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Report: Forests, agricultural land could help Minnesota reduce greenhouse gas emissions

The Nature Conservancy's Minnesota chapter released a report that shows how many acres of trees would be needed to help the state reach its reduction goals.
Forest - orono, Minnesota

A report by The Nature Conservancy's Minnesota chapter suggests nature-based solutions, like planting more trees and cover cropping, would greatly help the state reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and the severity of climate change. 

The Nature and Climate Solutions for Minnesota report, released Jan. 11, says the state's agriculture and forestry sectors could help mitigate nearly 20% of Minnesota's emissions, sequestering 23 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year, while also making the state more resilient to climate change.

“We need to protect our lands and our waters for our immediate benefit and for future generations,” Ann Mulholland, the Nature Conservancy’s director in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, said in a statement. “We need to take action on climate change and nature provides the simplest solution of all.”

The Nature Conservancy identifies 13 nature-based solutions that could be implemented in Minnesota right away, with the report stating the two things that would have the biggest impact are planting a lot more trees and growing cover crops in the fallow season. 

The report calls for converting non-forest lands to forests in areas where forests are the native cover type, including planting trees in all historically forested areas, totaling more than 5 million acres. This would include restoring the northern or mixed woods on 3 million acres, tree planting on 2 million acres of agricultural land by planting wide rows of trees with a companion crop grown between the tree rows, and urban reforestation on about 0.1 million acres. 

The report says the trees would remove carbon from the air, while widespread adoption of cover crops and reduced tillage on farms would enrich soils and store more carbon in the ground. Wetlands and grasslands provide the same natural benefits. 

Minnesota set to miss emission reduction goal

This comes as Minnesota is not poised to meet the state's greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals, according to the Jan. 14 Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Minnesota Department of Commerce's joint report to the Minnesota Legislature

The state has statutory goals to reduce these emissions by 15% from 2005 levels by 2015, 30% by 2025 and 80% by 2050. The state missed its goal in 2015 and is "currently not on track to meet future goals," the report said. 

Since 2005, greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota have been reduced by 8%, with the largest sources of emissions coming from transportation, electricity generation and land use. 

According to the legislative report, electricity generation is the only sector that's on track to meet the state's Next Generation Act goals, with emissions down 29% since 2005. Transportation emissions are down just 7% since 2005 and have mostly leveled off.

Meanwhile, some land-use emissions from crops and animal agriculture have actually increased, going up more than 10% since 2005. Forest regrowth, though, has helped offset the increases, with overall land-use emissions down 2% since 2005 and remain "highly variable" from year to year. 

The Nature Conservancy says adopting nature-based solutions to reducing greenhouse gasses requires funding, state policy changes, philanthropic support, and individual action. 

“Natural climate solutions are one of best and most cost-effective answers to our climate challenge. We cannot reach our emission reductions targets in Minnesota without them. State leadership through investment in natural climate solutions, as well as goal-setting and agency action, will be essential to addressing climate change and ensuring a Minnesota—as well as a world—in which people and nature can continue to thrive,” Graber said in a statement.

But, if work starts soon on these solutions, it could help protect against flooding, maintaining soil, and protecting cities against the urban heat island effect. 

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