The North Carolina Governor's Ambitious Climate Goal

by | November 1, 2018

By John Murawski and Will Doran

North Carolina would cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2025 under an ambitious statewide goal set by Gov. Roy Cooper on Monday.

With Cooper's signing of the executive order, North Carolina joins states like Colorado, California and others that have set statewide targets for reducing emissions of gases that are associated with global warming and climate change. In 2006, California set a 40 percent reduction goal by 2030 from 1990 levels, while Colorado has set a goal of cutting emissions by at least 26 percent by 2025 from 2005 levels.

The order commits North Carolina to adhering to the 2015 Paris Agreement environmental treaty, even though President Donald Trump, a Republican, previously said he will pull the U.S. out of the treaty on the earliest possible date, which is in 2020. Cooper, a Democrat, is among 17 state governors who have joined the U.S. Climate Alliance to commit to the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Cooper prefaced his announcement by saying that powerful hurricanes and other consequences of climate change are forcing government to respond. He noted that Hurricane Florence, which soaked the state last month, was the third 500-year flooding event in the state in the past 19 years and the second in the past 23 months.

In an outdoor ceremony at a solar farm operated by SAS, the Cary software company, Cooper said he would immediately order state agencies to set an example by taking such a steps as recruiting clean tech companies and adding zero-emission vehicles to the state transportation fleet. He said that the cost of renewables and other clean technologies has come down, and said that sustainability is a corporate goal among many companies today.

"It is important for the states to take action," Cooper said. "We're going to intentionally work toward the goal."

Both Cooper, and state environmental secretary Michael Regan, said the initiative does not require support from the Republican-dominated state legislature.

The two largest sources of greenhouse gases in any state are typically trucks and cars, followed by utility coal-burning power plants. But chemical plants and industrial facilities can also be major contributors.

Executive orders don't have the same power as laws, since they can only change how state government operates. The order Cooper signed Monday will create the state's first-ever climate change committee, made up of people from every state-run agency. By next October, that committee and the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality are supposed to have a report for Cooper on how state government can use more renewable energy from sources like solar and wind, as well as how the state can encourage private citizens and businesses to do the same.

The goals encompass the state's three main energy-hogging sectors often identified for potential technological innovations in energy usage: transportation, buildings and power.

"These goals are not crazy environmental let's-ban-stuff goals," said Stephen Kalland, executive director of the Clean Tech Center at N.C. State University. "What was impressive to me was the scope of the announcement, how holistic it is."

Cooper's goal lists few details at this time, but includes a target of having at least 80,000 electric cars and other zero-emission vehicles in the state by 2025 and developing electric vehicle corridors and other infrastructure. The goals also include reducing energy consumption in state government office buildings for each cabinet level agency, with goals due next year.

The baseline for measuring progress is 2005, a period before a number of energy policies and anti-pollution measures had taken effect in the state. As a result, North Carolina is already at the 25 percent mark of the 40 percent goal, according to the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality.

In 2005, North Carolina's net emissions of greenhouse gases -- which include carbon dioxide and methane -- totaled 152.14 million metric tons. That total had fallen to 133.76 million metric tons by 2017.

Other greenhouse gases that fall under the emissions reduction goal are nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride.

The reasons for the emissions decline include the 2002 Clean Smokestacks Act, an anti-pollution measure that was phased in over more than a decade, and required utility power plants to reduce or trap the emissions those plants generated.

The Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, enacted in 2007, requires electric utilities to increase their reliance on renewable resources and energy efficiency. The renewables law, which allows utilities to charge customers extra for electricity if renewables cost more than coal or other fuel sources, catapaulted North Carolina to a second-place national ranking in total solar power capacity, which is now at about 4.5 megawatts.

Fracking, which increased access to cheaper, cleaner natural gas, has also contributed even though there is no gas drilling in North Carolina. The abundance of natural gas has resulted in Duke Energy shutting down numerous coal-burning power plants in the state and replace them with gas-burning generators.

(c)2018 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)