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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

Study: Existing policies fall short of achieving North Carolina's climate change goals

As world leaders gathered in Glasgow, Scotland, for a climate summit in November, protesters demanded faster action to curb climate change.
Jeff J Mitchell
Getty Images
As world leaders gathered in Glasgow, Scotland, for a climate summit in November, protesters demanded faster action to curb climate change.

The state is set to miss its climate goals benchmarks in both 2025 and 2030 by significant margins, but advocates say it's not too late to create more policies to reduce emissions.

A new study shows that North Carolina is likely to miss its climate change goals in the coming years if additional policy steps are not taken.

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, published the study. It shows that the state’s plans to reduce emissions from the energy sector will have a significant impact on overall emissions — a 28% reduction by 2025. But that's still short of the 2025 goal of a 40% reduction of total emissions.

That goal was set by North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, who formally promised the reduction back in 2018 with Executive Order 80. Another order in January of 2022 set a goal of 50% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 — but the state is projected to fall short of that goal with current policies, reaching only a 28% reduction.

Emissions in the Energy Sector

Gov. Cooper’s 2018 executive order set the stage for significant emission reductions in the energy sector. Bipartisan legislation followed suit: HB 951, signed into law in October of last year, requires the North Carolina Utilities Commission to take all reasonable steps to achieve a 70% reduction of CO2 emissions from electricity generating facilities owned by public utilities. That’s supposed to happen by 2030, and the state is meant to become net-neutral by 2050.

The EDF report assumes the state finishes this early — by 2025, rather than 2030 — and still, North Carolina would fall short of its goal of 40% overall reductions by 2025.

Gov. Cooper’s press secretary, Jordan Monaghan, said he has full confidence that existing actions have positioned the state to achieve these goals.

“The Governor has prioritized a clean energy future,” he said.

An EDF analysis shows that North Carolina will fall short by 19 million metric tons of CO2 emissions in 2025, and between 34 and 50 MMT in 2030 without more policy changes.
Environmental Defense Fund
An EDF analysis shows that North Carolina will fall short by 19 million metric tons of CO2 emissions in 2025, and between 34 and 50 MMT in 2030 without more policy changes.

Emissions in the Transportation Sector

While the energy sector is set to make significant progress in the coming years, transportation emissions are staying about the same.

According to DEQ, transportation currently accounts for 36% of the state’s net greenhouse gas emissions. The DEQ has more optimistic estimates for future emissions, but still expects the state to fall short of both its 2025 and 2030 goals.

EDF Project Manager Michelle Allen said the state could likely meet its goals — with big policy shifts in the transportation sector. And while there isn't any current legislation likely to make that happen, there are a few options on the table that could help.

Following California’s Lead

The state of California has forged a path on addressing vehicle emissions to limit the effects of climate change.

“There are some regulatory programs available through the [federal] Clean Air Act that sets manufacturing sales targets for zero-emission vehicles, particularly reducing emissions in the medium and heavy-duty trucks and buses,” Allen said. “They contribute a disproportionate share of transportation emissions, and are also very important to reducing local health pollutants that are plaguing our communities right now with air pollution.”

Allen suggests an opportunity available to the DEQ without any legislation required. The legislative logic is a little complicated but, essentially, there's a carveout in the federal Clean Air Act allowing the State of California to enact stricter regulations than the Act itself contains. And, it gives other states a choice to use California's regulations as their own instead of using the Clean Air Act rules.

Because of that carveout, the state of North Carolina could choose to join 12 other states, and follow the regulations implemented by the state of California, rather than the more relaxed requirements of the Federal government.

California requires more zero-emission vehicles, as well as lower emissions from trucks and other heavy vehicles. Notably, California requires automakers to produce vehicles with, on average, a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2002 levels by 2016. And California’s regulations require manufacturers to create first-generation zero-emission trucks, and sets a requirement for zero-emission and low-emission vehicles in the market from 2018 to 2025.

However, the NCDEQ has historically been reticent to implement new regulations — even already within their authority — without explicit support from politicians.

Allen said, “a strong statement from the Governor, signaling that he wants to move forward on some of these regulatory options, would be really impactful.”

North Carolina’s existing transportation actions

Governor Cooper has made moves to address transportation emissions through Executive Order 246, which he signed early this year.

While it doesn’t set mandates as California’s regulations do, the order does set a goal to increase the total number of registered, zero-emission vehicles to at least 1.25 million by 2030, and mandates the North Carolina Department of Transportation to create a Clean Transportation Plan within 15 months.

That goal goes alongside the goal of reducing emissions by 50% before 2030. And it’s an echo of what led to the bipartisan HB951, which Cooper signed into law last year — a Clean Transportation Plan could set policy goals and a clear roadmap for legislators to get behind.

But Allen suggests state agencies could move more quickly.

“The DEQ does have the authority legally to move forward with some of these programs, and the legislature has the authority to review them,” she said of the possibility of implementing Californian-style standards. “These programs could really make a difference, both towards local air pollution and climate pollution.”

While the governor’s office didn’t respond to inquiries about implementing California’s clean air regulations, Gov. Cooper’s press secretary, Jordan Monaghan, did tout the governor’s previous actions.

“Bold climate action is a requirement, not an option for Governor Cooper,” Monaghan said. “In recognizing that the state has more work to do, the Governor signed EO 246 to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the economy including the transportation sector.”

These moves to address the transportation and energy sectors could make a significant difference, according to Allen. Without new transportation policies, transit is set to continue apace, and emit essentially the same level of CO2 in 2030 that the sector emits today. Industrial combustion is another major contributor, and its emissions are projected to grow, rather than shrink, in the coming decade.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant on the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.