Driving culture impacts Minnesota’s carbon footprint

This map depicts the carbon footprint of different ZIP codes in our region. The redder areas show higher carbon usage. Driving, farming and industrialization play a big role in carbon production.(SOURCE: UC Berkeley CoolClimate Network, Average Annual Household Carbon Footprint, 2013).

If a cancer cell knew it was a cancer cell, would it change its behavior? Knowing that it will eventually kill its host, and thus itself, would it arrest its own growth? Would the cancer cell deny itself the satisfaction of its most pressing instinct for its own good?

I’ve turned this question over in my head for decades now. It’s one of the first “endless loop” intellectual queries I stumbled on as a younger man. And, of course, it’s hardly an original thought. Nevertheless, I imagine the cancer cell would be as conflicted about its nature as we humans are about ours. It’d probably seek to avoid thinking about the paradox at all.

We humans pave over farmland to make box stores and houses three times bigger than what we need. We mine nonrenewable resources to make disposable goods. Burning our limited supply of fossil fuels we pilot millions of tons of metal across the land, sometime just to listen to our favorite podcast in peace.

We know that human activity, especially the production of carbon emissions, affects global climate. This has produced more powerful storms, erratic temperatures, droughts and more destructive wildfires. Some places don’t have enough fresh water. That’s getting worse.

And yet, PROGRESS! We eat amazing, plentiful foods (though we have trouble sharing). We carry around phones made of ores from every corner of the known world. With our tunes blaring on the speakers we get to work on time. Minneapolis next weekend. New Years in Hawaii. Drive the ATV to get the mail. This is normal. How do we know that cancer cells aren’t having this much fun down there at a microscopic level?

Anyway, complex philosophical questions aside, I found this interesting map put together by UC-Berkley’s CoolClimate Network. The map uses emissions data from 2013 to illustrate the carbon footprint of different parts of the country based on ZIP code.

Feel free to explore the map on your own. I zoomed in on Minnesota to get some screenshots for perspective. The first map, seen at the top of this page, shows a bright red circle around the Twin Cities. Suburbs and exurbs create a lot of carbon. This is mostly because of the number of people driving and the distance they must travel to live there.

Farmlands obviously produce a lot of carbon, too, as you see out in western Minnesota and North Dakota.

Interestingly, the human carbon footprint in the dense core of urban areas is lower than the suburbs. In other words, maximum population density creates efficiencies. However, that doesn’t mean that big cities are ideal.

The report summary reads:

“While population density contributes to relatively low [human carbon footprint] in the central cities of large metropolitan areas, the more extensive suburbanization in these regions contributes to an overall net increase in HCF compared to smaller metropolitan areas. Suburbs alone account for 50% of total U.S. HCF.”

In other words, cities create suburbs, and suburbs are very bad for carbon.

Zooming in further, I see a couple of interesting things in Northern Minnesota:

A closer look at Northern Minnesota’s carbon footprint, organized by ZIP code.

As you can see, most of Northern Minnesota runs pretty low on carbon footprint, at least compared to the rest of the state. But there are areas that run hotter than others. The reddest spot on the Iron Range is ZIP code for Iron, Minnesota.

Cherry! My homeland and alma matter. I immediately remembered the cloud of blue smoke that rose above the high school parking lot every afternoon. So many jalopies burning so much oil.

But I don’t think that’s the real reason. Britt was also higher than its neighbors. These are places that have a low population but that require people to burn a lot of fuel to get to work and heat their homes. Older housing stock isn’t as efficient as newer homes.

We also see that the areas around Duluth behave as miniature suburbs, for the same reasons. Driving.

The report summary concludes the following:

“Differences in the size, composition, and location of household carbon footprints suggest the need for tailoring of greenhouse gas mitigation efforts to different populations.”

Thus, the answers to this problem will be as complex as the organisms causing it. But you can plainly see that we’re all involved. The outcome will affect all of us.


  1. Your premise is flawed Aaron. We know cancer cells kill. There’s no proof of “red” areas are killers. 

    • Scott Dahlquist says:

      Oh please! Aren’t we being deliberately obtuse?

      • Obtuse Scott, in what way? Which of the following are you prepared to discuss in more detail?:

        Fossil fuels have contributed to the enormous improvement in crop yields by making artificial fertilizers, mechanization, and modern food processing techniques possible. Higher atmospheric CO2 levels are causing plants to grow better and require less water. Numerous studies show the aerial fertilization effect of CO2 is improving global agricultural productivity.

        Exposure to potentially harmful chemicals in the air has fallen dramatically during the modern era thanks to the prosperity, technologies, and values made possible by fossil fuels. Safe and clean fossil fuels made it possible to rapidly increase energy consumption while improving air quality.

        No scientific forecasts of possible catastrophes triggered by global warming have been made. CO2 is not a “trigger” for abrupt climate change. Inexpensive fossil fuel energy greatly facilitates recovery.

        The occurrence of violent conflicts around the world has fallen dramatically thanks to prosperity and the spread of democracy made possible by affordable and reliable energy and a secure food supply.

        There has been no increase in the frequency or intensity of drought in the modern era. Rising CO2 lets plants use water more efficiently, helping them overcome stressful conditions imposed by drought.

        Affordable and reliable energy is positively correlated with economic growth rates everywhere in the world. Fossil fuels were indispensable to the three Industrial Revolutions that produced the unprecedented global rise in human prosperity.

        Transmitted electricity, one of the greatest inventions in human history, protects human health in many ways. Fossil fuels directly produce some 80% of electric power in the world. Without fossil fuels, alternative energies could not even be built. 

        Fossil fuels power the technologies that make it possible to meet human needs while using fewer natural resources and less surface space. The aerial CO2 fertilization effect has produced a substantial net greening of the planet, especially in arid areas, that has been measured using satellites.

        Fossil fuels made it possible to replace horses as the primary means of transportation, saving millions of acres of land for forests. Elevated CO2 concentrations have positive effects on forest growth and health, including efficiency of water use. Rising CO2 has reduced and overridden the negative effects of ozone pollution on the photosynthesis, growth, and yield of nearly all the trees that have been evaluated experimentally.

        Affordable energy and electrification, better derived from fossil fuels than from renewable energies, are closely correlated with the United Nations’ Human Development Index. 

        Fossil fuels contribute strongly to the dramatic lengthening of average lifespans in all parts of the world by improving nutrition, health care, and human safety and welfare.

        Oil spills can harm fish and other aquatic life and contaminate drinking water. The harm is minimized because petroleum is typically reformed by dispersion, evaporation, sinking, dissolution, emulsification, photo-oxidation, resurfacing, tar-ball formation, and biodegradation.

        What melting is occurring in mountain glaciers, Arctic sea ice, and polar icecaps is not occurring at “unnatural” rates and does not constitute evidence of a human impact on the climate. Global sea ice cover remains similar in area to that at the start of satellite observations in 1979, with ice shrinkage in the Arctic Ocean offset by growth around Antarctica.

        There has been no increase in the rate of increase in global average sea level in the modern era, and therefore no reason to expect any economic damages to result from it. Local sea levels change in response to factors other than climate.

        Fossil fuels are a sustainable source of energy today and for the foreseeable future. Their impacts do not endanger human health or the environment. A market-based transition to alternative fuels will occur when supply and demand require it.

        Cold weather kills more people than warm weather, and fossil fuels enable people to protect themselves from temperature extremes. A world made warmer and more prosperous by fossil fuels would see a net decrease in temperature-related mortality.

        Fossil fuels revolutionized society by making transportation faster, less expensive, and safer for everyone. The increase in human, raw material, and product mobility was a huge boon for humanity, with implications for agriculture, education, health care, and economic development.

  2. Just to clairfy..
    While climate change is occurring and a human impact on climate is possible, there is no consensus on the size of that impact relative to natural variability, the net benefits or costs of the impacts of climate change, or whether future climate trends can be predicted with sufficient confidence to guide public policies today.

    Consequently, concern over climate change is not a sufficient scientific or economic basis for restricting the use of fossil fuels. In fact, “red” areas just might be a tremendous benefit to the well being of mankind (oops, LGBTQIAkind).

  3. Seems Scott is on Christmas break, no response…oh well, when he returns, he might find the following helpful. 

    As we know, President Trump wisely pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord. Interesting though, when a U.S. representative took the stage at the recently completed COP24 global cooling conference in Katowice Poland to explain our position, he was jeered and laughed at – loudly. How very strange. You know how climate change activists never stop going on about believing in the science and how facts matter. Then why aren’t they cheering the United States, instead of jeering?

    In the evil populist “Trump’s America,” here’s what happened to energy-related carbon emissions:

    In 2017, they fell by 0.5 percent. But in the saintly globalist European Union, they went up by 1.5 percent in the same period. In fact, per-capita carbon emissions in Trump’s America are nearly at a 70-year low.

    It turns out Trump’s energy deregulation does more to fight climate change than going to conferences. I guess you might call that an “inconvenient truth.” 

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