New Minnesota Building Should Not Increase Greenhouse Gases
by John Bailey
Originally published in St. Paul Pioneer Press, January 24, 2006
As Minnesota moves toward the end of a January that may be the warmest on record, Gov. Tim Pawlenty has unveiled an $897 million bonding proposal. The two events are related. The proposed buildings, from treatment facilities and prison expansions to new classrooms and libraries at the University of Minnesota and MnSCU campuses, will all generate greenhouse gases that, according to the vast majority of atmospheric scientists and national governments, significantly contribute to global warming.
Minnesota legislators should show the country and the world that we can build without increasing global warming pollution. They should take the climate-neutral pledge. Minnesota must pledge that no additional greenhouse gases will be generated within our state as the result of new state-financed construction. Any additional greenhouse gases emitted by the new construction must be offset by reduced emissions from existing buildings (or vehicles or power plants or manufacturing processes) within the state.
Implementing a state climate-neutral bonding policy will build on Minnesota’s leadership to promote high-performance buildings. Existing law demands that bond-funded buildings must be constructed and operated to exceed the state’s energy code by 30 percent. Minnesota legislators can strengthen this law by adding a climate-neutral requirement.
A climate-neutral performance standard will challenge architects and engineers to design a building that minimizes the amount of energy it uses in the first place. It will encourage the use of Minnesota’s vast resources of renewable fuels to supply the electricity and thermal energy needs of the building.
Happily, such a policy will not only save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it will also save money by reducing future operating costs. Although the upfront cost of the building may increase, the cost reductions mean that taxpayers will save thousands or perhaps tens of thousands of dollars over the life of the bond in overall spending on the building.
Adopting such a performance standard could spur communities around the country to imitate our commitment. Collectively, an enormous number of energy-consuming projects are built with local and state financing each year. In 2004, for example, 9,000 projects, ranging from city halls and schools to water-treatment facilities and power plants, were financed with about $230 billion in municipal bonds.
Virtually all of these tax-exempt bonds are either voted on directly (such as school bonds) or indirectly via elected city councils or county commissioners. The climate-neutral bonding debate could take place in virtually every city council and school board and county commission and other public bodies, bringing the global warming conversation down to the local level and making the debate concrete.
In the upcoming session the Legislature will concentrate on bonding. Most of the debate will focus on the types of projects to be financed and the overall level of spending. There will be important decisions to make.
But part of the debate should involve whether we should take responsibility for the environmental impacts of the buildings constructed with state bonds. A climate-neutral requirement is the answer to that question.
And perhaps, where Minnesota leads, Washington will eventually follow.
John Bailey is a research associate and directs the Climate Neutral Bonding Project at the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance. (www.ilsr.org).