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Wednesday March 22nd

County governments in consensus on necessity for climate action, begin developing plans

<p>Chapel Hill council member Hongbin Gu asks a question of Tim O'Brien (not pictured) during a Bloomberg 2020 "strategy session" at the campaign's Chapel Hill office on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020.</p>
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Chapel Hill council member Hongbin Gu asks a question of Tim O'Brien (not pictured) during a Bloomberg 2020 "strategy session" at the campaign's Chapel Hill office on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020.

As the world enters the last decade to mitigate the effects of climate change, the governments in Orange County prepare to implement sweeping action to locally combat the escalating crisis. 

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global warming must stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius to avoid irreversible ecological and socioeconomic catastrophe. Orange County governments recognize the need to act to reduce carbon emissions and create a greener, more equitable county. 

“Climate change changes everything,” said Sammy Slade, a Carrboro Town Council member. “Because it’s an emergency, we really need to get into a mode and mentality of emergency funding for an emergency plan.”

Carrboro is the only jurisdiction to have an official climate action plan. In fact, it has two — a municipal plan and a community action plan, which employ different strategies to accomplish general climate risk reduction goals. Last week, the Town Council discussed a 10-year Annual Climate Emergency Budget Proposal to provide funding for climate action.

Both Hillsborough and Chapel Hill are currently developing their climate action plans. Hillsborough Mayor Jenn Weaver said they intend to intertwine the climate plan with the town’s Vision 2030 plan, a comprehensive plan for town development adopted in 2015. 

“Planning well for climate means, you know, that has to go into any thinking about transportation and housing and zoning and how we move around,” Weaver said. “All of that has to do with climate, so that’s why I think they have to go together.” 

Hillsborough is also among the cities across the country that have pledged to uphold the Paris Climate Agreement goals. 

Chapel Hill Town Council member Hongbin Gu said in last week’s council meeting that the town staff provided results on a town-wide carbon dioxide emissions survey, whose findings are key in moving forward with the development plan. 

The findings break down emissions by sector. The municipality itself is only responsible for 2% of emissions. Electricity usage, which is significantly consumed by commercial, residential and university sources, emits over 325,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, or over 45% of total town emissions. 

Given the town government’s minimal direct contribution of emissions, Gu stressed the importance of a partnership between the town and the community: the businesses, the University, the school district and the residents. She said regulating development code, renewable energy infrastructure and improving public transit ridership and efficiency are a few broad ways in which the town can reduce emissions in the community. Gu said she sees a particular opportunity in working with UNC and its student body. 

“The UNC students should be a key partner in all this,” Gu said. “As we have seen now, the youth are very influential. They are taking the leading role in this combat on climate change.”

Gu said the council has directed town staff to collaborate with the University on research projects with local focus that could help the town decide how to best allocate its resources and action. Additionally, she believes entrepreneurship and innovation from the student body could have an impact on the broader community. 

All three towns have their individual goals and areas of focus, but wider county collaboration through the Orange County Climate Council is beginning to take shape. Orange County commissioner Mark Marcoplos began putting the idea together last year, when he reached out to Slade, Weaver and Chapel Hill Town Council member Rachel Schaevitz. 

The council had its first meeting in September and is composed of representatives and staff from all four jurisdictions. Other institutions with representatives include the University, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Orange County school district boards, Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP chapters, the Orange County Sierra Club, the N.C. Cooperative Extension, Orange Water and Sewer Authority and Durham Technical Community College. In addition, there are student and youth representatives from the schools and the NAACP chapters. 

The council is also working on recruiting a member from the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, a community whose land Orange County resides on. 

“It’s a powerful group of people around the table,” Marcoplos said. “The challenge is when you have 25, I think there’s 27 members now, that’s a bit of a challenge, getting everybody focused and moving forward.”

Chief among the OCCC’s goals is community outreach that focuses on incorporating the voices of marginalized and communities of lower socioeconomic status. Slade, Weaver and Gu each also acknowledged the importance of engaging all communities. 

“We’re in debt to (these communities),” Slade said. “There’s a degree of reparations that have to happen to come to terms with that.”

Slade said reparations could come in the shape of allocating extra resources. He noted precedent in outreach through recent efforts in the Rogers Road community, where community input was gathered and taken into account during town zoning processes. 

Gu mentioned a focus in Chapel Hill on outreach to the youth from minority groups, such as immigrant populations, and other groups that are more vulnerable to the ecological and socioeconomic impacts of climate change. Weaver said Hillsborough could improve community inclusivity by engaging churches and neighborhoods more directly.

A significant benefit of the OCCC is the sharing of information and action plans between the jurisdictions, allowing each body to learn from one another and stay on the same page, as well as identify the best methods for generating funding. Orange County passed a Climate Investment Tax, which raises the property tax rate on all properties in the county by a quarter percent to raise revenue for potential projects, such as house weatherization and renewable energy installation.

Marcopolis said Orange County is also developing an on-demand transportation service in the rural parts of the county, whose three electric vans will be largely, if not entirely, powered by solar energy. Weaver said Hillsborough is prioritizing traffic reduction and walkability in the town in its development planning, as well as promoting the maintenance of native species and pollinators in its natural spaces. 

Slade said Carrboro is seeking creative ways of working with the community to reduce government spending and then allowing those savings to be reinvested into green projects, such as composting projects that could lower the frequency of costly trash pick-up operations.

Gu said she sees potential for green technology in the partnership between Chapel Hill and UNC Health Care on the Eastowne development, in which a 50-acre parcel of land will be developed into a healthcare facility. Including affordable housing options for low-income healthcare staff in the development could also reduce carbon-emitting work commutes and mitigate housing issues in the county. 

All four government officials said they believe the county and towns have potential to be leaders statewide and nationally for what communities can do to fight climate change. 

“I’m hoping that other municipalities and counties, that once we show progress with it, are going to do the same thing, are gonna make the bold commitment to put resources where their mouths are,” Marcoplos said. 

Weaver and Slade both expressed similar sentiments for their communities being models. Slade said with a federal government that wastes billions on tax cuts and wars, such efforts become more challenging for local governments. He referenced the idea that economic mobilization of a scale similar to what was seen on the homefront during World War II is necessary to mitigate climate change. 

“The cost that addressing in an emergency way within the eight years we have before we exhaust our climate budget pales in comparison to the pain and suffering that will happen if we don’t do anything, because runaway climate change is, you know, we call it an existential threat for a reason,” Slade said. 


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