Few Southeast Cities Have Climate Targets, but That’s Slowly Changing

A new survey of Southeast cities also found about half expect to install or buy more renewable energy. West Palm Beach and Atlanta were among the leaders.

In Jacksonville, Florida, the St. Johns River Power Park, a coal-fired power plant built in the early 1980s, was shut down earlier this year. Credit: A. Davey/CC-BY-ND-NC-2.0

This story is part of ICN's Southeast regional coverage.

Fueled by coal-burning power plants and heavy industry, seven southeastern states produce enough carbon dioxide combined to rank as the world's sixth-largest climate polluter, but few of the region's larger cities are setting measurable goals for cleaning up, a new report concludes.

A stellar performer was West Palm Beach, Florida. Among the worst laggards was Mobile, Alabama.

Chris Ann Lunghino and her Nashville nonprofit advocacy group, Community Sustainability USA, published the report as a way to encourage more cities to reduce their carbon footprints. She worked with researchers from Vanderbilt University and South Korea's Yonsei University.

Their report is based on a survey of the 139 cities across the region with a population of at least 50,000. It found that only about 20 percent of the cities have set emissions-reduction goals so far, but more are taking a closer look at their emissions and plan to increase their use of renewable energy.

Among the findings:

  • About 50 percent of the cities expect to install or procure renewable energy to meet municipal electricity demand by 2021.
  • For those cities setting emission reduction goals, two-thirds call for a 70 percent cut by 2050, in the ballpark of what scientists say is required to prevent the most disastrous effects from climate change.
  • An additional 6 percent of the cities expect to adopt emissions goals by 2021.

"Cities across population sizes and political leanings in the Southeast are setting climate goals, and some are setting aggressive climate goals, to prevent the most drastic climate change impacts," Lunghino said.

But 47 cities received a score of zero, meaning they didn't meet any of the benchmarks the report used to gauge ambition. 

Rankings: West Palm Beach Tops the List

The rankings, called the Southeast Climate Commitment Index, examined cities in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Florida.

The index takes into account 21 indicators in categories such as whether cities have taken inventories of their greenhouse gas emissions, procured renewable energy, adopted resolutions in support of tackling climate change or pledged emissions reductions.

West Palm Beach, Florida, topped all cities with the highest score. Lunghino noted it has committed to a goal of 100 percent renewable energy, set a greenhouse gas reduction target, conducted a greenhouse gas inventory and plans to do follow-up inventories. The city has several municipal initiatives to support its path toward a goal of net zero emissions by 2050.

Atlanta; Sarasota, Florida; Arlington County, Virginia; and Boynton Beach, Florida, rounded out the top five.

At the other end of the spectrum, Jacksonville, Florida; Mobile, Alabama; Marietta, Georgia; and Greeneville, North Carolina, were among the cities receiving a score of zero.

The report analyzed only cities in the Southeast and didn't compare them to cities in other regions. Lunghino previously worked for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the Sierra Club. Her small nonprofit's earlier work centered on social science and empowering individuals within groups to take action on the environment in California.

'How Will the South Respond?'

Vanderbilt University law professor Mike Vandenbergh, who helped guide the study, said it leaves the region facing a challenge: "How will the South respond?"

"What's exciting is that the private sector is taking the lead in many states," he said.

For example, Facebook announced last year that it will power a large data center near Richmond, Virginia, with solar panels. A 104-turbine wind farm in North Carolina developed by Avangrid Renewables will supply electricity to a grid that serves Amazon's data centers. The Tennessee Valley Authority also plans to provide Google with renewable energy for a new Mississippi data center.

As renewable energy prices fall, big companies coming into the region are demanding renewable energy, even if local governments are not, Vandenbergh said. "It is very plausible for a city to make a significant commitment to renewable power."