Utilities aren’t the biggest greenhouse gas polluters in Florida anymore. Guess who is.

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

Research by the Florida Climate Institute — a collaborative of 10 Florida universities, four of which worked on the inventory — says transportation now emits the most greenhouse gases: 42.2% of the state’s total, compared to 40.3% for power companies.

Rosemary O'Hara
Rosemary O’Hara [ Provided ]

It’s surprising because in 2005, the last year studied, power companies outpaced the pack, their smokestacks notoriously spewing carbon dioxide — a climate-change accelerant — into the atmosphere. But by 2018, the last year for which data is available, Florida utilities had decreased emissions by 19%, the research shows, while tailpipe emissions grew 12%.

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

Another surprise is that per-person emissions have declined, despite Florida’s growing economy. It’s happened largely because power plants have become more efficient. So have light fixtures, windows, air conditioners, and washers and dryers.

It’s also a surprise to learn that on balance, Florida’s greenhouse gas emissions have held steady over the past 14 years. During that time the state’s population grew from 18 million to more than 21 million. But with the planet on pace to warm 2 and possibly 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100, holding steady is hardly good enough. Reducing emissions is essential to bending 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 lead on stemming climate change.

It’s clear that in transportation, the future is electric vehicles, not internal-combustion engines. Carmakers like Jaguar and General Motors have announced they will produce only electric vehicles by 2035. And increasingly, Florida cities and businesses are ordering all-electric fleets. But while Floridians have embraced electric vehicles, the number per capita remains below the national average. To keep pace, the Florida Legislature should consider incentives to offset expensive investments, and set and meet goals for creating EV infrastructure.

To hit the target in energy, the authors say Florida must generate all electricity from renewable sources — primarily solar, plus nuclear — by 2035. It’s not a far-fetched goal. Florida Power & Light, which powers more than half the state, already promises to reach “real zero” by 2045. While sooner would be better, FPL offers the kind of detailed plan other investor-owned and municipal utilities should deliver.

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But here’s the rub. FPL says its plan will cover 1% of Florida’s land mass with solar panels. That’s a lot of land. The institute’s report reveals another option: using rooftops on a grand scale. It says half of Florida’s residential energy needs — and a third of its commercial energy needs — could be met by putting solar on existing rooftops. It’s the single biggest way to cut carbon emissions.

To offset the expense, the authors recommend Florida allows purchase power agreements, in which a third-party developer installs, owns and operates an energy system on someone’s roof, and the customer agrees to purchase the output for 15 to 25 years. Such agreements let developers benefit from investment opportunities and homeowners use a clean-energy system they might not otherwise afford. PPAs operate in other states, but Florida’s power companies have successfully fought their adoption here.

Other states also offer incentives for energy-efficient appliances and other upgrades, knowing that a clean-energy future starts with conserving energy and reducing demand. Florida, however, ranks at the bottom for efficiency programs. Again, the power companies resist them.

The climate institute’s “Getting to Neutral” report represents a milestone in Florida’s climate story because 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.

The 16 members of the research team come from the University of Florida, Florida International University, the University of South Florida and the University of Central Florida. His work was partially paid for by the VoLo Foundation and the Environmental Defense Fund.

A final surprise is just how much market forces — consumers, investors and rating agencies — have moved businesses to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But Florida can’t wait for the market to do the job. We need to speed things up.

The federal Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 is a real game-changer, with its nearly $200 billion package of incentives to ramp up solar, wind, energy storage and energy efficiency.

But more is needed at the state level. A good place to start would be to create a state energy policy. It should include a goal for 100% pollution-free electricity, meaningful energy-conservation goals and programs, a timeline for EV infrastructure and regular tracking of greenhouse gas emissions.

The pace of climate change gives us no time to waste.

Rosemary O’Hara is editor of The Invading Sea, a collaborative of Florida editorial boards, including the Tampa Bay Times, focused on the threats posed by the warming climate. She previously was editorial page editor of the South Florida Sun Sentinel. The Invading Sea has also received financial support from EDF.