Who's Pumping Out Greenhouse Gases In Southwest Michigan?

Dec 13, 2018

Cars on Western Michigan University's campus. Transportation, including vehicle travel, is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state, and Southwest Michiganders do plenty of driving.
Credit Sehvilla Mann / WMUK

Recently you shared what you would like to know about climate change in our region. (If you have not reached out yet, we would love to hear from you!) In our first report, we'll tackle these questions: “What are the primary sources of greenhouse gases in Southwest Michigan, and what can we do to cut our emissions?”


Greenhouse gases, of course, trap heat in the atmosphere and drive global warming. In the nine counties that make up Southwest Michigan, two sources of carbon emissions might outstrip the rest. The first is transportation.

This reporter’s commute is short - just two miles long - and is generally made in a relatively small car. But each round trip adds about three pounds of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

“I can’t believe it, but some people have 50-mile commutes every day,” says Western Michigan University physics professor and WMU Climate Change Work Group member Paul Pancella.

“Your listeners might be surprised how much personal, just people moving themselves around is a big portion of the transportation pie,” he adds.

Statewide, transportation accounted for 30.6 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in 2015, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Regionally, Southwest Michiganders do plenty of driving. Our region ranked fourth in the state in 2016 for annual miles travelled, and that’s leaving Allegan and Barry Counties out. But Pancella says that conversely, “Personal transportation is definitely a place where an individual can make a significant difference.”

He advocates a shift toward electric cars. He says a modern electric light-duty vehicle, even one that was charged entirely on dirty coal-fired power would emit a little less CO2 than a pure-gasoline engine.

And while charging stations are not yet plentiful in the Midwest, “Most people don’t drive more than thirty, forty miles a day and overnight charging is perfectly good for them,” Pancella says.

Two-car households can use an electric car for short hops, and a gas or hybrid car for longer drives.

As much carbon dioxide as transportation pumps into the atmosphere, it’s only the second-largest source of CO2 emissions in the state. In Michigan, the first-largest source is generating electricity, at 38.4 percent of 2015 carbon dioxide emissions. The vast majority of that CO2 from burning coal.

But what about Southwest Michigan? The nine-county region has no coal-fired plants, though of course it is connected to the larger, coal-fired grid. Southwest Michigan generates a small amount of electricity from renewables, and otherwise from nuclear and hydropower and natural gas. WMU’s Pancella says that gas emits about a quarter less CO2 than coal per unit of useful thermal energy.

“From the point of view of climate change, absolutely, 25 percent makes a difference. That difference is important,” he says.

But natural-gas plants are still significant emitters. Facilities that release lots of greenhouse gases must report to the Environmental Protection Agency. According to EPA data, the single largest emitter in Southwest Michigan is a gas-fired plant in Covert. Its greenhouse gas contributions far outstrip any of the industrial sources in Southwest Michigan.

“There is nationally a real dialogue around the need to have natural gas as a bridge fuel to renewables and I don’t think that’s necessarily true anymore,” says Charlotte Jameson, who directs energy policy for the nonprofit advocacy group the Michigan Environmental Council.

Jameson suggests that the falling cost of energy from sources such as wind and solar power means it’s time to “fully” transition toward renewables. Michigan utilities, which have met earlier targets, are coming up to the state’s 2021 deadline to use 15 percent renewable energy.

“We should be able to hit it fairly easily,” Jameson says.

But while Michigan is making progress on renewables, scientists are warning that the world needs to move much faster to reduce carbon emissions. In a recent report the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that globally, CO2 emissions must be cut almost in half by 2030 to avoid catastrophic warming.

“What the report made very clear is that we need to be doing much more renewables and we need to be doing it much more quickly if we’re going to do our part to stave off the worst of climate change,” Jameson says.

In short, transportation is likely to be a major source of greenhouse gas emissions in Southwest Michigan, and making electricity contributes as well. Other sources, such as heating homes and making industrial products have an impact as well. Research has shown that that globally, the dairy industry has a sizeable impact on methane emissions, but no one seems to have charted this yet in Southwest Michigan.

As for cutting emissions, we would do well to embrace renewables as fast as possible and drive cars powered by that clean energy.