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The Daily Tar Heel

Op-ed: Addressing climate change in North Carolina

Advancing vehicle electrification is a “conscious effort” North Carolina can act on to reduce pollution and address climate change.

As students who spent the fall semester working on a pollution-oriented project through the UNC capstone program, this call to action from the Feb. 7 editorial in The Daily Tar Heel really hit home: “There is still time to reverse many of the effects of climate change, but they will not happen without a conscious effort to reduce our environmental harm.” 

That “conscious effort” is critical if North Carolina is to make progress tackling the state’s top polluter: the transportation sector.

To address the egregious transportation pollution, Gov. Roy Cooper kicked off the year with Executive Order 246, advancing the state’s commitment to a clean energy economy and achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. The order takes Executive Order 80, signed in 2018, to the next level, changing the GHG emissions reduction goal from 40 percent of 2005 levels by 2025 to 50 percent by 2030, and increasing the number of zero-emissions vehicles goal from 80,000 by 2025 to 1,250,000 by 2030.

The order also directs the N.C. Department of Transportation to develop a Clean Transportation Plan to decarbonize the transportation sector. And the good news is there’s already a tool in place North Carolina can leverage — following the lead of 22 other states — to meet these ambitious goals: adopting California’s emissions standards and ZEV mandate through Section 177 of the Clean Air Act

The Low-Emission Vehicle Standards in Section 177 impose fleet-wide pollutant and GHG emission standards for passenger cars, light-duty trucks and medium-duty passenger vehicles. 

A study by the N.C. Division of Air Quality found that adopting these standards would provide a net benefit for both lowering emissions and improving air quality in North Carolina. Additionally, the most effective way to increase ZEV sales would be to adopt the ZEV mandate, which would require auto manufacturers of passenger cars and light-duty trucks to attain a certain number of ZEV credits based on the number of vehicles produced and delivered for sale in the state.

North Carolina also needs to get more specific when it comes to some of the biggest vehicle polluters — trucks and buses — by enacting policies targeting medium- and heavy-duty vehicles. While the state has committed itself to the Multi-State Medium- and Heavy-Duty Zero Emission Vehicle Memorandum of Understanding for 100 percent electrification by 2050, it can meet these goals by considering two other programs: Advanced Clean Trucks and Heavy-Duty Omnibus. Advanced Clean Trucks requires manufacturers to sell more zero-emission trucks, and the Heavy-Duty Omnibus sets NOx and particulate matter emissions standards for newly-produced gas-powered trucks.

EO 246 gets to the heart of another important aspect of transportation pollution, which is to address the communities that bear a disproportionate burden of the pollution impacts and to ensure those with fewer financial means can access EVs. 

The order emphasizes the importance of environmental justice and equity in the state’s transition to a clean economy, specifically expanding access to purchasing electric vehicles and charging infrastructure in lower-income communities. 

North Carolina should take it a step further, establishing new financing programs for buying and leasing EVs for low- and moderate-income consumers. Building codes should also be updated to require EV chargers in new multifamily housing, and partnerships should be formed with local utilities for expanding the network of public charging stations. Funds from the Federal Infrastructure and Jobs Act will soon flow to North Carolina and can help address this.

While it is important for North Carolina to continue developing its own policies and programs that focus on reducing transportation emissions, adopting Section 177 of the Clean Air Act would be a simple way to turn our “conscious efforts” into action, jumpstarting progress and producing actionable policies that are proven to be effective, making North Carolina a leader in transportation electrification in the South.

Arhys Cruz Mora, Karina Goco, and Ammaar Syed are UNC students who studied transportation emissions policies in the University’s capstone program during the fall 2021 semester


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