Greenhouse gas emissions in the small Southern city dropped 25% in 10 years. New plans aim to reduce them further as local temperatures rise
Between 2008 and 2018, Chattanooga, TN, reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 25%, according to a forthcoming report commissioned by the city. The news follows decades of sustainability initiatives in Chattanooga, which cleaned up its act after a 1969 EPA report found it had the dirtiest air in America.
Despite Chattanooga’s historic turn-around in pollution, climate change presents a new challenge. The local annual average temperature has risen by over four degrees since 1970, making Chattanooga the 6th fastest warming city in the country.
New efforts, including the Regional Resiliency Council and the Integrated Community Sustainability Plan, outline how the city will continue to reduce its carbon impact and prepare for the consequences of climate change.
Local climate efforts, past and present
In 2006, Chattanooga produced 3.99 million metric tons of greenhouse gases, up over 25% from 1996 levels. In 2009, the city of Chattanooga unveiled its first climate plan.
The city, in partnership with private and nonprofit community leaders, identified 47 sustainability objectives. By 2019, the city had achieved over 90% of them, according to green|spaces, a local nonprofit. One objective, to make building efficiency improvements, resulted in a 30% reduction of energy use in public buildings.
Nearly a decade later, in 2018, Chattanooga’s greenhouse gas emissions were 2.99 million metric tons, down 25%. Per capita emissions had dropped 35%, from 25.27 MT to 16.54 MT per capita. Despite fears that environmental gains would come at the expense of the economy, GDP also increased, by $9.59 billion.
The Integrated Community Sustainability Plan aims to build on these successes. Planning began in early 2019, when green|spaces organized input from private and public community leaders, including city government officials. An initial draft plan includes objectives such as creating car-free zones, eliminating bus fare, and establishing a composting facility. “It was a very collaborative process between over 100 individuals and representing over 50 organizations”, says Michael Walton, Executive Director.
Additionally, in November 2019, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke (D) unveiled a new sustainability initiative, the Regional Resiliency Plan. According to a statement from the city, “Eighteen other mayors from around Tennessee and Georgia have signed onto Mayor Berke’s plan that will tackle big issues like emergency planning, reducing energy consumption and create a system for these leaders to work together on the more far-reaching effects of climate change.”
More specific objectives will be announced after the completion of an evaluation by a private contractor. The city recently awarded the contract to Stantec, a national consulting firm with offices in Chattanooga, according to sources familiar with the matter.
It remains to be seen what specifics these two initiatives will recommend and how they will coincide.
Chattanooga Green: What the future brings
Further reduction in Chattanooga’s carbon impact may have little to do with local efforts. The Tennessee Valley Authority, a federally owned corporation, provides Chattanooga’s power. In the first six months of 2020, TVA got the majority of its power from nuclear and renewable energy.
TVA’s board voted to close coal plants in Kentucky and Tennessee in February 2019. The decision came despite pressure from the Trump administration to keep at least one plant open (four of seven TVA board members are Trump appointees).
Regardless of where reductions in greenhouse gases come from, there’s been an unmistakable shift in the city since 1969. Once known for manufacturing, Chattanooga has been named Outside Magazine’s Best Town Ever as the first, and at the time, only town to twice win the annual “best town” competition, reflecting a reputation for natural beauty and outdoor recreation opportunities.
An exception to the Southern, and national, rule
Experts estimate that the Southeast will be more affected by climate change than other regions of the country. Despite that fact, legislators have been slow to act.
The Republican Party, which controls the legislatures of Southern states including Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Tennessee, says in its official platform that “climate change is far from this nation’s most pressing national security issue.” The party rejects the Paris Agreement and Kyoto Protocol.
That hasn’t prevented political support for renewable energy in the region. Republican-dominated North Carolina’s tax incentives for renewable energy helped make it the number two solar-producing state in the country. It has, however, made the passage of bills similar to New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which sets a target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, a political impossibility.
That said, the biggest enemy of local climate initiatives is not organized partisan opposition, but “inaction”, according to Michael Walton.
Independent of state and federal directives, cities have considerable power to act on sustainability initiatives. Other Southern cities, including Louisville, KY, have declared climate emergencies. Chattanooga is not one of them, but was an early signatory on the Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement, an effort spearheaded by the US Conference of Mayors..
Chattanooga’s first major environmental victory, lifting a thick layer of smog, is a point of local pride. Today, Chattanoogans have something else to be proud of: local initiatives have helped cut greenhouse gas emissions by a quarter. As temperatures rise, the community continues to work together to tackle this global problem.
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