State And Local Leaders Set Climate Goals, But Can We Meet Them?

Jan 27, 2020

With the federal government's withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, state and local governments in North Carolina have set their own ambitious goals for addressing climate change. Now, they're puzzling over how to carry out the big changes needed to reach those goals - such as switching to electric vehicles and shifting to more renewable energy. At least for now, it's still mostly data-gathering and discussion. 

In October 2018, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper signed Executive Order 80, committing the state to slash greenhouse gas emissions statewide, increase electric vehicles on state roads, and reduce energy use in public buildings. Twenty-one cities and counties statewide - including Raleigh and Charlotte - have set similar local goals. They're acting because the Trump administration isn't, says state Environmental Secretary Michael Regan.  

"Because the federal government has put a pause on tackling this initiative, it's put a lot more leadership, opportunity and pressure on states and local governments to take action to mitigate climate change pollution and prepare society to be more resilient," he said. 

N.C. Environmental Secretary Michael Regan
Credit N.C. Department of Environmental Quality

Regan oversees the N.C. Climate Change Interagency Council. That's a working group of state agency heads and other officials set up to carry out the goals of Executive Order 80.  In meetings this year, it's been collecting climate data and talking about policies that can spur action in the private sector.

“And so there are key goals and strategies within the Clean Energy Plan that outline actions that our general assembly could take, that the governor could take, that different cabinet agencies can take,” Regan said.  

Among other things, Cooper's plan calls for tax credits for electric vehicles, converting the state fleet to electric vehicles, and reforming the way electric utilities are regulated.

All this sounds great, but there are roadblocks.  Both Regan and Cooper are Democrats. North Carolina's legislature is controlled by Republicans, many of whom are unlikely to support Cooper's plan or the budgets needed to carry it out.   

“What's hamstringing us is the political climate on the state and federal level, that does present challenges,” he said. 

Awaiting Changes At Duke Energy

And there's another aspect of the governor's plan that could prove difficult.  Many state and municipal facilities are powered by electricity from the state's big utility, Charlotte-based Duke energy.  About half the energy Duke generates in North Carolina comes from nuclear power - which would meet the zero-carbon threshold. But the company still relies heavily on gas and coal.  So, the ability of state and local governments to meet their goals is largely dependent on changes at Duke. 

Duke Energy's remaining coal-fired power plants across the state include the Allen Steam Station in Belmont, in Gaston County.
Credit DAVID BORAKS / WFAE

The governor's plan calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from electricity plants by 70% below 2005 levels by 2030, and reaching a zero-carbon footprint by 2050. 

Duke Energy's own goals are similar. In September, the company raised its carbon-reduction target to 50% by 2030 and net-zero by 2050, citing low natural gas prices and lowered costs for renewables and storage. 

CEO Lynn Good talked about the new goals at a December panel discussion in Charlotte. 

“We have been very aggressive in establishing our view of what climate policy should look like for Duke Energy, carbon reduction in particular,” Good said. “We've been very successful in reducing emissions over the last decade, about 30%.”

Duke’s goal is not far off from what the governor wants. But Good said getting to net-zero by 2050 can't happen with existing technology. It will take advances like better energy storage or carbon-capture techniques, such as removing carbon as fossil fuels as they are burned at power plants.

Fossil Fuels Still Necessary

In a video announcing Duke's goals last year, she said fossil fuels aren't going away. 

"We will need a diverse set of resources - including nuclear, natural gas, renewables, battery storage, energy efficiency, and the electrification of transportation. We will also need coal for some time, even as we increasingly rely on other fuel sources. And we will need to invest in electric and natural gas transmission and distribution to enable this transition," Good said.

Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert also noted that Duke is seeking to extend licenses for its nuclear plants and retire some coal plants early.  And she said reaching the goals also may require some maneuvering on paper - such as buying carbon offset credits.  That's where a utility helps pay for projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere, and then uses these credits to show a net reduction in their own emissions without closing all their fossil-fuel powered plants.

Good acknowledges that the company faces pressure from politicians and regulators. She said at that Charlotte meeting in December: 

“Our posture has been to understand and engage during 2019, and that'll continue in '20 to really lay out what we believe is an appropriate path for our customers and communities, of course, for the environment and reducing carbon, so that we are there when it comes time to shape the policy, to do so in a way that ensures affordable, reliable energy.”

Facing Criticism

Environmental groups including the Sierra Club and N.C. WARN say Duke's new commitment doesn't go far enough. They want Duke to end coal-fired energy production sooner and to scale back plans to convert more production to gas. 

Last October, a group of experts that included 27 former EPA officials wrote a letter calling on Gov. Roy Cooper to order a halt on building new gas pipelines and power plants in North Carolina.  

Map shows the route of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
Credit Atlantic Coast Pipeline

Their major target is the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, Duke's partnership with Virginia-based Dominion Energy. The 600-mile, $7.8 billion project would bring fracked natural gas from West Virginia to Virginia and North Carolina. It's currently on hold amid legal wrangling over environmental damage. Critics - including environmental groups and local leaders along the pipeline route - want it stopped altogether. But there's also a long list of elected leaders, business groups, and forestry groups that are backing the pipeline. 

Jim Warren of NC WARN says Duke's climate goals conflict with the company's own 15-year plans for new facilities, including new natural gas-fired power plants and projects like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which will carry fracked natural gas from West Virginia to North Carolina. 

“You can't be on the right side of the climate crisis when you're greatly expanding the use of fossil fuels. There's just no way you can conceive of that working,” Warren said.

He also doesn’t like the idea of carbon offsets.  

“The idea of offsets is complicated, but the science is showing now humanity is way beyond where we need to be dealing with offsets. We need to be cutting emissions everywhere we possibly can, not trading them from one polluters district to another,” he said.  

Duke says it's working on a revised 15-year plan that aligns with its new goals, due next fall. 

Another Idea: Market Reforms

Transforming North Carolina's energy system will be an uphill battle. That's why DEQ Secretary Regan said the state's plans should include a major overhaul of how electricity is sold and regulated in North Carolina. 

“So we're looking at ways to enhance and fix the existing system. But as part of Executive Order 80, we're also looking at alternatives to the existing system, whether that be more competition, or total competition, all of these issues are on the table,” Regan said. 

Regan said other changes short of deregulation could include new rate structures, multi-year planning, or other tactics that he says would "better align utility incentives with the public interest, the needs of our grid and state policy."  

Introducing competition would be the most drastic way to change the system - and the idea is gaining followers. Just this month, state lawmakers in both North and South Carolina held a press conference in Charlotte to call for creating a regional power transmission system, and allowing consumers to choose where they want to buy power.

So who will help North Carolina make the changes needed to address climate change? Government at all levels, said Daniel Parkhurst, policy manager for the environmental group Clean Air Carolina.

“The Utilities Commission is certainly a part of it. Holding them accountable in the General Assembly is just as much a part of it. But I will say, it's also about local government,” Parkhurst said.  

Local Goals — And Challenges

Just like state government, North Carolina's cities and towns are also adopting climate goals. Fourteen mayors are among 438 nationwide who have pledged to uphold the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. They include Asheville, Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Carrboro, Chapel Hill, and Durham. And at least 21 cities and counties have passed their own climate goals and are developing their own action plans.

In Charlotte, the City Council in late 2018 adopted a "Strategic Energy Action Plan," or SEAP. It has two major thrusts:

  • First, it calls for powering the city's buildings and vehicles from 100% zero-carbon sources in 10 years. 
  • And second, it sets a community-wide goal of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases to below 2 tons per person per year by 2050. Right now, Americans emit about 15 tons of CO2 per capita annually, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

So far, the city's efforts have mainly involved forming internal and external teams and holding initial meetings to help figure out how to meet the goals.

“This year has really been all about getting organized, getting prepared, doing data analysis and understanding where we had data gaps,” Sarah Hazel, interim head of the city of Charlotte Sustainability Office, said in December. 

For example, the city has begun studying its fleet using an automatic vehicle locator system, or A-V-L. Hazel says that will help determine “which are vehicles that could potentially be looked at as candidates to become electric vehicles as we're switching them out? And then also where do we need electric vehicle infrastructure based on how we're using those vehicles.”  

Over the past year, the city also negotiated a deal to buy power from a private company, Carolina Solar, which is developing a solar farm in Iredell County, north of Charlotte. That's through Duke Energy's Green Source Advantage program, which lets big customers negotiate the price and length of contracts directly with solar or wind power producers. Duke Energy then buys the power and delivers it to the customers over its transmission lines. 

Meanwhile, work groups of external advisers from business, nonprofits and the community also have begun meeting, though after the first year, they haven't come up with any recommendations for how the community can meet that 2050 goal of reducing the city's per-person carbon emissions. Those groups are scheduled to meet four times in 2020.    

Bumps In The Road

But there have been a few bumps in the road. Last summer, three of the Charlotte's top officials working on environmental issues all left their jobs, just as work was beginning on how to implement the city's climate goals.  Two, including the head of the city's sustainability office, left for other jobs, and one retired. 

And then, local climate advocates raised concerns when the city's transit chief John Lewis said he was planning to convert the city's bus fleet to natural-gas powered buses, instead of electric ones.

In August, Lewis compromised by pledging, at least for now, to buy diesel-electric hybrid buses for Charlotte Area Transit System, or CATS. 

Shannon Binns, the head of the environmental group Sustain Charlotte, said at the time that won't get Charlotte to its zero-carbon goal:   

“There's there's a lot of cities across the country, including L.A. and New York and San Francisco, who have made serious commitments to transitioning their bus fleets to 100% electricity. We haven't seen the city's 2030 zero carbon policy be translated yet into what that policy looks like for individual agencies like CATS,” Binns said.

As Charlotte pursues its goals, it does have a bit of outside help: a $2.5 million grant from the foundation of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The grant, announced in December 2018, pays for two climate change advisers in the Sustainability Office run by Hazel. It also includes consulting with outside experts hired by Bloomberg's foundation. 

Raleigh Has Goals

In Raleigh, the city council voted in May to set a community-wide goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050, from 2007 levels. It's been working on the issue since 2012, and over that time various initiatives have cut the city's own emissions 19%.  (Raleigh's plan is the CEAP, or Community Energy Action Plan).    

Like Charlotte, it's also targeting an overall reduction from the community, and it's drafting a community-wide Climate Action Plan. 

“This is one of the biggest challenges for cities across the country, as we are all being asked to set these really big aspirational goals,” said Megan Anderson, Raleigh's sustainability manager.

“But with only having so much time and resources in the short term, how do we really start to move the needle when a lot of those, you know, resources and time are kind of already kind of mixed up with things that are going on? And there's a lot of other priorities for us to think about.” 

Priorities like affordable housing, growth, and transportation, she said.  

The city has appointed teams to study possible strategies for meeting the city's goal, and it's asking the public for help. 

“Right now we've got over 600 ideas on strategies from different groups out there,” Anderson said. “And we're really just trying to cull that down to something that's really actionable in the short term, and then providing a roadmap to 2050 for how we might get there.”

Optimism And Pessimism

In the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement, nearly 200 countries agreed to work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius - or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit - above pre-industrial levels.  In North Carolina, environment secretary Michael Regan says state leaders - at least those in the executive branch - are working hard toward that goal. 

“What I've seen is the adoption of a level of optimism, because people know that we can solve this problem, we can make a difference,” Regan said. “And so we're in the driver's seat, and that enthusiasm I would say is expressed all across the cabinet agencies.”

But enthusiasm may not be enough.  A November United Nations report says even if countries meet their commitments, global temperatures are expected to shoot past the 2-degree goal. And global carbon emissions are still rising. 

This report is part of a collaboration between newsrooms across the Southeast and the online news site InsideClimate News.  See the related overview “Caught Off Guard: The American Southeast Struggles With Climate Change”

InsideClimate News convened a group of Southeast journalists in late September 2019 at the First Amendment Center  at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., to develop a joint reporting project centered on holding their communities accountable for responding to climate change. “Caught Off Guard: The American Southeast Struggles With Climate Change” features reports from 10 newsrooms in seven Southeastern states and ICN.

Participating newsrooms: InsideClimate News, Raleigh News and Observer, West Virginia Public Broadcasting/Ohio Valley Resource, WJCT Public Media (Jacksonville, Fla.), The Post and Courier (Charleston, S.C.), The State (Columbia, S.C.), Alabama Media Group, BirminghamWatch, Georgia Public Broadcasting, WMFE (Orlando), and WFAE (Charlotte).