After President Donald Trump said he would withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord Thursday, Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts and her Democratic opponents in September’s primary said they opposed the decision and backed the city’s efforts to reduce its carbon footprint.
City Council member Kenny Smith, the Republican mayoral candidate, said he too has “consistently supported” the city’s efforts and goals to become more environmentally-friendly. But he criticized Roberts for her statements Thursday, when she joined dozens of other mayors who pledged to uphold the goals of the climate accord.
In a statement to the Observer, Smith said he is “appalled” that Roberts took time to “grandstand” on the Paris accord but has been “missing” on issues like rising crime.
As a council member, Smith has not issued public statements supporting Trump’s position on climate change. However, he was one of three local GOP leaders at a news conference last fall, where they criticized Democratic candidates, and state GOP leader Robin Hayes urged voters to support Trump.
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Smith said he only attended the news conference to discuss what he said was a lack of transparency by then-gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper.
Roberts attacked back.
“He should be appalled (at this statement),” Roberts said. “There are probably over 100 other mayors who are doing exactly the same thing for standing up for solid, bipartisan goals. He forgets that I am the mayor. I have to speak for he city. If he wants to be mayor, he has to understand the role of the mayor. I’m not doing it as a candidate. I am doing it as the leader of the city.”
Roberts’s campaign said she has repeatedly addressed the city’s rising crime rate.
Roberts said the city will move forward on steps to combat climate change, such as an uptown energy-efficiency initiative and construction of greenways and bike lanes.
Her Democratic rivals also spoke in favor of the climate accord. State Sen. Joel Ford said he would champion an initiative by the Sierra Club for “100 percent clean energy.”
And Vi Lyles, the mayor pro tem, said, “We must all be environmentalists, putting the measures in place to protect our air, our water, our land, our Earth and most importantly, our children’s futures.”
But what’s less clear is how much the city can do to reduce the carbon footprint in its own buildings and workforce, and whether it can make a significant difference among the tens of thousands of businesses and residents.
Even before the 2016 presidential election, a number of cities and states began saying they would work on their own to reduce their carbon footprint. California is the most prominent example, where officials have passed their own limits on tailpipe emissions.
But Charlotte is far more limited in what it can do, in part because of the Republican-controlled General Assembly in Raleigh. For instance, legislators recently nullified a plastic bag ban on stores in the Outer Banks.
“That’s an issue for states like North Carolina and Virginia,” said Rob Phocas, the city’s sustainability manager. “You can say something will happen on the local level. (But Raleigh) has the ultimate say in what gets done.”
Phocas said Charlotte is working with a London-based group, the Carbon Disclosure Project, to get an assessment of the city’s overall carbon footprint as well as the footprint of the local government. That number could guide the city’s carbon-reduction efforts, if the City Council chooses to use it as a benchmark.
In terms of reducing the city’s overall carbon footprint, Charlotte’s biggest and costliest effort has been focused on transportation.
The city has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on new bus service and light rail, and the Charlotte Area Transit System wants to spend as much as $6 billion on rail lines to the airport, Lake Norman and Matthews.
Perhaps the biggest success in light rail has been enticing developers to build thousands of new apartments along the line, rather than in the suburbs, where people would have to drive farther to get to work.
But CATS has struggled to grow ridership. Even as the city has grown this decade, ridership on bus and trains has been flat or declining. Low gas prices are a likely reason.
The city and county have also expanded greenways, and the city is building new bike lanes and requiring streets have sidewalks when new subdivisions are built.
In the last several years, Phocas said the city has worked to reduce its own carbon footprint.
The city has bought hybrid and electric vehicles, and Solid Waste Services has a fleet of trucks that run on compressed natural gas. The city’s McAlpine waste water treatment plant has tried to reuse methane waste instead of flaring it into the atmosphere.
Methane is one of the biggest drivers of climate change, scientists say.
The city is also renovating and building its structures to achieve the Energy Star standard.
It’s unlikely Charlotte could ever dictate to Duke Energy that a specific percent of its energy must come from renewables. And Phocas said the city would struggle to produce enough renewable energy on its own to “go off the grid.”
But he said Charlotte could generate enough power on its own – either through solar panels or solar credits – to have no carbon footprint.
Those will be decisions for a future mayor and City Council, he said.
Roberts said once the city gets a detailed assessment of its carbon footprint, it should work to lower it. She said the city should partner with the private sector and the nonprofit Envision Charlotte to lower emissions.
“I think we should set targets,” she said. “It’s doable.”
Before committing to a firm goal, Lyles said the city should first know how much carbon it’s producing.
“We need to do a study and see what’s possible, and maybe have a stretch goal,” she said.
Smith said he supports “policies that make environmental and economic sense,” but wouldn’t make a firm commitment.
Ford said it’s important to first know how much carbon the city emits.
“One of the things I am big on is measuring progress,” he said. “Part of measuring is to quantify the emissions and then set a goal with council and industry and the community to achieve those goals.”
The Roberts campaign said Ford’s comments were disingenuous.
They said Ford has a poor environmental voting record in Raleigh, with votes in favor of fracking and a low score from the League of Conservation Voters. Roberts campaign manager Sam Spencer said Ford is a “champion for dirty energy.”