Atlanta-based Southern Company has a new climate change goal: To achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
That means Southern Company’s subsidiaries like Georgia Power could still be releasing greenhouse gases from their power plants, but the company will do things to offset that pollution.
Southern Company CEO Tom Fanning made the announcement at the company’s annual shareholder meeting Wednesday.
“To achieve this goal, we will continue to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and continue our long-term commitment to energy efficiency,” he said. “But also incorporate negative carbon solutions including technology-based approaches such as direct air capture of carbon, as well as natural methods like afforestation.”
The net zero announcement gives more specificity to a previous commitment Southern Company had made in 2018, to go “low- to no-” carbon by 2050.
Fanning also said the company is ahead on another climate commitment, to reduce its emissions by 50% from 2007 levels. The goal had been to achieve that by 2030; at the shareholder meeting, he said it might be done by 2025.
Southern Company joins a handful of other utilities around the country that have made a net zero by 2050 promise, including North Carolina-based Duke Energy and Virginia-based Dominion Energy.
In response to Southern Company’s announcement, the Sierra Club said it would like to see the company move away from coal even faster.
“It’s great to hear them talk about carbon like it matters, but we don’t have three decades to wait,” Stephen Stetson, campaigner with the advocacy group’s Beyond Coal Campaign, said in a statement. “The urgency of the moment requires more than tree planting and long-term R&D plans.”
According to Fanning, in the first quarter of this year, natural gas represented 52% of Southern Company’s energy mix, renewables made up 18%, nuclear 17%, and coal accounted for 13%.
There are also still questions about how exactly Southern Company will execute the commitment, since subsidiaries like Georgia Power have to get approval from state regulators for their energy plans, and climate change has not been a priority in the past.
“On balance, while many details remain unanswered about how they plan to get to net zero, this is a good thing,” Kurt Ebersbach, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in an email. “Net zero fits more cleanly within the international framework, wherein it’s commonly said that in order to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the world needs to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050.”
In addition to Georgia Power, Southern Company also owns electric utilities in Alabama and Mississippi, and other subsidiaries dedicated to nuclear, natural gas and renewables, among others.