“We’re growing our economy and we’re shrinking our emissions,” said Marilyn Brown, a sustainable systems professor at Georgia Tech and a collaborator on the Drawdown Georgia analysis. “That’s a great story.”
But to go along with that optimism, experts also offered a healthy dose of reality: Not every sector of the state’s economy saw their emissions fall. And to avoid the worst effects of climate change, they say far deeper cuts are needed.
Here are the other takeaways:
Coal phase out leads to big cuts
Georgia’s electricity sector saw the largest drop in emissions, falling 15% over the period studied.
That was driven mostly by the state’s largest electrical utility — Georgia Power — plus dozens of electric membership cooperatives shifting away from coal-fired power plants and toward cleaner sources like solar, natural gas and nuclear.
Georgia Power, which provides electricity to 2.7 million customers in Georgia, has already closed many of its coal-burning power plants and plans to shutter most of the rest over the next five years.
Other electricity emissions cuts were likely spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, Drawdown Georgia found.
At the height of the virus’ spread, as workers eschewed daily office visits for the safety of remote work, electricity consumption at commercial buildings fell. But even with the public health emergency now over, remote and hybrid schedules have stuck for many white collar workers. The resulting lower office occupancy rates, combined with a cleaner electrical grid, have helped drive emissions from commercial buildings down by nearly 20%.
On the flip side, more people working from home led to more residential heating and cooling demand. As a result, emissions cuts from residential electricity use were not as big as those on the commercial side.
Brian Stone, the director of Georgia Tech’s Urban Climate Lab, called the reduction in emissions encouraging, but added that it was “easily achieved,” in that it was largely driven by market forces that pushed electricity providers to close uneconomical coal plants.
“Continuing emissions reductions will need to be driven as well by shifts toward a greater reliance on renewable sources of power generation (as opposed to natural gas), electrical appliances and heat pumps in our homes, electric vehicles, and — perhaps most important — less consumption of energy overall,” Stone, who was not involved in the Drawdown Georgia analysis, said in an email.
Online retail boom brings more emissions
While the electricity sector cleaned its act, greenhouse gas emissions from transportation — now the most-polluting sector of Georgia’s economy — actually ticked up in recent years.
That, too, was partly driven by the pandemic, Drawdown Georgia found.
Even with more consumers choosing electric vehicles — which produce zero tailpipe emissions — transportation emissions actually soared past pre-COVID levels in 2021, climbing roughly 4% compared to 2017.
After travel dipped early in the pandemic, Georgians’ have since hopped back in their vehicles, leading emissions from gas-powered cars, trucks and SUVs to match their 2017 levels in 2021.
At the same time, emissions from diesel-powered trucks and buses grew 16.1%, due in large part to the shift to online retail, Drawdown Georgia found.
“Diesel increased its emissions because of all of the deliveries being made to businesses and households,” Brown said.
‘Only the beginning’
Emissions trends in other sectors were also a mixed bag.
Georgia lost some of its available carbon sinks — like forests, which pull heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — between 2017 and 2021, Brown said.
Emissions from the state’s powerhouse agriculture industry, meanwhile, fell by 7.1% in 2021 compared to 2017. That decrease was driven by improvements in soil management practices and growers receiving their electricity from a cleaner grid, the group found.
Looking ahead, Brown and Stone both said new legislation — like President Biden’s signature climate law, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) — should lead to even greater cuts. The IRA includes a bevy of consumer tax credits and rebates for electric vehicles, solar panels and home energy improvements, plus tax incentives aimed at domestic manufacturers, which is expected to help drive down the cost of those technologies.
“A 5% reduction in emissions over four years is measurable progress, but represents only the beginning of the scale of reductions that are needed,” Stone said. “The ramping up of recently adopted federal legislation should accelerate emissions reductions in the state.”
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/