If you're looking for the culprit in Georgia's global-warming drama, look no further than carbon dioxide.
The bad news: Carbon dioxide emissions keep rising. According to Oak Ridge National Lab, emissions in Georgia have increased 315 percent since 1960, stemming mostly from the burning of coal and from keeping our cars and trucks moving.
The good news: They don't have to. In most cases, the steps Georgia would take to actually combat global warming are similar to steps that could help make our communities healthier, friendlier and more stable places to live.
Here's how we can act:
In the home
Some of the easiest cuts in carbon can be made at home. According to the U.S. Energy Department, if every American household installed one compact fluorescent light bulb – which is a tad more expensive than the traditional incandescent type, but lasts six to 10 times longer – it could reduce the equivalent of greenhouse gases from 800,000 cars.
Building energy-efficient houses can reduce greenhouse gases even more. Since 1999, more than 4,000 homes in Georgia and five other Southeastern states have been Earthcraft-certified, meaning they rely on such green techniques as better insulation and more efficient appliances. The Southface Energy Institute, which developed the program along with Atlanta home builders, claims those homes have prevented 64,000 tons of CO2 from floating into the atmosphere.
Home builders and homeowners have taken to Earthcraft because it makes economic sense: Homes with lower energy bills tend to be better built and to be more comfortable. But more aggressive steps, such as solar or geothermal energy systems, are more popular in states that offer tax breaks or utility rebates for doing the right thing. Take Gainesville, Fla. The power company there offers homeowners up to $7,500 in rebates for installing solar electric panels.
Southface's Dennis Creech says Georgia's demand for energy-efficient homes pales in comparison to that of Texas, a state that last year boasted 30,000 "Energy Star"-certified homes. Homeowners there can get tax credits for installing such green-energy devices as solar panels.
"People a lot of times think, 'Oh, it's just a house, what about those skyscrapers?'" Creech says. "But there are a lot more homes than skyscrapers. The first step is to stop building inefficient homes that waste energy and money."
On the move
Sometime after World War II, Atlanta shook its railroad roots and adopted the automobile as its mascot. Oops.
When it comes to greenhouse gases, buses, trains and other forms of transit are dramatically more efficient at getting people where they want to go – simply switching to transit could reduce a person's annual carbon emissions by 4,800 pounds a year, the American Public Transit Association says.
One way to cut carbon emissions from cars is to get people to drive more efficient vehicles. State and local governments could help build a market for cleaner vehicles by following the example of Atlanta-based United Parcel Service: The shipping giant plans to cut carbon-dioxide emissions by 40 percent by shifting to alternative technologies. What if the state helped local school boards gradually convert their 13,140 diesel-gulping buses to hybrids?
Georgia has taken one step to help drivers switch to less polluting automobiles: Individuals can get tax credits to buy zero- and "low"-emission vehicles, but efforts to expand that credit to hybrid vehicles haven't succeeded yet.
The biggest carbon savings are likely to come from people getting out of their cars. MARTA – the largest transit agency in the country not to receive state funding – claims to keep 185,000 vehicles off the road every day. Imagine how much more mass mass transit could get if it was able to expand with state money.
While new transit projects, including the Beltline and a proposed trolley along Peachtree, are starting to get traction, such ideas could move quicker to reality with the kind of modest state support light-rail projects have received in cities such as San Diego and Portland.
The same goes for commuter rail. A proposed network that's languished in the state Capitol for two decades would give long-distance commuters a more efficient, and pleasant, way to get to work. An analysis conducted by the state Department of Transportation says just one of the commuter lines – the "Brain Train" from Athens to Atlanta – would immediately cut the number of miles traveled by automobiles each year by 42.5 million.
There's a bonus in all this for our quality of life: Rail could help transform metro neighborhoods into the kinds of places most people say they want to live – places that are as friendly to people as they are to cars. Compact communities that mix homes, shops and offices encourage people to walk and ride their bikes, to drive shorter distances, and to use buses and trains.
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