administration proposed rolling back Obama-era clean car standards before they take effect for model years 2021 through 2026. A 2017 federal analysis of the standards found the benefits would exceed costs by $90 billion, which is why states should adopt California’s stronger standards regardless, according to the study.

The Trump administration is weakening Clean Power Plan standards requiring states to reduce power plant emissions by specific amounts by 2030. President Trump also has declined to recommit to the Paris Climate Change Accord. In the interim, Great Lakes states can still take “We Are Still In” actions to grow the renewable energy and clean transportation markets nationally, advocates say.

The old electricity grid’s hub-and-spoke model, where central power plants connect to consumers via high-voltage transmission lines and high towers, is increasingly susceptible to extreme weather like ice and snow, high winds, and heat waves. State public utility commissions and other regulators should implement a resilient, “smarter grid” built on a decentralized network of clean distributed generation like solar with storage, demand response and energy efficiency, and smart building energy management control systems, according to the report.

“We’re seeing the prices of solar panels drop like a rock,” Learner said. “And the technology is getting better.”

Panels have fallen in cost from $4 a watt to below 40 cents a watt, while community solar is increasing its market share, he added.

Major airline hubs in the Great Lakes region like Chicago O’Hare Airport, Detroit Metro Airport and Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport account for an increasing share of carbon emissions, according to the study. United Airlines’ and Boeing’s global headquarters are also in Chicago.

The U.S. airline industry’s stated goal is reducing carbon emissions 50 percent by 2050.

“Our states should be working very closely to make sure the airlines live up to their promises when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas pollution,” Learner said.

More extreme weather means more agricultural runoff of manure, fertilizers and pesticides into the Great Lakes, the phosphorus from which coupled with warmer temperatures bakes into algae blooms—making them toxic, Learner said.

In Ohio, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found 88 percent of phosphorus pollution in western Lake Erie came from the agriculture sector. The National Guard had to truck water into Toledo, Ohio in 2014 because a toxic algae bloom left half a million people without drinking water for 72 hours.

States should require concentrated animal feedlot operators and soy and corn growers—the biggest manure and phosphorus polluters, respectively—to curtail their operations sufficiently to stop blooms, Learner said.

Governments should invest in green infrastructure projects that restore wetlands and install permeable pavement to reduce flood damage from heavy rains, according to ELPC.

Twice, Trump proposed budget cuts to the $300-million Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, but those ideas were rejected by Congress. Increasing that funding to $475 million makes sense given persistent algae blooms and other negative effects of climate change, the study says.

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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