Cleaner air may be on the horizon

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Chuck Dayton’s been looking a little glum lately when he talks about the environment. Dayton, who lives in St. Anthony Park, has dedicated a career, and untold years of volunteer time as well, to sharing his love of the outdoors and trying to ensure that the planet will be safe for human habitation for generations to come.

But in spite of a long list of successes, he hears the clock ticking and says we have about a decade to dramatically change our habits and reverse a potentially disastrous trend of global warming.

Dayton has a new audience to address on the subject, as he serves on a statewide panel convened by Gov. Pawlenty to recommend policies that will reduce Minnesota’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The panel is “not a bunch of tree-huggers,” Dayton said. It includes some of the state’s biggest polluters, as well as municipal and tribal leaders, religious leaders and representatives of other sectors.

Dayton’s environmental activism stretches back to the 1970s, when he worked to protect the Boundary Waters and was named Environmentalist of the Decade by the Minnesota chapter of the Sierra Club.

More recently, he has become alarmed by global warming — or “global weirding,” as he calls it, referring to the extreme swings of temperature we experienced this spring.

In January he traveled to Nashville for one of Al Gore’s slide-show trainings, at which organizers learn how to explain global warming to audiences of nonscientists and urge citizens to help turn it around. Dayton said he has presented the show about 15 times since the training.

Last year he helped set up a speaking tour for environmentalist and adventurer Will Steger, who also serves on the statewide panel.

Dayton was busy at the Legislature during the last session, working on two measures, both of which passed and got the governor’s signature.

One was a renewable energy standards bill that requires 25 percent of the electricity sold in Minnesota to be produced by renewable sources by 2025.

The other, a “Next Generation Energy Act,” provides a state goal of reducing global warming emissions by 80 percent by 2050 (with interim goals) and puts strict restrictions on constructing new coal plants or importing coal-generated electricity unless the emissions are offset, or unless the state has a new energy plan that directly and substantially limits greenhouse gasses over time.

And before the Legislative session ended, Dayton had already attended his first meeting of the Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group, possibly his best shot yet at helping write the state’s environmental story for the next few decades.

Gov. Pawlenty announced in March that his appointed panel of 51 people will hammer out a list of policy priorities, reporting to the Legislature by February 1, 2008. The hope is that the governor will lean hard on the Legislature to bring the recommendations into law.

The big challenge, Dayton said, is that “there are only four people who are specifically from environmental groups.”

Dayton was nominated by the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, where he has spent much of his three-plus years of retirement working as a volunteer lawyer.

“We are going to be vastly outnumbered,” he said.

Nevertheless, he expressed optimism about the process, citing similar approaches in other states, including Arizona and New Mexico, that have shown encouraging results.

The logic of the “stakeholder” approach, which is being pursued in about 30 states, loosely coordinated by the Center for Climate Strategies in Washington, D.C., is that “it’s necessary to bring the polluters on board with any plan that’s actually going to work,” according to Dayton.

It’s also necessary to bring enough political clout to the table to get policy priorities passed into law. Minnesota’s panel includes 3M, Xcel Energy and Northwest Airlines representatives. Indeed, fully a third of the group comes from corporate powers responsible for much of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Dayton said the governor’s recent commitment gives him hope.

“This governor came out with a message on energy and the environment last December,” Dayton said, “in which he went farther than anyone, Democrat or Republican, has ever gone” in proposing severe limits on a tight schedule. “He seems to get it on global warming.”

The panel, which met for the first time in April, began with a list of about 300 policy changes that legislatures might use to reduce emissions.

“The process is one of narrowing that list down to one that is acceptable to all or many on the panel,” Dayton said.

Much of the work is being done in subgroups of about 20 people, known as technical working groups. Their meetings, which are conference calls, will be open to the public in the form of access to a phone line at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

For more information about those meetings, as well as extensive background and procedural rules, see the Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group’s Web site at www.mnclimatechange.us.

Dayton serves on the residential, industrial and commercial working group.

“A lot of that will have to do with how we can save energy — energy efficiency,” Dayton said.

Dayton said he expects the panel as a whole to discuss some “fairly obvious” measures, including strict emissions limits, cap-and-trade approaches, and ways “to create a cost for putting greenhouse gases into the air. Right now it’s free.”

People need incentives to develop emission-reducing methods, he said, so the panel will have to consider proposing some.

Beyond the moral imperative of doing the right thing for the sake of future generations, Dayton cited some practical reasons why Minnesota just might gather the political will to change its emissions habits.

“I think we are at that point nationally where there’s a broad recognition that this issue has to be dealt with,” he said, “and also that there are opportunities for business.”

Someone has to design, test, manufacture and distribute new technologies, he pointed out, whether the aim is to remove pollution already in the air, contain it as it leaves the smokestacks, or meet needs for energy and other resources without emitting greenhouse gases in the first place.

“The opportunities are going to come to those states that move quickly” to require such innovations, he said.

As an example, he said, consider our buildings — all of them, collectively — and what it takes to build, heat and maintain them.

“It’s a huge percentage of the energy we use,” he said, and the people who can build better buildings, in environmental terms, will have a competitive advantage as environmental concerns become more widespread.

Ultimately, Dayton believes there will be federal cap-and-trade on emissions as well as a strengthening of other environmental policies.

“The states that move forward early will be at an advantage” in that case, he said.

Dayton has his work cut out for him, in the form of piles of reading material and a heavy schedule of subgroup and full-panel meetings over the next six months, plus the job of persuading some fellow panelists who may have good reasons to drag their feet. He’s tackling the project with energy and optimism.

“A really good outcome would be a set of recommendations adopted unanimously or nearly unanimously, which can get broad support in the Legislature and can put us on the road to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of the century,” Dayton said.