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The Daily Tar Heel

North Carolina's carbon emissions are down, but not on track to meet goals

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Trees stand on the upper quad on Feb. 7, 2024.

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality released a statewide report on Jan. 31 showing a significant decline in greenhouse gas emissions, which fell 38 percent from 2005 to 2020. 

Shawn Taylor, the public information officer for the N.C. Division of Air Quality, said the division releases a scheduled update to the state greenhouse gas inventory every two years. The current update includes estimates of all greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sinks, he said.

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To some extent, coal-powered plants are being replaced by natural gas, as well as renewable electricity such as solar and wind power, Noah Kittner, an assistant professor of environmental sciences and engineering at UNC, said.

He said  the inventory shows the state made progress in making the electricity grid cleaner.

“It doesn't mean that we're not emitting anything,” he said. ”It's just the rate at which we're emitting carbon has decreased.”

House Bill 951, signed by Gov. Roy Cooper in October 2021, requires a 70 percent reduction rate of emissions by 2030 and aims for carbon neutrality by 2050.

The law proposed reduction through the retirement of coal-powered plants with the N.C. Utilities Commission’s Carbon Plan, prompting Duke Energy to retire 8,400 megawatts of its coal-powered plants by 2035 to meet the 70 percent goal. Duke Energy was also required to hold stakeholder meetings on offshore wind power production as a part of the state’s plan.

Despite these efforts, Kittner said the state is not on track to meet the goals included in H.B. 951, and that the state would need to reduce emissions much more to reach carbon neutrality. 

According to the report, transportation emissions are now the largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in the state. The state has not seen emissions from transportation get cleaner because people are driving more due to a lack of low-cost public transportation, Kittner said. 

“We're continuing to put a lot of focus on what we can do toward, for example, electric vehicles are cleaner emission standards for cars and trucks,” Taylor said. 

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, greenhouse gas emissions not only impact climate change, but reduce air quality. Air pollution can pose health risks including heart and lung diseases.

Ricardo Crespo-Regalado, a leader in  UNC’s Climate Leadership & Environmental Action Network, said the decrease of emissions can have many public and global health benefits, including benefits for marginalized communities and mental health benefits.

He said a lot pollution is produced in metropolitan areas where there are a lot of people of lower socioeconomic status who feel the brunt of the effects of air pollution.

“I think that reducing those emissions indefinitely will definitely help reduce those disparities and contribute to equity and health,” he said.

He also said a mental health phenomenon called eco-anxiety, the fear that climate change is causing irreversible damage to the health of current and future generations, has increased.

“I think the best thing that people can do to start, in terms of starting to become more environmentally conscious to promote environmental advocacy, is just become more educated on these kinds of things,” Crespo-Regalado said. “Try to increase awareness, and that in itself does so much.”

@DTHCityState |

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