North Carolina Isn’t Doing Enough to Reduce Emissions, According to New Report

By Keya Vakil

March 2, 2020

Greenhouse gas emissions in the state have already declined by 22% since 2005, but are only projected to decrease by an additional 3% by 2025, unless the state takes more aggressive action.

We know what some of you might be thinking. Another story about climate change? No thanks.

That reaction is understandable. Eco-anxiety, or fear of environmental damage or ecological disaster, is on the rise and climate change can be scary and overwhelming, especially if you live in a coastal state like North Carolina.

But there are solutions. A new report studying North Carolina’s efforts to combat climate change offered what some of those solutions might be. The authors also explored what else the state needs to do to meet its goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2018, Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order setting a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in North Carolina to 40% below 2005 levels by 2025. Greenhouse gas emissions in the state have already declined by 22% since 2005, but are only projected to decrease by an additional 3% by 2025, unless the state takes more aggressive action, the report found.

The report—written by researchers at RTI International, a nonprofit research institute based in the Research Triangle—analyzed the impact of four strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from North Carolina’s transportation sector—the source of nearly one-third of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The solutions studied include reducing the number of vehicle miles traveled (VMT), increased adoption of public transit and electric vehicles, and higher fuel economy standards.

By far the most effective method of reducing emissions, according to the report’s authors, was slashing vehicle miles traveled. A reduction of 10% would lower emissions by 3.7 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2025, the equivalent of taking 750,000 cars off the road for a year.

A higher fuel economy standard of 54.5 mpg would also reduce emissions by an additional 1.6 million tons of carbon dioxide.

H. Christopher Frey, a professor of environmental engineering in the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering at NC State, believes improving fuel economy is the most practical and effective solution.

“Having a national, federal standard is really the most effective way” to reduce emissions, Frey said.

Former President Obama implemented such a standard of 54.5 mpg, but those standards have since been frozen by the Trump administration. The federal government has also tried to limit the ability of individual states to implement their own, stricter emissions standards, prompting a legal battle that is still ongoing.

As for the other solutions studied, researchers found that a 1% shift of light duty vehicle travel to public transit and increase in electric vehicle adoption would together only reduce emissions by about 650,000 tons of carbon dioxide.

Frey pointed out that the number of Americans who have switched from gas-powered cars to electric vehicles is very low. Only 326,644 electric vehicles were sold in the United States in 2019, a decrease of nearly 35,000 from 2018. That may be due to the high cost of electric batteries—which can cost as much as $15,000—as well as the lack of widespread charging networks.

Electric vehicles could play a key role in reducing emissions in the long run, Frey said, especially if states find ways to provide subsidies to lower-income individuals to make it easier for them to afford electric vehicles. He’s more skeptical, however, that North Carolina will succeed in changing people’s behaviors and transportation habits.

“Trying to get people to shift from private cars to public transit or demand reduction by reducing vehicle miles traveled … those would be much more effective, but they’re harder to achieve,” Frey said. “If you want to actually change people’s behavior, both of those would depend in part on things like land use.”

The researchers behind the report agree and called for an evolution in North Carolina’s infrastructure planning.

“Without significant reforms in building codes, zoning laws, land use planning, and highway planning, the effectiveness of any efforts to reduce VMT, encourage transit use, or increase BEV adoption will be limited in their effectiveness,” the researchers wrote.

The proposals they advocated for include an increased focus on density, more walkable and bikeable communities, taxes to incentivize the use of public transit, and implementation of road use charges, which levy fees on drivers to incentivize less car travel and reduce congestion. These charges have become increasingly common in other countries and can be implemented as road tolls, or be levied based on factors such as distance driven, time-based fees, or congestion charges.

Noreen McDonald, chair of the Department of City and Regional Planning, Thomas Willis Lambeth Distinguished Professor, and director of the Carolina Transportation Program at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, believes these sorts of financially driven measures could be effective.

“All of us respond to prices and convenience. We might consider taking transit if the costs of driving such as gas and parking increased,” McDonald told COURIER via email. “However, in the absence of big changes in the gas tax or parking costs, we are unlikely to change behavior.”

The report’s authors also called on the state to expand funding for public transit and to tie that funding to predictable, long-term revenue streams. They want state lawmakers to prioritize transit access along highway corridors that serve large commuter populations and fund expanded bus service and bus stop improvements.

“In the absence of big changes in the gas tax or parking costs, we are unlikely to change behavior.”

The state has yet to take meaningful action on these measures. In 2018, the Republican-led legislature actually slashed funding for the State Maintenance Assistance Program—a program that helps fund costs associated with transit systems for urban and small-urban communities—by more than $8 million, or 26% of the program’s total budget.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation has also experienced significant budget issues in recent years, owing to old lawsuits and road repairs, and the legislature has not created any sort of rainy day fund or mechanism to allow the department to borrow money during a budget shortfall.

Unlike many other states, the North Carolina Department of Transportation doesn’t receive money from the state’s general fund. Instead, the department’s roughly $5 billion budget comes mostly from gas taxes, Division of Motor Vehicles fees, and taxes on vehicles sales.

That funding largely goes towards road maintenance and investments. In fact, only about 3% of that $5 billion went to public transit and rail in the 2018-2019 fiscal year, according to the RTI International report.

Even if the state prioritizes public transit funding, other obstacles remain, and not just in traditional, rural areas, where public transit is limited.

“Raleigh is one of the worst cities in terms of sprawl,” Frey said, adding that the city’s low-density housing would make it difficult to build out effective public transport. “It’s a significant challenge to get people to give up their personal car and take a bus or a train, if they don’t have walkable access to those kinds of resources.”

More than anything, what the report makes clear is that there is no one strategy that will achieve the cut in emissions that is necessary.

“Reaching GHG reduction targets will require action on all of the proposed strategies simultaneously,” McDonald said.


  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.

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