Chattanooga cuts its carbon emissions by more than 25% in the past decade

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / A collection of solar panels is seen atop the building at Market and 5th Streets that houses The Johnson Group. The addition of more solar power, combined with TVA shutting down a majority of the 59 coal-fired units it once operated, have helped cut carbon emissions in Chattanooga.

Chattanooga, once billed as America's dirtiest city in the 1960s when its manufacturing-based economy relied upon fossil fuels to power local industry, is breathing easier these days after cleaning up much of its once polluted air and successfully cutting carbon emissions by more than 25% in the past decade.

A new study released Wednesday shows the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the air in Chattanooga dropped from nearly 4 million metric tons in 2008 to less than 3 million metric tons a decade later. The 25.2% in carbon output decline came even with a 14.3% gain in the city's population and a 44.8% growth in Chattanooga's economic output.

"Our overall greenhouse gas emissions are moving in the right direction and we've done that with more population, jobs and $9.5 billion more of GDP output in Chattanooga," said Michael Walton, executive director for the 13-year-old environmental group known as green/spaces, which helped sponsor the study. "These aren't mutually exclusive positions. You don't have to trade off having a strong economy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions."

Among major cities in Tennessee, Chattanooga ranked the lowest in per capita releases of greenhouse gases (GHCs) even though Chattanooga has the highest share of manufacturing jobs among the four largest metro areas in the state. Chattanooga's per capita GHC levels were slightly below the U.S. average, but still above the statewide average in Tennessee which includes many rural, undeveloped areas.

Chattanooga cleans up its act

Walton credited the city's focus on fighting climate change for its improving record.

In 2009 the City of Chattanooga created its first Climate Action Plan and green|spaces has been helping advance the sustainability of living, working and building in Chattanooga since 2007 by promoting energy efficient buildings and promoting sound environmental practices.

Former Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield signed on to the U.S. Conference of Mayors' climate pledge in 2005 and Mayor Andy Berke reaffirmed his support for the pledge and his support for the Paris Climate Accord in 2017 after President Trump pulled the United States out of the 190-nation pact to cut greenhouse gas emissions to fight global warming.

Trends in greenhouse gas emissions

In Chattanooga, the decline in greenhouse gas emissions from energy and wastewater sources has more than offset higher carbon emissions from transportation and solid waste. From 2008-2018, greenhouse gas emissions changed in Chattanooga by:* Energy: Down 35.7%* Wastewater: Down 38.3%* Transportation: Up 8.7%* Solid waste: Up 23.8%Source: 2020 study by paleBLUEdot LLC for green/spaces

In 2011, the city of Chattanooga was among more than 125 local and state governments - and among more than 900 organizations nationwide - that signed up for the Department of Energy's Better Buildings Initiative and its Better Buildings Challenge to reduce their energy consumption by 20 percent by 2025. After making energy upgrades across many municipal buildings and parks, Chattanooga is more than halfway toward that goal and Berke reaffirmed his support Wednesday for doing more to cut greenhouse emissions and clean up the environment.

Keeping Chattanooga green

"As remote working becomes more routine, Chattanooga is poised to be one of the most attractive markets in the country for talented workers who want a high quality of life with lots of amenities," Berke said. "Our pristine natural environment is obviously one of the most important. Sustaining these big reductions in greenhouse emissions, even as our population grows, is critical to preserving the beauty of our community and the health of our residents - both of which are only going to be more important economic drivers in the months ahead."

Walton said green /spaces, is working on a new set of strategies and tactics for cleaning up Chattanooga's environment and getting an updated carbon inventory is key to the new plan.

The study of greenhouse gas emissions linked with global warming was prepared by the Maplewood, Minnesota-based consulting firm paleBLUEdot LLC. The analysis of Chattanooga's pollution and land practices showed the city made major gains in the past decade in cutting carbon emissions used for its electricity and other energy and in reducing energy and wastes in its sewage treatment processes. But greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise from both transportation as more vehicles are driven more miles and by solid waste, which continues to fill up area landfills and are often not recyclable.

Walton said Chattanooga is looking at setting a goal of zero wastes by 2030 or 2040, which he said will be a challenge.

Energy gains and challenges

Carbon emissions from energy dropped nearly 36% from 2008 to 2018, primarily due to the Tennessee Valley Authority shutting down a majority of the 59 coal-fired units it was once operated to produce electricity. TVA has turned increasingly to nuclear power and natural gas, along with some increases in solar power and more energy efficiency, to meet its energy demands in its 7-state region.

Comparing carbon footprints

Although above the statewide average in Tennessee which includes many rural undeveloped areas, Chattanooga’s per capita greenhouse emissions measured in metrc ton s(MT) is below most other major cities in the Mid-South.Memphis: 26.32 MTSavannah, GA: 25.0 MTKnoxville: 21.71 MTAtlanta: 20.34 MTNashville: 18.08 MTChattanooga: 16.54 MTTennessee average: 14.59 MTU.S. average: 16.94 MTSource: 2020 study by paleBLUEdot LLC for green/spaces

Greenhouses gases from wastewater dropped in the past decade by more than 38% as the city of Chattanooga upgraded its Moccasin Bend Sewage Treatment Plant and implemented improved storm water runoff facilities and practices. The city is working now to power the sewage plant with solar power to further reduce its carbon footprint.

"The solar installation at the Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant, the public safety 'microgrid' project on Amnicola Highway, and our coordinated resiliency planning with our regional government partners are all part of a larger strategy to boost our economy and drive down carbon emissions," Berke said.

Transportation has grown into the biggest source of carbon emissions, but Walton said he hopes Chattanooga will capitalize on the trends in electrification of vehicles to replace fossil fuels with clean-generated electricity to power vehicles of the future.

"With Volkswagen making such a huge investment ($800 million) in making electric vehicles in Chattanooga and the resulting supply chain from that, paired with our Green Prix which is exposing electric vehicles to elementary, middle and high school students to electric vehicles, I think we're going to be really well positioned to benefit from this trend," Walton said.

Chattanooga has had an electric vehicle test track since TVA built the facility in the 1970s and TVA and other partners are also helping to encourage motorists to switch to battery-powered, electric vehicles.

Preserving the land

But even with such gains, the study noted that Chattanooga has lost the equivalent of 65 square miles of land to development from 2001 to 2017. Conserving such forested land is key to provide a way to recapture or sequester carbon released into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels.

Preserving property can be costly and difficult to support with only philanthropic or government funds, according to NatureVest Founder and author William Ginn who addressed green / spaces during a lunch and learn event Wednesday.

"We need to find ways to empower the private sector to invest in the kinds of things that are important for our community and the environment," he said.

Carbon credits paid by businesses needing to offset their carbon emissions are a way of doing that and have helped pay about half of the $130 million cost of the the Cumberland Forest Project, which has acquired 253,000 acres of working forest land in the Central Appalachian coalfields of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia.

California businesses which are under requirements or voluntary agreements to limit their carbon footprint have bought carbon credits for such land to capture carbon releases. The Tennessee River Gorge Trust also has been able to sell carbon credits to help fund its conservation of property around the Tennessee River west of Chattanooga.

"Greening the city is clearly in your priority," Ginn told green/spaces members in Chattanooga Wednesday. "Thinking about ways to restore green spaces and restore wooded areas is really important for your future."

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 423-757-6340.