Pollution from vehicles is an important environmental justice concern. A 2015 study by MPCA researchers found that while communities of color and lower socio-economic status tend to own fewer vehicles, do less driving, and use public transit more often than other groups, they are also exposed to higher levels of traffic-related pollution. This is because busy roadways and the associated air pollution emissions, often run through communities of color. Many communities of color therefore bear a disproportionate burden of traffic-related health impacts while contributing less to vehicle pollution.
How we're doing
Pollution control requirements are making strong progress on reducing emissions of carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide, but have had less effect on carbon dioxide.
But federal vehicle regulations cannot reduce vehicle emissions alone. These regulations are slowed in reaching their full impact by the driving and buying patterns of consumers. Minnesotans’ driving and vehicle-purchasing patterns depend a lot on the strength of the economy and the price of gas. During the Great Recession the price of gas was high and Minnesotans drove less. In recent years, as the economy has recovered and the price of gas has dropped, we have begun to drive more.
An important trend impacting vehicle emissions in Minnesota is the number of cars on the road versus larger, higher-emitting vehicles. On average, larger vehicles, such as sports utility vehicles (SUVs), crossovers, and pickup trucks, pollute more per mile traveled than smaller, lighter cars. In 2011, the number of crossovers, SUVs, and trucks surpassed the number of cars on the road in Minnesota and became the majority of the passenger fleet. Today, these heavier vehicles make up over 53 percent of all passenger vehicles and emit 70 percent of the passenger-vehicle related pollution. Changes in consumer trends such as these are slowing Minnesota’s progress toward reducing vehicle emissions.
Vehicles pose a particular challenge for the MPCA and our partners. Minnesota must rely on the federal government to set fuel-efficiency and fuel-type standards and requirements on vehicle manufacturers and refineries. Vehicle-related emissions in the state are reduced when Minnesotans drive less and when they operate more efficient vehicles. The MPCA therefore collaborates with transportation partners across the state to develop quality transportation alternatives and modernize our transportation fleet.
The MPCA serves as an advisor and technical resource for a wide range of transportation planning and funding efforts across the state to ensure that transportation planning in Minnesota supports air quality improvements.
Transportation planning can have a big impact on vehicle emissions by promoting investment in infrastructure that supports alternative modes of transportation and, developing roadways and traffic controls that reduce congestion and idling, and encouraging land use planning that provides the opportunity for people to live within walking or biking distance of many of the places they need to get to every day. The MPCA works closely with the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the Twin Cities Metropolitan Council, local governments, and others to ensure that plans for transportation investments will not cause or contribute to violations of the national air quality standards and that they work towards our mutual goals of reducing congestion and improving air quality.
Diesel trucks and equipment
Diesel engines are the workhorse of our economy because of their power, efficiency, and longevity. However, older heavy-duty diesel vehicles and equipment can produce massive amounts of harmful air pollution, while modern equipment and engines are much cleaner and can drastically reduce emissions.
Diesel equipment can last for decades, though, so it can take a long time for the older, dirtier equipment to be retired and replaced with cleaner options.
The MPCA offers grants to help make it more affordable to small businesses to replace and retrofit diesel vehicles and heavy duty equipment.
Since 2006, the combined efforts of the MPCA Clean Diesel Program and Project Green Fleet – a program run by Clean Air Minnesota partner, Environmental Initiative – have supported approximately 4,700 engine improvements or replacements in Minnesota to help eliminate 45 tons of fine-particle pollution per year.
The newest generation of electric vehicles (EVs) offers a promising opportunity for reducing pollution from vehicles. Battery-powered, plug-in electric vehicles have no tailpipe emissions. Especially in communities with busy roadways, replacing many gas-powered cars with electric vehicles could significantly improve local air quality.
The MPCA partners with Drive Electric Minnesota (a partnership of Minnesota EV champion organizations), local governments, and others to build public charging stations and other electric-vehicle infrastructure to make it easier to use these lower-emitting cars. When possible, the MPCA and its partners install the cleanest and most advanced charging technology, including solar-powered public EV charging stations and fast-charging stations that can fully charge an EV in 30 minutes.