Georgia Power’s coal-fired steam-turbine electric generating Bowen Steam Plant.
Georgia Power’s coal-fired steam-turbine electric generating Bowen Steam Plant.
Photo: Karen Bleier (Getty)

The South is being hit particularly hard by climate change from more intense heat waves to major hurricanes and floods. Despite this, the region is lagging behind the rest of the nation on climate policy. But a new analysis it has pathways to catch up.

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The inaugural climate report from the Southern Economic Advancement Project, a new think tank led by former Georgia state representative Stacey Abrams, examines decarbonization policies in Southern states stretching from Arkansas over to the Carolinas and down to Florida. Most of these states have not adopted targets for renewable energy or electric vehicle use.

“A lot of these states don’t have the basic laws in place that most other states in the country have [to] incentivize the adoption of more wind and solar,” Leah Stokes, a co-author of the report and assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told Earther.

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For instance, most states across the nation have adopted a renewable portfolio standards—regulations which require the increased production of energy from renewable energy sources—but just one Southern state, North Carolina, has done so. And few states in the region have clean electricity standards or net metering laws, either.

Climate inaction in the South is due in large part to fossil fuel and utility companies’ stronghold on state politics.

“Those fossil fuel companies have essentially captured the political system and ensured that the entrenched powers that be can continue reaping profits,” Mark Paul, who co-authored the report and is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and an assistant professor of economics at New College of Florida, told Earther.

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These companies, Paul said, have preserved their profits at the expense of not only the climate, but also people’s health and economic wellbeing. The South is filled with hotspots of pollution from fossil-based energy, and is home to the five states with the highest “utility burdens,” meaning residents pay the highest percentage of their household incomes toward energy costs.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The report lays out an array of climate policies states could adopt to improve air quality, reduce the cost of energy, and generate good jobs.

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A top way states could do all this is to phase out of coal, which is the dominant energy source in the South and accounts for 40% of the region’s pollution. But coal plants are more expensive to run than their renewable counterparts and also have higher maintenance costs. According to the report, replacing 74 of the 77 coal-fired power stations throughout the region with wind or solar would be cheaper by 2025 than keeping the existing plants open. Previous research backs this up. By adopting renewable and clean energy standards, states can incentivize utility companies to move away from coal.

“These policies can enable companies to deploy renewables, which is good from a climate and pollution perspective,” said Stokes. “And it also of course creates a lot of jobs because manufacturing that technology, installing that technology, maintaining it, all takes people.”

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The report also calls for Southern states to pass policies to increase buildings’ energy efficiency, incentivize electric vehicle use, and decarbonize the agricultural sector. As a whole, these policies could decrease the costs of transportation and utility bills and improve crop yields, not just lower pollution but also increasing prosperity.

Failing to do so will have the opposite impact in a region already suffering a heavy burden from climate change and inequality. Four of the top five states in the nation with the highest rates of poverty are located in the South, leaving low income communities particularly vulnerable to climate impacts like intense heat waves and landfalling hurricanes. A landmark study published in 2017 shows that the climate crisis will make matters worse as the South becomes less hospitable to agriculture and vulnerable populations experience more health problems tied to rising heat, fueling further inequality.

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“The inequity crisis in the South is, and will continue to be, amplified by climate change, making it that much more important for the region to act,” Stacey Abrams, Executive Director of the Southern Economic Advancement Project, said in a statement emailed to Earther. “Improving the region requires leadership and collaboration across levels of government to shift economic sectors and stop the unabated risks of climate change.”

Staff writer, Earther

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