Climate change was a topic of discussion at the Orange County Assembly of Governments meeting on Jan. 29.
Renewable energy, transportation and building efficiency were specific areas for improvement that the Chapel Hill Town Council, Carrboro Board of Aldermen, Hillsborough Commissioners and Orange County Board of Commissioners identified.
These issues were highlighted because the towns feel they are within their control rather than in the hands of the state.
“I think climate change is important in Orange County in the same way it is important for everyone in the world. It's something we are dealing with now, we are not going to prevent climate change," said Damon Seils, a Carrboro Board of Aldermen member. "Climate change is already here, it’s happening all around us, and we are at this point really playing catch up."
Mark Marcoplos, an Orange County commissioner, said he decided to form a climate change ad hoc committee in mid-November 2018 after Hurricane Florence and Michael hit North Carolina. He said he had always been focused on climate change, but it really struck him after the hurricanes.
“We decided to form this committee to jump-start the process in Orange County to have a unified response to climate change,” Marcoplos said.
He said he reached out to Rachel Schaevitz, a member of Chapel Hill Town Council, Sammy Slade of the Board of Aldermen and Jenn Weaver of Hillsborough mayor pro tempore. They discussed what their towns were doing already, and what else they could do to improve.
The group said they hope a formal committee will be finalized within a month.
“We are going to have to make investments that reflect our values, and I think the more that we can collaborate with other jurisdictions, the bigger an impact we will have,” said Seils.
Collaboration between the different jurisdictions will likely be key to really making a difference. Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said each jurisdiction will have their individual projects and ideas and then share them with the group and find out if it is supported.
Marcoplos said the jurisdictions need to take action for multiple aspects of climate change rather than focusing on one fix.
“There’s no silver bullet solution for climate change; we are looking at silver buckshot solutions,” said Marcoplos.
Buildings and transportation are things the county has control over and can change.
“We are continuing to push forward on energy efficiency and renewable energy for all of the new buildings and major renovation projects that we have to the extent that our budget will allow,” said Brennan Bouma, Orange County sustainability program coordinator.
Bouma said Orange County was designated as a silver level SolSmart community by the U.S. Department of Energy. The SolSmart program works to help communities grow their solar energy use by providing no-cost technical assistance.
“One of the major impacts on the climate that we as human beings have is the ways the we get around, and all of the greenhouse gas emissions that come out of that,” said Seils.
Weaver said she hopes the community can find alternative forms of transportation.
“We must get many, many more people out of their cars,” said Weaver.
Seils said the local governments need to ensure that residents of the community have choices when deciding what kind of transportation to use, other than just single occupancy vehicles or cars. He said when other forms of transportation are made easier and more convenient than cars, people are more likely to choose the alternative options.
Weaver said the community should support bikers and pedestrians, along with more use of public transit.
Bouma said carpooling and people striving to make their schedules more flexible would also help because it would decrease congestion at peak travel hour, keep cars from idling and save residents money.
Other current transportation projects include the Durham-Orange Light Rail and Chapel Hill North-South Bus Rapid Transit.
Marcoplos said buses are regularly running below their capacity in rural areas of Orange County. To eliminate inefficient use of space in these areas, the county is working towards more on-demand, smaller public transportation services like vans, he said.
Marcoplos said Chapel Hill’s transit system doesn't have this problem as often, so the town is just working on improving their bus system.
“I think if we do something bold and inspirational, then it will get the attention of neighboring governments and statewide, and maybe even national,” said Marcoplos.
Marcoplos said the community is putting in a strong effort towards sustainability and would love for that to transfer to other areas and municipalities.
With the implementation of this plan, Bouma said he hopes people in Orange County can realize the extent of their impacts on the environment.
“We should also be planning our developments to adapt to a changing climate going forward, that’s going to save us money, because we won’t have to rebuild, it’s going to increase our social equity and it's going to protect our environment,” said Bouma.
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