Local & State Voices

Does Charlotte really need an environment committee?

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles merged threes City Council committees, including the environmental committee, into one.
Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles merged threes City Council committees, including the environmental committee, into one. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Yes, Charlotte City Council members should care about the environment. But does the council really need an Environment Committee? I have doubts; I’ll explain shortly.

To be clear, environmental issues are major: water and air quality, land conservation, and of course fighting the looming global disaster of climate change, to name some. So when Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles eliminated the council’s Environment Committee, local environmental activists protested and urged her to restore the committee. Lyles replied that she wanted more efficiency and effectiveness. “What’s most important is what we do,” she said, “not the specific names and compositions of the committees.”

Nevertheless the optics aren’t good. It’s important to visibly support fighting climate change and caring for the environment.

There’s a problem, though. The convoluted way our local governments operate gives county government, not city, most local environmental programs.

Mecklenburg County, not Charlotte, manages local water quality, air quality and solid waste disposal. The county manages most stormwater services. (Runoff is the most significant water polluter here.) Mecklenburg County manages parks, greenways and nature preserves. The city has a tree ordinance to try to protect the tree canopy, but overall, city government’s environmental management role looks small.

That doesn’t mean the city has no role, or that the council’s Environment Committee did nothing. It crafted last year’s Strategic Energy Action Plan to urge reduced carbon emissions, the big villain in climate change. The plan proposes cutting local greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. City government is admirably working to cut its own energy use and reduce emissions.

But let’s be real. The biggest carbon emitter in Charlotte is driving gas- or diesel-powered vehicles. Driving creates 36 percent of local emissions. Our top environmental priority should be creating a city where everyone can drive less. That means changing how we travel and use land.

Our sprawling land use pattern forces us to drive. Even where there are sidewalks, walking is often impractical because things aren’t close, or streets don’t connect. To change the drive-everywhere pattern, we have to allow stores and workplaces closer to where people live. We have to make the city easier to walk and bicycle (and scooter) in, and expand transit.

Consider water and air pollution. The biggest polluter of Charlotte’s surface waters is sediment, coming from runoff from pavement. Parking lots for our cars are polluting our water. Air? Charlotte’s biggest air pollutant is ozone, a byproduct of tailpipes.

The biggest threat to natural areas, and what shrinks our tree canopy, is our sprawling development habit.

All those environmental problems stem from our transportation, land use and planning.

If only the council had a Transportation and Planning Committee. I’m being facetious. It does. And that’s where the city’s environmental future should be front and center: whether we keep sprawling and driving.

City government in years past rarely seemed to consider the environment. I’m glad that’s changing. Maybe having an Environment Committee to proclaim the issue’s importance is worth the bureaucracy.

But couldn’t you both signal the importance and reflect reality by making the Transportation and Planning Committee into a Transportation, Land Use and Environment Committee?

Mary Newsom is a Charlotte writer.