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WFAE reporter David Boraks explores how the way we live influences climate change and its impact across the Carolinas. You also can read additional national and international climate news.

North Carolina's biggest greenhouse gas challenge is transportation, study finds

020222 Cars on I-77 north of Davidson.jpg
David Boraks
A new study lists transportation as the state's largest source of greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. The sector is now a bigger contributor than energy or industry.

Transportation has overtaken electricity generation as the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in North Carolina. That's according to an updated greenhouse gas inventory published this week by state environmental regulators.

The greenhouse gas inventory is a report card showing where carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses that cause global warming come from and how we're doing at reducing them.

This year's report is an update to the last one in 2019. It tracks changes in greenhouse gas emissions between 1990 and 2018 and includes projections through 2030. Although the most recent figures are from 2018, the inventory is still a good tool for regulators and public officials as they decide how to address climate change.

The report shows an overall increase in greenhouse gas emissions in North Carolina, from about 150 million metric tons in 2017 to about 160 million metric tons in 2018. But that's down a net 23% from 2005. (That's the year the Kyoto Climate Protocol took effect, when countries agreed to limit greenhouse gas emissions.)

By 2030, net greenhouse gas emissions are expected to decline 39% from 2005. That prediction assumes the state meets the carbon reduction goals for the electricity sector as required in an energy reform bill Gov. Roy Cooper signed last fall. That new law sets a goal of a 70% reduction by 2030 and net-zero by 2050.

2019 NC GHG Fact Sheet.jpg
N.C. Department of Environmental Quality

State Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Elizabeth Biser was not available for an interview about the new numbers. She said in a news release the state is making progress, but added, "It also highlights the need for continued focus on the transportation sector to meet our climate goals.”

Transportation takes the lead

Burning fossil fuels is the main culprit when it comes to carbon emissions, both in North Carolina and nationally. The inventory looks at four major sectors: transportation; electricity generation; fuel use for homes, businesses and industry; and a sort of catch-all called "land use, land use change and forestry."

At least part of the change in transportation came because of revisions that reflect newly available data and a new model for calculating transportation emissions, according to DEQ.

But it also comes as gas- and diesel-burning vehicles remain the overwhelming choice of North Carolinians. That's despite the growing popularity of electric vehicles.

Carbon emissions from transportation were down just 3% from 2005 levels, as of 2018.

Meanwhile, greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector are actually declining more quickly than transportation — down 31% since 2005. That's as the energy industry continues its gradual shift away from coal-fired power plants and toward cleaner-burning natural gas as well as solar and wind energy.

N.C. greenhouse gas sources

Here's how different sectors contribute to greenhouse gas emissions in North Carolina, as of 2018, with 2017 numbers in parentheses:

  • 35.9% (32.5%) - transportation
  • 32.8% (35.1%) - electricity  
  • 12.2% (12.3%) - industry 
  • 6.6% (7.0%) - agriculture 
  • 5.6% (5.8%) - waste 
  • 3.5% (3.5%) - home
  • 3.3% (3.8%) - commercial 

DEQ noted in a news release that forests, natural lands and agricultural lands absorbed an estimated 26% of the greenhouse gasses emitted in 2018 in the state. Total emissions numbers in the report include that.
EVs are growing, but gas vehicles are, too 

The number of electric vehicles registered in North Carolina grew a whopping 63% in 2021, making EVs the fastest-growing type of vehicle in the state. But the total now on state roads still isn't that big — just 25,000, or 0.3% of the state's 8.8 million registered vehicles.

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David Boraks
People explored an electric Volkswagen at the Charlotte Auto Show in November. North Carolina now has 25,000 EVs, out of 8.8 million total vehicles.

That means sales will need to grow even faster to meet Cooper's goal of 1.25 million zero-tailpipe emissions vehicles in the state by 2030. North Carolina added just under 10,000 new EVs last year. [By contrast, the state added more than 226,000 new gas-powered vehicles in 2021.]

To reach Cooper's goal, the state will need to average more than 150,000 new EVs a year for the next eight years.

But sales are accelerating. Growth in 2021 was more than double 2020. While EVs are just 3% of North Carolina sales right now, auto industry leaders expect them to be half of all sales nationwide by 2030.

Falling prices, the availability of more models and trucks and the expansion of charging networks all could help speed growth.

Sales of hybrids are also growing, though not as fast — 17% in 2021. And they don't meet the governor's zero-emission goal.

A version of this article first appeared in WFAE's weekly climate newsletter.

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David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.