Charlotte has a new plan, powerful new ally in its fight against climate change

Charlotte this week rolled out a plan to dramatically lower the city’s carbon emissions, and the effort got a big boost Wednesday from billionaire philanthropist Michael Bloomberg.

On Wednesday, New York City’s former mayor named Charlotte the winner of the American Cities Climate Challenge, two days after the City Council unanimously approved an energy plan with bipartisan support.

Both efforts are intended to lower carbon emissions and speed up Charlotte’s transition to relying on renewable energy sources, starting with city-owned vehicles and buildings. But it will take years, and a huge investment, before such efforts meet the city’s goals.

The city’s plan commits Charlotte to emitting nearly zero carbon from its buildings and vehicle fleet by 2030 and lowering the per-capita carbon emissions from Charlotteans by a factor of six. The award announced by Bloomberg will give the city up to $2.5 million for planning and projects such as putting solar panels on roofs of Charlotte Fire Department buildings and adding more electric vehicles to the city’s fleet.

“This is exactly the type of partnership we need,” said council member Dimple Ajmera, who chairs the city’s environmental committee. “We have very aggressive 2030 goals...we have to make sure we are delivering on those goals. This is not going to be one of those plans that’s just going to sit there.”

The new Charlotte plan and Bloomberg’s grant are part of a general trend of cities and states stepping up their efforts to curb climate change. The local action comes as the federal government under President Donald Trump opens up more lands for oil and gas drilling, relaxes environmental regulations, tries to revive the coal industry and plans to pull the U.S. out of the international Paris Agreement on climate change.

“One of the problems that a lot of people like myself, we have very high levels of intelligence but we’re not necessarily such believers,” Trump told the Washington Post in November, after his administration released a detailed report on how climate change is likely to hurt the U.S. in coming years. “As to whether or not it’s man-made and whether or not the effects that you’re talking about are there, I don’t see it.”

Bloomberg said that’s one of the main reasons cities should step up and take the lead, with “Washington asleep at the wheel.”

“It’s ridiculous to say it wouldn’t be better if the administration in Washington didn’t deny science,” said Bloomberg. Other winners of the challenge grants include Atlanta, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Charlotte’s plan obligates the city to try to eliminate carbon emissions from its public buildings and vehicle fleet by 2030, approaching “near zero.” To do that, the city would have to both sharply reduce the amount of energy it uses and get much more of that energy from renewable or low-carbon sources. City Council will hold a review every two years to assess its progress.

The potential cost of implementing the city’s energy plan hasn’t been estimated. But Lyles said Charlotte will turn to other cities that have been named winners of the Bloomberg challenge, as well as the private sector, for help making changes.

“We won’t be making major changes without having models and areas we can measure,” said Lyles. “This is an energy city...We have people that work here in the energy sector. We’re going to work with them and use the consultants the Bloomberg Foundation will provide.”

Reducing emissions from city-owned buildings and vehicles that dramatically in a little over a decade will be a tall order. The city has about 5,000 vehicles in its fleet. Of those, 10 are electric, 27 are hybrids and 29 use natural gas. There are also 40 hybrid buses. The remainder use gas or diesel engines.

In this June 1 photo, President Donald Trump listens as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt speaks about the U.S. role in the Paris climate change accord in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. Pablo Martinez Monsivais AP

City cars are prime candidates for electric or hybrid vehicles, though upfront costs will be higher. Passenger buses, vans and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department vehicles could be changed over as well, though those present more technical challenges. There’s no option now for low-emission fire trucks, the city said, though that could change in the future.

The city owns approximately 6 million square feet of buildings such as fire and police stations, office buildings and cultural facilities that it must retrofit to make them more energy-efficient and possibly generate their own energy through solar or other sources.

Even more ambitious: By 2050, Charlotte hopes to become a low-carbon city, with an average of two tons of carbon dioxide per person emitted each year. That would be a six-fold decrease from the current 12 tons per year, taken as a baseline estimate in 2015.

The city’s energy action plan lays out possible ways the city could achieve that goal. Charlotte could build more bike, scooter and pedestrian infrastructure, as well as invest more in public transit, to encourage people not to drive. The city could develop an electric vehicle charging network, or help develop low-carbon energy sources like bioenergy.

New houses, offices and other non-city-owned buildings could be mandated to have more energy efficient features, though that would likely require changes to state laws and building codes that govern construction and design.

The exact way to reach a low-carbon Charlotte isn’t spelled out in the strategic plan. City Council members said that’s part of the point — it’s a framework with goals that can be adjusted. But that means the city will have to be proactive to make sure Charlotte is making progress.

“This can’t just be a nice policy that goes on the shelf and collects dust,” said council member Braxton Winston, a Democrat.

zane climate
Steam billows from the coal-fired Merrimack Station in Bow, N.H. President Donald Trump said the United States will continue to be the cleanest and most environmentally friendly country on Earth as he announced pulling out of an international accord designed to curb climate change. But facts muddy that claim. Data show the U.S. is among the dirtiest countries when it comes to heat-trapping carbon pollution. Jim Cole AP

The city’s strategic energy plan passed unanimously, with bipartisan support. Council member Ed Driggs, a Republican, said Charlotte must stay focused on getting a good return on the investment it chooses to make.

“We need to avoid certain solutions that could be very expensive and don’t offer proven benefits,” he said.

But he said the city’s plan should get support from Democrats and Republicans.

“This is not a partisan issue,” said Driggs. “We have a shared interest in a clean future.”

Ely Portillo covers local and state government for the Charlotte Observer, where he has previously written about growth, crime, the airport and a five-legged puppy. He grew up in Maryland and attended Harvard University.