The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Friday, June 21, 2024 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

Meet the UNC student who's pushing the state government for action on climate change

Climate Action

Arya Pontula, a UNC student, helped file the petition to the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission. Photo courtesy of Arya Pontula. 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstate the amendment Pontula described as "a part of North Carolina's constitution that prevents the state from passing any legislation that is more strict than the national law on that subject." The amendment is the Hardison Amendment. The article also previously mischaracterized North Carolina's method for measuring greenhouse gas emissions. The state is required to measure greenhouse gas emissions under Executive Order 80, issued by Gov. Roy Cooper in October 2018.

Arya Pontula, a UNC sophomore majoring in biomedical engineering and biostatistics, has taken her environmental concerns to the state government. 

Pontula and her friends, Emily Liu and Hallie Turner, filed a petition this week, asking the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission  — a government-appointed committee responsible for adopting rules to protect and preserve the state's air and water — to start budgeting carbon dioxide emissions in the state. 

"I have always been interested in the advocacy side of climate change and interested in trying to do something tangible to stop climate change and its negative effects," Pontula said. 

The three young women initially filed a petition in 2017, intending to set a limit on carbon emissions by the year 2030. 

But when the petition was presented before the EMC, several legal implications prevented the commission from adopting the rule, Pontula said. 

"We ran into problems with something that is called the 'Hardison Amendment.' It's a part of North Carolina's constitution that prevents the state from passing any legislation that is more strict than the national law on that subject," she said.

Now, Pontula said their focus has shifted to gauging the carbon dioxide emissions in the state. The proposed rule adds to existing requirements under Executive Order 80 that require North Carolina to measure greenhouse gas emissions.

"We decided to go back to the rule and make it more acceptable for the EMC to adopt," she said. "It would be something that would allow them to track our CO2 emissions and budget them, so we can cut it down incrementally." 

Pontula and her friends are legally represented by the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic.  

Ryke Longest, clinical professor of law at Duke University and co-director of the university's environmental law and policy clinic, said their legal team got involved because they represent clients who would not otherwise have the resources. 

"We have a formal application and intake process and these three young people asked for help," he said in an email. 

Longest said in an email he admires the students for their efforts. 

"I am proud our students have been able to represent these young women as they ask the state of North Carolina to address carbon dioxide pollution and reduce our state’s contribution to climate change," he said.

Longest said carbon emissions are an imminent issue for North Carolina. Carbon dioxide accounts for 80 percent of the state's contributions to climate change through greenhouse gases, he said, and North Carolina's contributions are globally significant. 

"(Carbon dioxide) is a serious threat, and North Carolina has the tools to address it immediately," Longest said in the email.

Longest also said the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic has been working with Our Children's Trust, a nonprofit organization that provides legal services to youth fighting for a safe climate. 

Nate Bellinger, a senior staff attorney with Our Children's Trust, has been working with Pontula, Liu and Turner on their petition. Bellinger said North Carolina is a unique state when it comes to environmental conservation laws. 

"There are specific constitutional laws that say North Carolina has to make an effort to conserve land and water and to limit pollution," he said. 

Pontula said she hopes the rule is adopted so North Carolina can be an exemplar of the fight against climate change. The team hopes to have a platform where students can endorse and demonstrate the petition. 

The hearing for the Pontula, Liu and Turner's petition has not yet been scheduled.   

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.