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Tennessee is drafting its first-ever plan to cut climate pollution. The state wants your input.

The Tennessee Valley Authority's Cumberland Fossil Plant, a coal plant, produces the most direct greenhouse gases of any facility in the state.
Courtesy Tennessee Valley Authority
The Tennessee Valley Authority's Cumberland Fossil Plant, a coal plant, produces the most direct greenhouse gases of any facility in the state.

In the next few months, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation will complete two firsts for the state.

The agency will create an inventory of the state’s biggest climate offenders — and then draft a plan to cut that pollution statewide.

In June, the Environmental Protection Agency allocated $3 million for Tennessee to develop its first-ever climate plan through a Climate Pollution Reduction Planning Grant, which was established by the Inflation Reduction Act. The plan will be divided over four years into two parts: the Priority Climate Action Plan and the Comprehensive Climate Action Plan.

TDEC will submit an initial inventory of climate pollution sources on Nov. 30 and proposed action steps by Jan. 31. The first state climate plan draft is due to EPA by March 1. The public can provide broad feedback in a survey until Wednesday.

‘Centuries of political and land-use decisions’

The stakes are high. The U.S. government summarized just how high this week in its latest National Climate Assessment, a comprehensive report on the impacts of climate change. The report signals that the Southeast remains one of the most vulnerable regions in the nation.

“Centuries of political and land-use decisions have threatened the landscape and the people, with a few prospering at the expense of many,” the report states. “These decisions, shaped by a long history of systemic and structural racial discrimination and aggression, continue to have lasting harmful effects on the preparedness of Southeast communities for mounting climate change threats.”

Greenhouse gas emissions, like carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, are what heat the planet. These gases are primarily produced by the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation and animal agriculture. Every additional increment of heating translates to more severe risks and, as the new report warns, unknown consequences.

The Southeast is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, according to the Fifth National Climate Assessment.
Courtesy National Climate Assessment
The Southeast is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, according to the Fifth National Climate Assessment.

What are the biggest sources of climate pollution in Tennessee?

EPA estimates that electricity accounts for one-fourth of climate pollution in the US. But that is not the full story.

The main two solutions to the climate crisis are 100% clean electricity and then running transportation, buildings and industry on that clean electricity. In other words, the nation cannot eliminate climate pollution without clean electricity.

That would mean power without fossil fuels. The Tennessee state legislature passed a law earlier this year to legally define natural gas as clean energy. Natural gas, now more commonly called methane gas, is a fossil fuel comprised mostly of methane that is fracked deep from Earth’s crust and transported on pipelines. It is not clean because it emits massive amounts of climate pollution across its entire supply chain.

More: Tennessee’s 10 Biggest Climate Polluters

Tennessee will have significant obstacles to cut pollution, as the fossil fuel industry has been fighting to block both clean electricity and electrification. TVA has been replacing fossil fuels with more fossil fuels, and the state legislature has, among other things, preemptively blocked requirements for new buildings to have electric heating instead of methane gas heating.

There is more to the story: Some sectors, like agriculture, present unique challenges to cut climate pollution, but clean electricity and electrification represent the vast majority of emissions. TDEC’s preliminary analysis found that electricity, transportation and industry represent 78% of statewide climate pollution.

Tennessee’s new statewide inventory will include transportation, electricity, industry, land use, land-use change, forestry, agriculture, buildings, waste and wastewater. It will be largely based on EPA data, according to TDEC.

(Note: EPA emission estimates are incomplete. The way EPA calculates emissions from fossil fuel plants, for example, does not fully factor in mining, fracking or pipeline leaks. EPA also does not directly monitor emissions from animal agriculture — some studies found methane at levels 39% to 90% more than what the EPA reported for livestock.) 

What actions will TDEC take?

TDEC has not revealed any proposed actions yet. The agency will consider voluntary and mandatory actions that promote electrification, energy efficiency and weatherization, said Jennifer Tribble, TDEC’s director of policy and planning.

Energy efficiency represents a big opportunity for Tennessee, where residents had the seventh-highest electricity use per capita in 2021, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Also, the state, which has embraced electric vehicle manufacturing, has been ranked as one of the worst places for EV incentives and infrastructure.

Tribble did not directly respond to whether the state would take actions to reduce fossil fuel burning or enact a statewide clean electricity requirement.

“We’re focused on the grant deliverables,” Tribble said.

The effort, called the Tennessee Volunteer Emission Reduction Strategy, will be largely voluntary or incentive-based. “While other states have imposed mandates to reduce emissions, we hope to reach established goals through voluntary measures that may differ throughout the state,” TDEC wrote in an informational document.

Tribble said part of the interest in the free funding is that rural communities, unlike metropolises, are sometimes excluded from funding opportunities for climate action.

In the past few months, the metro areas of Nashville, Memphis and Knoxville each received $1 million climate grants through the same EPA program this year. The lead organizations are the Greater Nashville Regional Council, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners and the City of Knoxville.

In the Southeast, EPA is also giving planning grants to three tribes: the Catawba Indian Tribe, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.

Caroline Eggers covers environmental issues with a focus on equity for WPLN News through Report for America, a national service program that supports journalists in local newsrooms across the country. Before joining the station, she spent several years covering water quality issues, biodiversity, climate change and Mammoth Cave National Park for newsrooms in the South. Her reporting on homelessness and a runoff-related “fish kill” for the Bowling Green Daily News earned her 2020 Kentucky Press Association awards in the general news and extended coverage categories, respectively. Beyond deadlines, she is frequently dancing, playing piano and photographing wildlife and her poodle, Princess. She graduated from Emory University with majors in journalism and creative writing.
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