NC climate change panel reports early progress
By Jon Hawley
Wednesday, February 20, 2019
State officials tasked with fighting climate change suggested Tuesday North Carolina is making early progress in meeting Gov. Roy Cooper’s goals to reduce greenhouse gases and promote energy efficiency.
Meeting at Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City, Cooper’s Climate Change Interagency Council also heard from local officials who warned that rising waters and extreme weather pose continued threats in eastern North Carolina.
Cooper created the council by executive order last fall, including representatives from state agencies in its membership. The council is chaired by N.C. Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan, who gave opening remarks at Tuesday’s meeting, the panel’s second.
Cooper's executive order sets several long-term goals for the state, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 2005 levels; increasing the number of zero-emission vehicles to at least 80,000 statewide; and reducing energy consumption in state-owned buildings by 40 percent, relative to 2002-2003 levels. He’s called for all three to be accomplished by 2025.
Cooper’s order also requires DEQ to develop a plan to promote clean energy use, and for the N.C. Department of Commerce and other agencies to act in support of clean energy businesses and providers. It also encourages agencies to provide other recommendations to fight climate change. Reports on the agencies’ progress are due back to Cooper this fall.
As a starting point for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, DEQ officials Andy Bollman and Paula Hemmer presented a new greenhouse gas inventory report, which found that North Carolina's emissions in 2017 were about 24 percent below 2005 levels, or about 16 percent short of the state’s target.
The report determined that number by finding North Carolina generated about 150 million metric tons of “carbon dioxide equivalents” — a term which includes and adjusts for the differing strengths of non-CO2 emissions, such as methane — but carbon sinks, like trees, absorbed about 34 million metric tons.
Electricity and transportation contributed to the creation of about two-thirds of all emissions, Bollman and Hemmer reported.
Bollman said North Carolina is on track to reduce emissions more than what’s called for in the Paris Climate Agreement, but noted Cooper wants to go beyond that. The report projects North Carolina's emissions will drop to 31 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, or 9 percent short of Cooper’s goal. That's also based on carbon sinks' capacity remaining constant.
Sushma Masemore, DEQ deputy assistant secretary for the environment, also reported early progress in making state facilities more energy efficient. Compared to 2003, the state has decreased energy consumption by 28 percent, or 12 percent short of Cooper's goal for 2025.
Energy efficiency not only makes the state a role model to local governments and the private sector, she noted, but saves a lot of money. Including universities, state facilities occupy 135 million square feet of space, so reducing energy consumption since 2003 has saved the state more than $1 billion, she said.
Representatives from other state agencies, including the Departments of Public Safety, Health and Human Services, and Natural and Cultural Resources, also spoke Tuesday about their ongoing efforts to make state facilities more energy efficient, and to switch to zero-emission vehicles when possible.
Colin Mellor, of DOT's Environmental Policy Unit, spoke about the department's charge to promote zero-emission, or fully electric, vehicles. The state is still determining how many of those vehicles are now on the roads, and how to increase their numbers. One challenge to their wider adoption is a lack of fast-charging stations in much of the state, particularly in eastern North Carolina, he said. Mellor also noted later that the vehicles’ cost may also be a challenge to wider adoption.
The state could also cut emissions by reducing how many vehicles are on the road. Asked about further investment or support for public transit, Mellor said that could be explored.
To underscore the importance of addressing climate change, Tuesday's meeting also featured a panel that included local officials and conservationists who addressed that topic.
Brian Boutin, of The Nature Conservancy, said North Carolina has seen increasingly costly, severe storms — and is second only to Texas in its number of disasters causing $1 billion or more in damage since 1980.
However, he said hurricanes are not the only impact of climate change. Coastal counties are also seeing stronger, but more intermittent rainfall. Communities might face dry spells only to get bursts of rain that cause flooding, he said.
Boutin also stressed that northeastern North Carolina, which is very close to sea level, is extremely vulnerable to climate change, causing impacts to major economic contributors like agriculture, fishing, tourism and even military installations.
Boutin called for the state to improve or restore natural systems to mitigate flooding and other impacts of climate change. Those natural systems include wetlands, floodplains, oyster beds, and pocosins, a type of wetland he described as an exceptional carbon sink. Boutin also said the conservancy has worked with Currituck County to try to limit development in floodprone areas.
Other panelists included Daniel Brinn, who spoke of the increasing flood risks in Hyde County; Holly White, a Nags Head planner who spoke of the Outer Banks town’s flooding risk due to high groundwater tables; Tancred Miller, a DEQ coastal management official; and Bill Crowell, of the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Partnership, who moderated.
Miller commented after the meeting that, while the state invests in coastal resiliency in different ways, there is also a lot of need. Coastal management disbursed $375,000 in grants last year for resiliency projects, but communities' total requests were easily 10 times that, he said.