There are 33 states in the U.S. — plus dozens more cities and towns — that already have plans in place to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the threats posed by a warming planet. But as the risk of dangerous heatwaves, floods and storms grow, Georgia is one of the few without a roadmap to address climate change.
Not for much longer, though.
Georgia is developing its first-ever climate plan with a $3 million grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Metro Atlanta is set to create one of its own with a separate $1 million grant for the sprawling, 29-county region. It will also be the first of its kind.
Dr. Patricia Yager, a professor of marine science at the University of Georgia, said in an emailed statement that the development of the plans is a big step for the state.
“Georgia is really on the cusp of a transformation when it comes to addressing climate change,” she said.
It will likely be months before the details come into focus. But they may not include all that scientists say the state needs to prepare for what climate change has in store.
Here’s what you need to know.
How are these being funded?
The money for both plans comes from President Biden’s signature climate and healthcare law, the Inflation Reduction Act. The law, passed in Congress last year without any Republican votes, allocated roughly $5 billion for states, cities, tribes and more to develop strategies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
The EPA is distributing the funds through the Climate Pollution Reduction Grants (CPRG) program in two phases.
In the first phase, the agency made $250 million in grant funding available for local governments to update or develop climate plans. The money the state of Georgia and Metro Atlanta will receive to craft their strategies comes from this pot.
Later, the EPA will make $4.6 billion in competitive grant funds available. States, cities and other entities that developed plans with the initial tranche of funding will be able to apply for that money to implement them.
What will the plans include?
Representatives from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, the agency overseeing the state plan, and the Atlanta Regional Commission, which is leading the charge for the metro area, cautioned that it’s extremely early in the process. Still, there are early indications of what they could look like.
EPA’s guidance says the plans should focus on near-term solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, plus solutions that help overburdened communities and improve air quality.
For Georgia and traffic-choked Metro Atlanta, that’s likely to mean a heavy focus on transportation, which produces more climate pollution than any other part of the state’s economy. Gov. Brian Kemp has also pledged to make Georgia the “electric mobility capital of the world,” and the state has landed a string of massive EV-related factories from Hyundai Motor Group, Rivian and more.
All of that makes EVs a logical point of emphasis, said Anna Aponte, the manager of the planning and regulatory development unit at EPD.
As more Georgians choose EVs over gas-powered alternatives, reports say the state’s support for that transition has been lacking. A recent study by the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy ranked Georgia 32 out of 33 states examined for its charging infrastructure planning and other policies to support EVs.
Kemp’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about what he’d like to see in the state’s plan.
Katherine Zitsch, the deputy COO of the Atlanta Regional Commission, said solar, building efficiency and tree plantings are also key tools planners for the metro area will evaluate. Zitsch said the plan could be a big deal for smaller cities and counties in the region without the means to develop a strategy of their own.
“It will allow us to unlock federal funding for the 29 counties and 150 cities in the region that want to implement specific projects that can help decrease their energy footprint,” Zitsch said.
Some Georgia cities have already set their own climate goals The city of Atlanta has pledged to get 100% of its energy from clean sources by 2035. Decatur also aims to power all of its buildings and vehicles with renewable energy in the coming decades. Both Zitsch and Aponte said those will likely be incorporated into the new plans.
The U.S. also has its own national climate commitments, which call for slashing emissions by 50-52% below 2005 levels by 2030 and reaching net-zero by 2050. Aponte said it’s too soon to say whether the state’s plan will align with those targets.
What won’t be in them?
Georgia is already feeling the effects of climate change.
Atlanta already experiences roughly six more heat waves each year than it did in the 1960s. Sea level rise is raising the risk of flooding along the Georgia coast, even on sunny days. And as winters warm and confuse plants, the state’s fruit crops have been battered by freezes, triggering a string of painful losses.
Beyond reducing greenhouse gas emissions, experts say the state needs to help communities adapt to the realities of climate change that exist today.
“The people, economies, and ecosystems of Georgia are already feeling the impacts of climate change and we need to plan for climate resilience too,” said Yager, who is also the director of the Georgia Climate Project, a statewide consortium dedicated to studying climate impacts and solutions.
But adaptation is not likely to figure prominently into either plan. That’s largely because of the EPA’s grant guidance, which calls for the roadmaps to focus on curbing emissions.
The agency has developed a set of broad, regional adaptation plans for each part of the country, and efforts are underway to determine which parts of the Southeast are most vulnerable.
When can we expect more details?
The state just received its grant funding this week.
In the coming months, EPD is planning to hold a set of in-person and virtual meetings for stakeholders around the state to weigh in. The agency is also creating a website to facilitate the state plan’s development, Aponte said.
Metro Atlanta has notified the EPA that it wants to participate, but is not expected to receive funding until September.
Initial versions of both plans should be available in early 2024.
A note of disclosure
This coverage is supported by a partnership with 1Earth Fund, the Kendeda Fund and Journalism Funding Partners. You can learn more and support our climate reporting by donating at ajc.com/donate/climate/