As Charlotte pursues climate goals, some worry they're unreachable
Three years ago, the Charlotte City Council adopted goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address climate change. There are signs of progress, but some are concerned the city won't meet its goals.
The city's internal goal is to power all municipal buildings and vehicles from zero-carbon sources by 2030. An external goal is to cut carbon dioxide emissions across the community to two tons per person annually by 2050. It was 11 tons as of 2019. As the planet continues to warm, Charlotte and other cities need to keep up efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, said the city's chief sustainability and resiliency officer, Sarah Hazel.
"This is critical," Hazel said. "This is our health and this is our climate, and this impacts the air quality and the people who live in our community in a real way."
Over the past three years, the city has focused internally on four areas: buildings, transportation, energy generation and workforce development.
"I think we've made some pretty significant progress, and we have a lot of work to do," Hazel said.
Externally, it's less clear how the city can persuade businesses, organizations and citizens to dramatically change how they do things.
"The goal is an ambitious one, admittedly, and it's going to be tough to meet," said City Council member Larken Egleston. "But I think that the city as a whole, and with the City Council having key involvement in it, has been making decisions that are helping us get there."
Transportation is a good example of both progress and challenges with the Strategic Energy Action Plan, or SEAP. The city will spend $1 million this fiscal year to double the number of electric vehicles in its fleet. The 45 new EVs will boost the total to 88, but that's still just 2% of the city's 4,295 vehicles.
The city also is adding electric vehicle charging stations. It's spending $4.2 million this fiscal year to double the number of electric shuttle buses at the airport, which will be all-electric by 2026, Hazel said.
And Charlotte Area Transit System is spending $22.8 million this fiscal year on its first 18 electric city buses, from two manufacturers — Gillig and New Flyer. But CATS has about 300 total buses, so it will be years before the transition is complete.
Shannon Binns of the environmental group Sustain Charlotte thinks the city's internal progress has been "tremendous." But he said the community-wide goal of reducing per-person emissions remains out of reach.
"We haven't made the big transformational investment that we need in our transportation network, and that's what is really needed to have a meaningful impact on that 2050 goal," he said.
He's referring to the city's proposed (and still un-funded) $13.5 billion regional mobility network. That plan for more buses, train lines and bicycle and walking paths would require state and federal money, as well as a new local 1 cent sales tax. The tax still needs voter and legislative approval.
Buildings and energy
The city's own buildings and energy use are also critical targets of the SEAP. One project will take a big bite out of that. Charlotte is working with Duke Energy and private developers on a 35-megawatt solar farm in Iredell County. When it's finished later this year, it will provide about 24% of the city's electricity and save about $2 million over 20 years, Hazel said.
And the city is improving energy efficiency and installing solar panels on some buildings. This year, the city is spending $1.6 million for solar on nine city buildings, which will bring the city's total to 20 buildings, Hazel said.
Altogether, Hazel said, the city is about one-third of the way to its zero-energy goal.
Getting all the way there will be another big challenge. Like other energy users in our region, the city relies on Duke Energy for electricity. And the Charlotte-based energy giant plans to keep burning coal and natural gas for years to come.
"I think the biggest challenge for us to meet the 2030 goal is simply that we're not fully in control of our ability to meet it," Egleston said.
Other cities face the same challenges, and Charlotte has been recognized for improving. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy ranked Charlotte No. 42 among 100 cities on its 2021 City Clean Energy Scorecard. That was up from No. 65 in 2020 and better than some comparable cities. But the group predicts the city won't meet its citywide goal of 2 tons of CO2 annually per person.
Goal for businesses and citizens
Reaching that goal means persuading businesses, organizations and residents to change the way they do things, like adopting renewable energy or taking buses and walking more.
Some activists are concerned the city won't have the will to meet its goals. Binns said that means not allowing exceptions to the SEAP and other city rules.
"If our City Council doesn't stick to their guns and uphold adopted plans and policies related to transportation, land-use, climate, it's going to be very hard for us to make a dent in those community-wide emissions," Binns said.
Binns and other environmentalists and climate-minded city residents are trying to keep pressure on the city to meet its climate goals. They've formed a SEAP accountability committee. Former Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts is a member.
"We want to just see how we're measuring. Are we making progress? Are we going as fast as we should? It's helpful to have citizens who care pushing because there are a lot of priorities our city has," Roberts said. "I know that. There are so many things on their plate."
Some measurements are on the way. Hazel said the city soon will issue an updated citywide carbon inventory — an estimate of total carbon emissions. And a Year 3 SEAP progress report is due by spring.
Read the city's most recent SEAP update from September 2021.
See the Strategic Energy Action Plan on the city website.
A version of this story first appeared in WFAE's weekly Climate News newsletter, emailed every Thursday.