By Michael Pearson
Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology are leading a first-in-the-nation effort to help identify solutions to help reduce Georgia’s carbon footprint in economically justifiable ways.
Drawdown Georgia is an initiative to identify high-impact practical and economically sustainable solutions to reduce the state’s carbon footprint by 2030. When completed, this Georgia group led by university researchers will be the first in the nation to produce this sort of comprehensive framework to reduce a state’s carbon emissions. The term, Drawdown, refers to the tipping point when climate-warming gasses in the atmosphere begin to decline.
“This effort benefits from a diverse team of talented researchers at Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia, Emory University, and Georgia State. We are developing a platform of solutions for addressing the climate crisis in Georgia in ways that are achievable, impactful, and economically appealing,” said Marilyn Brown, Regents Professor and Brook Byers Professor of Sustainable Systems in Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy. Brown is the principal investigator of the project.
Other Georgia Tech faculty with leadership roles in the project include Kim Cobb of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Michael Oxman and Beril Toktay in the Scheller College of Business, Daniel Matisoff from the School of Public Policy, Mike Rodgers from the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Rich Simmons in Mechanical Engineering and the Strategic Energy Institute, and Laura Taylor with the School of Economics.
The team started by systematically assessing 102 potential climate solutions identified by the global “Project Drawdown” effort in 2017. The Georgia researchers winnowed the original list of 102 to 75 candidate solutions potentially applicable to the state, then evaluated each against four key questions:
- First, they asked whether the proposed solution was technologically and market ready for Georgia. This is the point where solutions like autonomous vehicles dropped out of contention for inclusion in the final list: such technologies are unlikely to be ready before 2030.
- Then researchers considered whether there was sufficient local experience and available data to support a proposed solution. This resulted in the elimination of things like offshore wind farms.
- Next up? Would the solution achieve at least 1 metric ton of carbon dioxide equivalent emission reductions each year by 2030? This requirement led the team to drop ideas such as living buildings and other construction-related solutions because new construction only adds between 2% and 3% to the stock of buildings in Georgia in any year.
- Finally, the team considered whether a solution would be cost competitive — a key consideration to help drive adoption among individuals, businesses, and policymakers.
That painstaking work required extensive data analysis and modeling from groups looking at disparate issues such as electricity generation, transportation, the built environment, food systems, and forestry. It led to a list of 21 high-impact proposals for Georgia that are now being intensely researched.
While the group continues to work on the data and related business and policy suggestions, some obvious candidate solutions have emerged, such as broader use of solar farms and community-scale solar efforts and widespread adoption of electric vehicles, said Brown.
“These solutions will not only help reduce the state’s carbon footprint but can be done in ways that are economically competitive. Other solutions, such as retrofitting buildings to reduce energy use, can provide significant green job opportunities and important equity improvements as low-income families bear an inordinate energy burden in our state.”
The Drawdown Georgia project is funded by the Ray C. Anderson Foundation. Cobb, who leads the Global Change Program — which is also supported by the Ray C. Anderson Foundation — said the project is a perfect fit for Georgia Tech.
“Georgia Tech’s mission is ‘Progress and Service,’ and I think this project is squarely aimed at that mission,” she said. “In bringing together experts from across the entire institution, Drawdown Georgia illustrates how eager we are to combine our technical prowess into a product that will resonate across the state and beyond.”
She also called Drawdown Georgia a plan “by Georgians, for Georgians.”
“It’s more than a research project in that sense,” she said. “It’s an invitation to be a part of the climate solution, beginning right here, right now.”
The group had hoped to roll out the full list of recommendations at a May conference, but that event has been postponed.
Meanwhile, the group continues to work on the plan, despite the difficult conditions produced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Brown said she expects little long-term impact from the outbreak on Drawdown Georgia's chances to make an impact on Georgia's environment.
“In the short-term, resources for tackling climate change may be challenged by the coronavirus, but just as science is key to recovering from the global pandemic, science will also help to head off the climate crisis that humans are creating,” Brown said.
John Lanier, executive director of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, noted the group is unveiling its preliminary research results amid celebration of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22.
“Reflecting on fifty years of Earth Day, I am both proud of how far environmentalism has come and focused on how much more our movement needs to accomplish,” he said. “Our challenges are growing more severe, but more and more people are stepping up to meet them. Fortunately, none of us has to heal the earth alone, and I am particularly grateful for the many partnerships that the Ray C. Anderson Foundation has forged with Georgia Tech as we work to leave a better world for future generations. Few institutions do as much as Georgia Tech to advance sustainability, and I know that history will smile on all that was accomplished here when we celebrate the one hundredth Earth Day!”
To learn more about Drawdown Georgia, go to the project’s Georgia Tech website, https://cepl.gatech.edu/projects/Georgia-Drawdown.