This is the first in a commentary series by the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund.
North Carolina’s coastal communities have a front-row seat to many of the most visible signs of climate change. As sea level rise threatens our coastal communities, and as storms and flooding become more frequent and intense across the state, it’s clear climate change isn’t something that’s coming — it’s something that’s already here.
When North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper signed Executive Order 246 (EO246) on Jan. 7, he sent an important signal that North Carolina is sharpening its focus on addressing climate change and creating a more equitable future. The directives of EO246 align the state’s climate ambitions with what the international scientific consensus tells us is necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, and seeks to better address environmental inequities that have long plagued the state, many of which are exacerbated by climate change.
While these goals are a critical first step for North Carolina to do its part to address the causes and effects of climate change, achieving these targets requires swift, tangible action to secure a healthier and more equitable future for North Carolinians.
Executive Order 246 is not the governor’s first venture into the climate space. Executive Order 80 (EO80), signed in October 2018, was Gov. Cooper’s first order committing the state to important climate pollution goals: reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 40% from 2005 levels by 2025.
Over three years later, EO246 builds upon the goals of EO80 by committing the state to reducing GHG emissions at least 50% from 2005 levels by 2030, and reaching net-zero GHG emissions as soon as possible, no later than 2050. The most recent order also adds complementary goals of getting 1.25 million zero-emissions vehicles (ZEVs) on the road by 2030, and for 50% of new vehicle sales to be ZEVs by the same year.
Raising the state’s ambition to tackle climate pollution economy-wide, EO246 sets the stage for action to complement the ongoing work to reduce pollution from the state’s electric power sector with the added focus on transportation. This expanded focus makes perfect sense, as the state’s recent GHG inventory affirms that electric power and transportation remain North Carolina’s top two sources of GHGs, together accounting for nearly 70% of the state’s total emissions. The GHG inventory demonstrates that there is much work to do to reduce the state’s current emissions levels in line with the goals for the new executive order. New policies and programs will need to be implemented quickly to accelerate pollution reductions and put the state firmly on a trajectory to reach these important goals.
In addition to expanding upon emissions goals, EO246 aims to better incorporate environmental justice (EJ) and equity into the administration’s processes and decisions, striving to address disparate environmental and public health impacts among historically marginalized communities. Conversations regarding equity and climate are too often siloed, when in reality these issues deeply intersect, as communities of color, low-income and indigenous communities bear a disproportionate burden of pollution and are often on the frontlines of increasingly harmful climate impacts. EO246 provides a structure to consider these issues in tandem by directing cabinet agencies to consider environmental justice and equity in decision making related to climate change, resilience, and clean energy.
To operationalize this goal, each agency is directed to designate an “EJ Lead” to spearhead these efforts, and to develop annual public participation plans, laying out how the agency will solicit and incorporate public input, particularly from frontline communities, into agency decisions. Agencies are also instructed to prioritize distribution of state and federal funds to invest in historically underserved communities and to advance health and economic equity. EO246 directs the convening of a third-party facilitated dialogue among state agencies and community leaders to ensure a trusted and holistic dialogue in order to identify opportunities to address the disproportionately harmful outcomes faced by impacted communities.
All of these proposals are an important step toward addressing environmental and public health challenges that will be exacerbated by the increasingly acute impacts of climate change. While these processes are important, the ultimate measure of success for EO246’s equity provisions will be the institutionalization of new behaviors, processes, and funding priorities to benefit impacted communities across all agencies – changing the way our state does business.
Gov. Cooper has laid the foundation to leave a lasting impact on North Carolina communities through the goals and directives of EO80 and EO246. Now it’s time to make sure North Carolina gets there by listening to the most impacted communities, tracking progress and acknowledging shortcomings, and implementing new solutions to close the gap between where we are and where we are going.
To stimulate discussion and debate, Coastal Review welcomes differing viewpoints on topical coastal issues. See our guidelines for submitting guest columns. Opinions expressed by the authors are not necessarily those of Coastal Review or the North Carolina Coastal Federation. Submissions may be edited for clarity.