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Exploring how the way we live influences climate change and its impact across the Carolinas. You also can read additional national and international climate news.

Plan aims to cut emissions, even as North Carolinians drive more

Getting more people out their cars and using public transportation, biking or walking is a goal of the Clean Transportation Plan. The annual number of vehicle miles driven in North Carolina was up 31% from 2003 to 2019, more than double the national average.
David Boraks
Getting more people out their cars and using public transportation, biking or walking is a goal of the Clean Transportation Plan. The annual number of vehicle miles driven in North Carolina was up 31% from 2003 to 2019, more than double the national average.

North Carolina transportation officials have sent the governor a plan for cutting carbon emissions from transportation to meet the state's climate goals.

In an executive order last year, Gov. Roy Cooper asked NCDOT to come up with a strategy to reduce emissions from transportation. That’s the state's largest source of the heat-trapping pollution that causes global warming.

The 50-page Clean Transportation Plan is more of an outline than a plan. It calls for boosting sales of electric passenger vehicles and trucks, expanding charging infrastructure, and promoting alternative fuels such as hydrogen. It offers no specifics, but says more work is needed to meet the state’s goals.

The governor's own goals are ambitious. In last year's order, Cooper raised his target for electric vehicles on state roads from 80,000 to 1.25 million. Last year, North Carolina electric vehicle registrations grew 54% — but totaled just 38,374, still a small fraction of all vehicles.

Zach Pierce, the governor's senior advisor for climate policy and a member of the committee that drafted the plan, said despite the current low numbers, he's optimistic.

"Four years ago, we had close to a 1% sales share of zero emission vehicles here in North Carolina. I think the (fourth quarter) data for last year puts us between 6 and 7%. And so we are seeing exponential growth in the adoption of zero emission vehicles," Pierce said on WFAE's Charlotte Talks Thursday.

"There is work that we need to do to make sure that we have the charging infrastructure in place and that we are accommodating this momentous market transit transition. But I have a lot of confidence that we are going to achieve that 1.25 million vehicle target, just because these vehicles are desired. Folks are on waiting lists to purchase them and we have the market economics on our side,” Pierce said.

But EVs are not the only answer, according to the plan. It say the state needs to get more people to ditch their cars for other modes of transportation, such as walking, biking or taking public transit. That's also a goal of Charlotte's Strategic Mobility Plan, which wants to cut single-passenger vehicle trips from three-quarters of all trips to one-half by 2040. The state plan notes that the total number of vehicle miles traveled annually in North Carolina grew 31% between 2003 and 2019. That’s more than double the national growth rate of 13%.

The plan also calls for "equitable access" to clean transportation. It says any programs must ensure that all people have access to electric vehicles or other clean transportation options.

And there's another angle to equity and justice, Pierce said: cleaning up the air pollution that causes health problems, mainly in underserved communities.

"Here in North Carolina, we also think about the pollution and air pollution, environmental degradation, that comes from the same sources of greenhouse gasses," he said. "That is having a disproportionate impact on low-income communities, communities of color. And this is a really important aspect of the work that we're doing."

Finally, the plan proposes to create a new interagency task force to address barriers to the goals and to promote cooperation among state officials in pursuit of federal and private funding.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, which submitted comments as the plan was being drafted, said the plan doesn't go far enough.

“The Clean Transportation Plan submitted to the governor is a good start, but it is not a plan that puts North Carolina on track to meet goals to slow climate change,” said SELC senior attorney Megan Kimball. “The transportation sector is responsible for more climate changing pollution than any other sector, so North Carolina needs to take swift and comprehensive action to avoid worse harms to families and businesses statewide. We urge the administration to get to work quickly to implement the plan.”

See the plan at NCDOT.gov

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