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Florida has made progress on greenhouse gases, but more needs to be done

Among the many surprising findings from a benchmark study of Florida’s greenhouse gas emissions is that electric companies are no longer the state’s largest air polluter, although they are only a close second.

Research from the Florida Climate Institute — a collaboration of 10 Florida universities, four of which worked on the inventory — shows that transportation now emits the most greenhouse gases: 42.2% of the state’s total, compared to 40.3% at energy company.

It’s surprising, because in 2005, the last year surveyed, energy companies were outpacing the crowd, their smokestacks notoriously spewing carbon dioxide — a climate change accelerator — into the atmosphere. But by 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, Florida utilities had cut emissions by 19%, the study shows, while tailpipe emissions were up 12%.

Florida energy companies deserve credit for reducing carbon emissions in response to market demands. Still, energy and transportation generate 82.5 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, research shows. Even energy company executives will tell you that much more needs to be done.

Rosemary O'Hara is Editor of The Invading Sea, a Florida editorial collaboration focused on the threats posed by the warming climate.  She was previously the editorial page editor of the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

It’s also a surprise to learn that Florida’s overall greenhouse gas emissions have remained stable over the past 14 years. During that time, the state’s population grew from 18 million to 21 million. But with the planet poised to warm 2 and possibly 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100, staying constant is hardly good enough. Reducing emissions is essential to turning the curve.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the report’s seemingly feasible roadmap for how Florida could reach net-zero emissions by 2040 and eliminate them entirely by 2050. The path would require measurable changes in transportation, power generation, agriculture, industry and waste. And it would require incoming state policymakers to take the lead in mitigating climate change.

It is clear that the future of transportation belongs to electric vehicles, not internal combustion engines. Car manufacturers such as Jaguar and General Motors have announced that they will only produce electric vehicles by 2035. And more and more Florida cities and businesses are ordering all-electric fleets. But while Floridians have embraced electric vehicles, the per capita figure remains below the national average. To keep up, the Florida Legislature should consider incentives to offset expensive investments and set and meet targets for EV infrastructure creation.

To meet the energy goal, the authors have to say that by 2035, Florida must generate all of its electricity from renewable sources — primarily solar and nuclear. This is not a far-fetched goal. Florida Power & Light, which supplies electricity to more than half the state, is already promising to reach “true zero” by 2045. While earlier would be better, FPL offers the kind of detailed plan that other investors and public utilities should provide.

But here’s the catch. FPL says its plan will cover 1% of Florida’s landmass with solar panels. That’s a lot of land. The institute’s report shows another option: the use of roofs on a large scale. It says half of Florida’s residential energy needs – and one-third of commercial energy needs – could be met by installing solar power on existing rooftops. It’s the biggest way to reduce CO2 emissions.

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To offset the cost, the authors recommend Florida to allow purchase agreements where a third-party developer installs, owns and operates an energy system on someone’s rooftop and the customer agrees to purchase the performance for 15 to 25 years.

Invading Seas

The Climate Institute’s Getting to Neutral report marks a milestone in Florida’s climate history as it provides a baseline of our carbon footprint. While a number of states regularly conduct such inventories, Florida last did so in 2008, looking at 2005 data.

A final surprise is how much market forces – consumers, investors and rating agencies – have pushed companies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But Florida can’t wait for the market to do the work. We need to speed things up.

The Federal Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 is a game changer with its nearly $200 billion package of stimulus to expand solar, wind, energy storage and energy efficiency.

But more is needed at the national level. A good starting point would be the creation of a national energy policy. It should include a goal for 100% clean electricity, meaningful energy saving targets and programs, an EV infrastructure timeline, and regular tracking of greenhouse gas emissions.

The pace of climate change means we have no time to waste.

Rosemary O’Hara is Editor of The Invading Sea, a Florida editorial collaboration focused on the threats posed by the warming climate. She was previously the editorial page editor of the South Florida Sun Sentinel. The invading sea has also received financial support from EDF.

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