What Jacksonville can learn from Nashville about fighting climate change

Published on May 27, 2021 at 8:15 am

On the day Nashville Mayor John Cooper took office in September 2019, young climate activists with the Sunrise Movement staged a sit-in in his office lobby, demanding Tennessee’s largest city take action on climate change.

Cooper, a Democrat, agreed with the activists, and two years later, the city has a new sustainability and climate action plan, including a pledge to cut citywide carbon emissions by 80% by 2050.

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The same month the climate activists were protesting in Nashville, a large youth-led crowd descended on Jacksonville City Hall to call for climate action. Mayor Lenny Curry, a Republican, didn’t make an appearance at the event, nor did he speak with the organizers.

Climate strikers in front of Jacksonville’s City Hall in September, 2019
Credit: Brendan Rivers

Compared with Nashville  — a city the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce considers an economic peer and competitor  — Jacksonville is doing relatively little to reduce its carbon footprint and does not have a climate action plan — although many believe the city is starting to move in the right direction and should look to examples like Nashville for the way forward. 

The Shelby Street pedestrian bridge spanning the Cumberland River in Nashville, Tenn.
Credit: Mark Humphrey, Associated Press

Music City U.S.A.

Mayor Cooper’s climate focus aligns with the concerns of college-educated young adults, who, polling shows, are the most concerned about climate change, including an increasing number of young conservatives. 

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Cooper’s agenda has been driven by “a sense of urgency about global climate change and the role that cities can play in driving down greenhouse gas emissions,” said Mary Beth Ikard, Nashville’s director of sustainability and resilience. 

He is among more than 470 U.S. mayors in the Climate Mayors network, which is committed to the Paris Agreement that seeks to curb the most life-threatening impacts of global warming by reducing heat-trapping gases. Their tactics include tree planting, solar-powered government buildings, electric school buses and powering their communities with increasing amounts of renewable energy. 

In the past couple of years, Nashville has strengthened green building standards for city-owned buildings and established a goal of powering them with 100% renewable energy by 2041, moved toward zero-emission municipal vehicles, and updated energy codes designed to reduce energy use by 30%.

“These things create green jobs,” Nashville City Councilman Freddie O’Connell said. “When we reach the point where [the Metropolitan Government of Nashville-Davidson County] builds its first net-zero building, then suddenly we are not paying utility bills. This pays out in so many ways, not the least of which is health and climate.”

Nashville has also entered into an agreement with its wholesale power provider, the Tennessee Valley Authority, for the city to get 100 megawatts of local solar power. It’s a commitment Ikard said will cost the city about $200,000 a year starting in 2023 and will get it one third of the way toward its 20-year goal. 

Nashville, like Jacksonville, has its own public utility. But it gets all its power from the federally owned TVA. Largely because of extensive nuclear and hydropower capacity, TVA produces about 60% of its electricity carbon free.

But while Nashville’s carbon-free energy mix is relatively high, a study commissioned last fall by a group of Nashville academics and business people warned that the city’s economy could take a hit unless the TVA moves even quicker to adopt renewables. A growing number of companies are adopting their own clean energy commitments, the study points out, and cities that cannot meet them could become less attractive.

“We’ve only seen companies getting more outspoken about how they factor in sustainability to their economic development plans, year over year,” said James Hewett, a co-author of the Nashville report and vice president at the pro-clean energy consulting firm David Gardiner and Associates. 

For example, Microsoft ranked sustainability as the No. 2 factor when it decided to expand into Atlanta this year. Sustainability is also one of Amazon’s top priorities in developing its Arlington, Virginia, headquarters.

And there could be pressure from D.C. too. Michael Vandenbergh, a Vanderbilt University law professor and environmental law scholar who was among the Nashville leaders to commission the economics study, said the federal government has signalled that under President Joe Biden, it will be pursuing decarbonization policies. 

“So, cities and companies are at risk if they have higher carbon emissions than competitors, as policies favor lower emissions,” he said. 

When the study was released last fall, it got some pushback from the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. For businesses looking to set up shop in Nashville, environmental sustainability is generally not a high priority, said Chamber President Ralph Schulz during an Urban Land Institute forum. Still, he described the report as “useful” because it will “help us take a longer view than we would typically take.”

Downtown Jacksonville
Credit: Bill Bortzfield, WJCT News

The River City

Responses to climate change tend to fall into two categories: resilience and mitigation. 

Resilience strategies help us stay cool when the temperature rises, dry when the St. Johns River floods and recover faster after hurricanes. Mitigation, on the other hand, is about slowing climate change to avoid the worst impacts. That means reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, often by switching to electric vehicles and producing energy from solar or wind instead of coal or gas. To mitigate climate change, advocates are arguing for a fundamental transformation to a clean energy economy.

So far, Jacksonville has primarily been focused on resilience — adapting to rising seas by buying out some homes in floodplains, for one.

But unless the city also takes significant mitigation action, it could face an economic spiral: Jacksonville could fail to attract up-and-coming businesses at the same time that existing residents and businesses flee to escape the St. Johns River’s increasingly frequent floods and the region’s increasingly hot summers, eventually leaving the city with a shrinking tax base to pay for the actions that are needed to deal with the causes and increasingly dire effects of the warming climate.

That’s the concern of the climate-conscious in Jacksonville’s business community.

“I think a lot of the business community, especially the young professionals, they’re looking for cities that have climate action goals,” said Christina Kelcourse, executive director of the North Florida Green Chamber of Commerce. “They’re looking for cities that have sustainable practices.”

A lack of climate goals doesn’t appear to be stopping businesses or young professionals from coming to Jacksonville, at least not yet. This month, Dun & Bradstreet, a Fortune 500 company, announced that it would be moving its corporate headquarters to the River City. Last month, Zillow and Yelp named Jacksonville the top city for “digital nomads” — people who work remotely and are free to travel and live where they please.

It’s not hard to see the appeal: the beautiful river meandering through the heart of downtown, quick and easy access to beaches, an expansive park system and, perhaps most importantly, relatively low taxes and cheap housing.

But it’s not as affordable to live and work here as it once was. Over the past year, amid the pandemic’s housing shortage, home values in the area shot up by more than 20%. The effects of a changing climate are also becoming apparent in a city that’s incredibly vulnerable to flooding.

So can Jacksonville continue to attract and keep successful businesses and young professionals as the cost of living climbs, as sea and river levels rise, as flooding occurs more regularly and as dangerous summer heat becomes the norm?

Yes, Kelcourse says — if the city starts investing in mitigation. 

“The integration of more renewables and less carbon into our energy mix can directly power a city’s ability to be more economically competitive, sustainable and attractive,” she said. 

Local businesses that prioritize climate action are taking matters into their own hands in the absence of city leadership.

Baptist Health, Jacksonville’s largest employer with more than 10,000 people on staff, has formed a group of facility directors and engineers that tracks energy consumption and looks for ways to use less. 

Florida Blue, another of the city’s largest employers, has reduced energy usage at its Jacksonville campus by about 30% over the past decade and plans to announce details of a partnership with JEA that will allow the company to reduce its carbon footprint by about 40% enterprise-wide.

JEA’s downtown Jacksonville headquarters
Credit: JEA

Jacksonville’s Climate Future

Mayor Lenny Curry, who is not among Florida’s roughly three dozen Climate Mayors, deferred to JEA, the municipal utility, when asked for an interview for this story. 

For its part, JEA has begun to reduce its reliance on coal and oil, recently decommissioning two coal power plants (which, according to JEA, cut the utility’s carbon emissions in half). And although last year JEA got just 1% of its energy from renewable sources like solar, its goal is to make up to 30% of the energy it provides carbon neutral by the end of this decade. 

“What signal it will send is that we are very conscious of this and we are dedicating our resources and efforts to moving forward in that area,” said Wayne Young, vice president of environmental services at JEA. 

But to make up for the loss of coal and oil, the utility is relying heavily on another fossil fuel — natural gas — which accounted for 63% of JEA’s energy production last year.

While natural gas produces about half of the carbon dioxide of coal when burned, its main ingredient, methane, is considered a climate “super pollutant.” Methane is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide at warming the atmosphere over a 20-year period, and it frequently leaks from drilling sites and pipelines. Unlike carbon dioxide, which stays in the atmosphere for centuries, methane breaks down quickly and most is gone after a decade, so methane reductions can rapidly reduce the rate of global warming in the near-term, according to a new United Nations report that recommends urgent action.

And JEA’s 30% carbon-neutral goal by the year 2030 falls far short of what’s needed from utilities to keep global warming within 1.5℃ above pre-industrial levels — the preferred temperature goal of the Paris Agreement — and earned JEA an F grade for climate goals in a recent report from the Sierra Club.

But JEA says it’s on track to increase solar power generation by 250 megawatts over the next decade, bringing the utility’s share of renewable energy up from 1% to 6%. Once the nuclear Plant Vogtle goes online, it’ll give the utility access to another 200 megawatts of low-carbon energy. Still, even with these additions to its energy mix, JEA will be nowhere near meeting President Joe Biden’s plan for a carbon-free power sector by 2035

Stil, Young said JEA’s “integrated resource plan,” which projects where electric power will come from in the short term, midterm and long term, includes consideration of a net-zero emissions goal. He expects the JEA board of directors to approve the plan by the end of the year, at which point the document will be made publicly available.

A military vehicle drives through Jacksonville after Hurricane Irma brought floodwaters on Monday, Sept. 11, 2017.
Credit: John Raoux, Associated Press

A Sea Change

As more Jacksonville residents and businesses call for the River City to start thinking more seriously about climate change, it seems City Hall is taking note.

The recently approved final report from the Jacksonville City Council’s Special Committee on Resiliency laid out dozens of policy recommendations that would make the city more resilient to the impacts of climate change. On the mitigation front, the document calls for creating a greenhouse gas inventory and reduction plan, as well as working with JEA to establish an aggressive timetable for becoming carbon neutral.

JEA is already moving forward with its own plans to monitor and reduce greenhouse gasses and wants to partner with the city on any future emissions reductions goals, Young said.

“We do share the same interest with respect to reducing our carbon footprint,” he said.

While it’s clear Jacksonville is behind the curve in addressing climate change, there has been a momentum shift in recent years, with the release of the Resiliency Committee’s final report and upcoming hire of the city’s first chief resilience officer. 

This has left many feeling optimistic about future action. One of the perks of being near the back of the pack, according to Sarah Boren, Florida director of the U.S. Green Building Council, is that Jacksonville can learn from the successes and failures of others — like Nashville.

“The good news is that there’s a lot of cities and very smart people who have done the work ahead of us. So it’s not like we have to recreate the wheel,” she said.

This story is a collaboration between Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, nonpartisan and independent newsroom, and ADAPT, a product of WJCT Public Media in Jacksonville, Fla. WJCT is a member of ICN’s National Reporting Network-Southeast

author image Associate Producer, Radio Boston email Sydney Boles is an associate producer for Radio Boston. She joined WBUR in 2022. Sydney holds a bachelor's degree in Global Studies from Long Island University and a master's degree in Journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. author image Southeast Reporter for Inside Climate News email James Bruggers covers the U.S. Southeast, part of Inside Climate News’ National Environment Reporting Network. He served on the board of directors of the SEJ for 13 years, including two years as president. author image Lead Reporter, ADAPT email

Brendan Rivers is the lead reporter for ADAPT, where he also writes the ADAPT email newsletter, hosts live events, and hosts and produces the ADAPT podcast profiling local people who are working on the issue of climate change.

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