Politics & Government

Charlotte City Council approves sweeping pledge to lower carbon emissions

Charlotte City Council approved a resolution Monday to drastically reduce carbon emissions in the city by 2050.
Charlotte City Council approved a resolution Monday to drastically reduce carbon emissions in the city by 2050. sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte City Council on Monday voted 10-0 in favor of a resolution pledging the city will make drastic reductions in carbon emissions by 2050, though there is no plan yet in place for how to do that.

In a little more than three decades, the city's goal is for carbon emissions to be about two tons of carbon dioxide or equivalent gases for each city resident.

Here are some numbers to show how difficult that will be.

The city's sustainability director, Rob Phocas, said he expects Charlotte residents now are producing about 12 tons of carbon dioxide each year. The countries where carbon emissions are less than two tons are poor and undeveloped.

He said the two-ton goal aligns Charlotte with the Paris accord, which the Trump administration left earlier this year.

City officials don't expect Charlotteans to make significant changes to their lifestyles. They hope instead that new technologies will help the city make big strides in lowering the emissions that scientists believe have led to global warming.

"No one is going to get to where we need to be if we aren't creative and if we aren't improving technologies," Phocas said. He said Duke Energy will play a huge role in whatever carbon reductions the city can make, since Duke provides Charlotte's power.

All council members present supported the resolution, including the two Republicans, Tariq Bokhari and Ed Driggs. Bokhari said it was important for Republicans to support such issues because "environmental sustainability is important."

But council members and people who spoke in favor of the resolution rarely talked about climate change or global warming. They couched the issue as a resolution that would clean the air.

"As our city grows, so does pollution," said June Blotnick of Clean Air Carolina. "Now is the time to act."

Last November, council members rejected a similar resolution whose main booster was former Mayor Jennifer Roberts, who had lost in the Democratic primary. The goal of that resolution was for the city government, not the city overall, to become carbon-neutral. Council members said the resolution was too vague and that they needed a plan before moving forward.

Roberts spoke in favor of the resolution Monday.

She called it a "common-sense plan to move us forward."

She said the renewable energy industry, such as solar and wind power, is creating new jobs. She noted that people in low-income communities often suffer the most from dirty air.

After council members rejected the first resolution, they sent it to the environmental committee, which is chaired by Dimple Ajmera. Ajmera said the resolution is a "bold step" and said Duke Energy was consulted on the resolution.

It's unclear, however, what has changed in terms of a road map to reduce carbon emissions.

When council members rejected the first proposal, some complained that were was no plan in place. The scope of the new resolution is broader, with goals for the entire city and not just city government.

But there is still no plan. The resolution directs city staff to create what it calls a "Strategic Energy Action Plan." That will be the city's roadmap to lowering emissions.

"We're still gathering information," Phocas said.

Driggs said there would be times when the city's efforts to reduce carbon emissions could lose out to other needs, such as affordable housing.

Phocas said the action plan will focus on four areas: energy produced by buildings; transportation; energy generation, including power plants and renewables; and innovation.

A challenge will be deciding how to move forward. Should a certain percent of city vehicle purchases be required to have high gas mileage or be electric? Could the city offer its own property tax rebates for people who install their own solar panels?

The Charlotte Area Transit System has invested in hybrid buses. But its most recent replacement bus order relied on diesel buses.

But the success of the resolution will depend largely on policies from Washington and on whether energy companies such as Duke are required to transition away from coal to nuclear power, renewables or low-carbon natural gas. In the Carolinas, Duke has seven coal-powered plants. About one-third of the company's overall power comes from coal plants.

Nine years ago, after Anthony Foxx was first elected as Charlotte mayor, he signed a pledge that said the city would reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

That pledge created some concrete actions and led to the creation of the city's sustainability office, which Phocas leads. But the city has not yet made a dent in its carbon footprint.

"(That pledge) didn't have a plan, like this one does," Phocas said.


An earlier version of this story said the Charlotte City Council voted unanimously in favor of a resolution to lower its greenhouse gases by 2050. The vote from the dais was a unanimous 10-0 vote, though one council member, Braxton Winston, did not attend the meeting.
Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs