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Thursday January 26th

UNC moves carbon-neutral deadline up a decade, to 2040

Margie Muenzer holds up a sign as cars drive by outside of UNC's coal plant on Friday, Apr. 23, 2021.
Buy Photos Margie Muenzer holds up a sign as cars drive by outside of UNC's coal plant on Friday, Apr. 23, 2021.

UNC is pledging to be carbon neutral by 2040 — a decade earlier than its last goal — with its new Climate Action Plan

The plan, announced by Sustainable Carolina on April 16, comprises 25 different strategies to lower the University's greenhouse gas emissions. 

This announcement comes about five years after the University abandoned its 2010 plan to be coal-free by 2020, citing technological and financial restrictions. The University's previous Climate Action Plan, from 2009, set a goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. 

The new Climate Action Plan documents the progress made on previous initiatives and moves that deadline for carbon-neutrality up to 2040. 

“It is the difference between a 30-year window and a 20-year window, so it is a substantial acceleration," Mike Piehler, UNC’s chief sustainability officer, said. "And our goal in having the plan is being sure that we are articulating our broad vision for achieving this big goal, and allowing us to have all of the multiple methods that will be needed to meet this goal, fall into line with the central planning effort.”

Piehler said the new Climate Action Plan seeks to become carbon neutral as fast as the University possibly can. The new plan also outlines the 2009 plan’s achievements and failures.

“We are going to dream big and do big things, so it is important to be clear about what has worked and what has not and why it has worked or has not,” Piehler said.

Clinical associate professor Carol Hee, the faculty co-chairperson of the UNC Sustainability Advisory Committee, appreciates that the new plan will provide updates on the status of the University's sustainability goals. 

“Instead of just putting a goal out there and being quiet about it until the big 'ta-da', we made it you need to provide continuous updates, so I think that is a very strong point," Hee said. 

Despite increases in campus population and square footage, UNC has realized 75 percent of the 2009 plan’s near-term strategies, producing a 24 percent decrease in University greenhouse gas emissions, according to a UNC newsletter. 

Still, Piehler said everything about the new Climate Action Plan is more ambitious than the 2009 plan, and the strategies are more specific and comprehensive. 

Piehler said Sustainable Carolina expects difficulty in reducing the last 21 percent of greenhouse emissions by 2040. But he said they are continuously planning ways to balance emissions in areas such as travel, which is necessary for a research University 

Hope Thomson, a student member of Carolina Climate and Health Alliance, said she wants the plan to address already-felt symptoms of climate change — such as flooding impacts and increased summertime temperatures in North Carolina.

“Climate change is kind of like a runaway train and it is already in motion, so I do wish that the Climate Action Plan would start to incorporate how can we address the felt impacts of climate change that we are already seeing in motion at the Carolina level, at the Chapel Hill level and at the state level.”

The plan pledges to eliminate coal use as soon as possible, noting that the University currently works to increase natural gas use at the cogeneration facility. According to the plan, Carolina used 43 percent less coal in 2019 than in 2007.

Piehler said the University does not have a clear timeline on when it will cease coal use. 

“Everyone is working as hard as they can and as quickly as they can logistically and financially," Piehler said. "However, it is feasible to move away from coal. It is happening fast. It is something that everyone at the University is interested in having happen.”

While she acknowledges the current need for UNC’s coal plant, Hee is optimistic about future green energy technological developments. 

“We made a vaccine for COVID in less than a year, so just imagine what we can do with the right resources and energy and focus behind coming up with an alternative to coal,” Hee said. “And maybe we are at a tipping point now.”

The plan is currently in draft form and available on the Sustainable Carolina website

Sustainable Carolina invites the public to collaborate on the draft and provide feedback through a collection form on the Sustainable Carolina website.

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