U.S. utility Southern Co commits to 'net zero' emissions by 2050

(Reuters) - U.S. utility Southern Co on Wednesday committed to reducing its carbon emissions to “net zero” by 2050 following investor pressure to set a more ambitious goal to combat climate change.

The target aligns Southern’s emissions reduction strategy with that of several other major U.S. utilities, including Duke Energy Corp, Xcel Energy Inc and Dominion Energy Inc

The Atlanta-based company’s pledge, unveiled at its annual shareholder meeting, goes beyond a 2018 commitment that it would emit “low to no” carbon by 2050, environmental groups said.

They had criticized that pledge because “low emissions” could still allow Southern to emit millions of tons of carbon annually.

“Net zero” refers to a balance between emissions produced and emissions taken out of the atmosphere.

In a statement, Southern said it would achieve the goal by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and investing in technologies like direct air capture of carbon and planting trees.

Southern is one of the largest U.S. utilities, serving more than 8 million gas and electric customers. It has invested heavily in renewable energy such as solar and wind in the last decade, but still generates about a quarter of its power from coal and nearly half from natural gas.

Late last year, shareholder activist group As You Sow filed a resolution asking Southern to report on the risks of its natural gas assets becoming stranded as the world moves away from fossil fuels to address climate change.

The group withdrew that resolution after securing a commitment from Southern that it would provide more information about how its natural gas fleet fits in to its climate strategy.

“This commitment does show progress,” Lila Holzman, energy program manager for As You Sow, said in an interview. “We still have concerns around how it is going to get there.”

Reporting by Nichola Groom; editing by Grant McCool