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Front-row seat in Paris helps U of M professor see potential of western Minn. in slowing climate change

Professor Arne Kildegaard attended the UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris late last year. (Submitted)1 / 2
A pedal-powered vehicle makes its way on a Paris street during the United Nations Conference on Climate Change held Nov. 30 through Dec. 12. Professor Arne Kildegaard attended the conference as an observer with the University of Minnesota. He leads the Social Science Division at the Morris campus. (Submitted) 2 / 2

MORRIS — Ten days at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris gave Arne Kildegaard ample opportunity to learn of the misery that a warming world could bring.

Scientists already believe the world’s glaciers will be gone by the middle of the century. Rising sea levels could displace tens of millions of people, perhaps hundreds of millions, making today’s crisis over Syrian refugees seem like only so much hand wringing, he said.

If the ice sheet of Greenland disappears, so too will the Florida peninsula.

Yet his time in Paris also offered him insight into the role western Minnesota could play if the United States is to live up to its pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

This region’s agricultural base, wide open spaces, and wind and solar resources could all play major roles in the ability to prevent the worst from happening, as well as adapt to the changes already in motion.

“I think we’re as well-situated as anyone, and better than the vast majority,’’ Kildegaard said.

Kildegaard attended the Paris talks as an official observer with the University of Minnesota. The professor is the chairman of the Social Science Division at the University of Minnesota in Morris. His work focuses on the economics of natural resources and renewable energy.

The United States pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 28 percent by 2025, based on 2005 output. The U.S. was among 196 countries making a pledge, and at this point, it’s only that.

“There’s no teeth in it other than the kind of shame and blame aspect,’’ Kildegaard said.

The U.S. pledge is based mainly on implementing the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which treats carbon dioxide as a pollutant.

Transportation, electric production, and home and industrial heating are the three major energy uses in the country. Kildegaard said many expect us to “electrify’’ our transportation system as much as possible, and there will be more electric vehicles on the road.

On the homefront, expect more emphasis on reducing the energy needed to heat and light homes and businesses. The energy service industry that helps business and homeowners economize on their existing fuels will grow, he predicts.

The biggest changes will occur in electrical production. More ways need to be found to leave fossil fuels in the ground by replacing them with renewables. That’s where we are fortunate, according to Kildegaard.

“We have a surprisingly good solar resource here,’’ Kildegaard said. Advances in technology have helped improve the economics of solar, more so than anyone had ever expected, he added.

Economics should continue to drive growth in wind power in the region too. “A lot of people got interested in wind in the first place, not because they were eager to save the environment, but because they wanted a piece of the action and they could see a technology that is really coming along,’’ he said.

The economic and technological challenges for biomass are greater, but Kildegaard believes growth is possible here too. Sweden has seen success by blending biomass with coal to reduce the carbon output of its power plants, he said.

The EPA’s Clean Power Plan definitely helps shift incentives in favor of non-carbon-based fuels, Kildegaard said. The policy makes existing fossil-fuel technology pay the full social cost of its production, he explained.

Kildegaard said he anticipates that the U.S. will look at ways agriculture can keep more carbon in the soil. Tillage techniques that open fields to make a longer growing season possible also release large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. There will need to be incentives so that farmers will want to adapt tillage techniques that work instead to hold the carbon, he said.

Agriculture will also experience the challenges that greater vagaries and extremes in weather associated with climate change cause. And as the production of certain crops marches northward, there will have to be investment in the infrastructure to adapt to the changes in each area, he explained.

Many climate changes are already “baked in’’ and cannot be reversed anytime soon, Kildegaard said.

The climate accord aims to limit the rise of global temperature to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees F) by the end of the century. Most believe that it will soon become evident that pledges made in Paris cannot achieve that goal, and we will need to further tighten our standards going forward, he said.

Kildegaard said there can be no talking of winners and losers when it comes to climate change. The fact that 196 countries could come to any sort of agreement was truly a feat of diplomacy, he said. “Now every country that signed on has to go home and figure out how to do it,’’ he said.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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