Explain it to me like I’m 12: An analysis of the governor’s “Deep Carbonization Pathways Analysis”

North Carolina has strayed from its path to “net zero,” a crucial way to meet its climate change goals. The state needs a course correction, so last week Gov. Cooper released the “Deep Carbonization Pathways Analysis” — a 101-page, dense-as-a-flourless-cake guide to reaching the state’s 2050 benchmark. 

The background: Over the past five years, the governor has issued several executive orders related to climate change. 

  • In 2018, EO 80 established a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at least 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. Yes, your math is right — that’s only two years away.
  • In 2022, EO 246 set new goals to reduce those emissions to at least 50 percent by 2030 and achieve net-zero* emissions by 2050.

*Net zero does not mean there are no greenhouse gas emissions. It means only that the amounts are balanced out when technology and/or nature removes them from the atmosphere.

Important context: Unlike the Duke Energy carbon plan, which got a pass from state lawmakers in terms of methane emissions, the Course Correction (it sounds snappier than pathways analysis) accounts for that potent greenhouse gas. 

The Course Correction also includes reducing emissions of HFCs, short for hydrofluorocarbons. These destructive gases are present in air conditioners and cooling systems. Yes, it’s not lost on us that climate change is causing extreme heat waves yet the very devices we use to keep us cool are further heating the planet. See buildings.

The takeaways

Transportation is the state’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Passenger cars and trucks account for 70 percent of those transportation emissions, which will surprise no one who has driven through the vehicular hellscape of Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, Greensboro and Winston-Salem.
Proposed solutions: Replace gasoline-powered cars and trucks with electric vehicles. Medium- and heavy-duty trucks, school buses and other diesel spewers are gradually being replaced with electrified versions, thanks to federal and state grant funds. Build out an extensive network of EV charging stations, including in rural and underserved areas. (If you run out of juice in Low Gap in Surry County, well, good luck.)

Prioritize public transit in and between urban areas. That also means paying bus drivers more money to cart us around. Exhibit A: Many commuters are eagerly awaiting the return of the GoTriangle express buses between Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill.

Buildings: No one’s coming for your gas stove, but regardless of what Piedmont Natural Gas says, when it’s time to buy a new one, choose electric. Gas stoves emit methane, even when they’re off. They can contribute to asthma, especially in children who live in homes with gas appliances. That includes clothes dryers and water heaters.

Also a problem with natural gas appliances, if they leak carbon monoxide: Possibly death. In 2010, the gas furnace in my rental home leaked carbon monoxide. Alarms sounded. Heat was shut off. Windows were opened. The gas company later told my husband and me if we’d not had CO detectors and heeded their call — well, I wouldn’t be writing this story today.

Which brings us to our next point: If you’re a homeowner of some means, you can choose your appliances. You can take advantage of federal tax credits to help pay for electric heat pumps. Those pumps can replace HFC-exhalations from air conditioners.

Yet what of the renters? I rented for 34 years and had no say-so in any form of climate-friendly improvements other than light bulbs and weatherization strips.

Landlords for new construction can be held to higher account via building codes, but if you’re living in a 1955 ranch house that hasn’t been updated since Nixon was president, the landlord will need some financial prodding to upfit the home, without hiking the rent.

A pie chart showing that transportation is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in North Carolina, followed by electricity generation, agriculture, landfills and buildings

(Chart: Decarbonization Pathway)

Agriculture and landfills are major emitters of methane, but the Course Correction’s response to these gas giants seems lukewarm.

In the past 20 years, voluntary programs have reduced the amount of methane-producing waste going into landfills by 4.2 million tons, the report says. However, that’s some weak tea compared with other states that have enacted actual laws requiring large commercial facilities to compost food waste. 

Maryland passed a law, which just went into effect, requiring any facility that produces at least two tons of food waste per week to divert it to a composting facility, as long as one is within 30 miles of their location. Imperfect? Yes. Better than North Carolina? Also yes. 

The Course Correction projects landfill methane emissions will decline by just 11 percent by 2050.

Agriculture lags behind transportation and electricity in greenhouse gas emissions, but that’s not to say it’s “clean.” In the industry-that-can’t-be-touched-by-meaningful-regulation — concentrated animal feeding operations, also known as CAFOS — manure is the largest source of agriculture sector emissions: 58%. 

The gas is emitted from hog waste lagoons, piles of poultry poop and fields of cow patties. The industry is dead-set on reducing methane through anaerobic digestion — essentially capping the lagoon with a plastic membrane and capturing the gas — although that brings with it a host of other environmental problems. The EPA estimates that the reductions “could also be achieved through environmentally superior technologies or other activity changes.”

If there were only a billion-dollar company in North Carolina that could afford to invest in these superior technologies. Oh, there already is.

Clean electricity: We’ve seen the shortcomings of the Duke Carbon Plan — it relies heavily on natural gas — released by the Utilities Commission on Dec. 30. The Course Correction suggests generating more electricity from renewables and battery storage, and the nascent, but growing technology of green hydrogen. 

Hydrogen can power cars and used in cooking and heating. Note the color is important: The green hydrogen process does not use fossil fuels, as does blue hydrogen, which is produced by steam and natural gas.

Carbon sequestration: This is a fancy term for storing carbon in soil, trees, wetlands and other “sinks,” which keeps the gas from entering the atmosphere. Unfortunately, North Carolina is losing some of its natural carbon sinks through deforestation — trees cleared for sprawling subdivisions, for the dirty, carbon-intensive wood pellet industry. 

Coastal carbon sinks are also disappearing. These include salt marshes and seagrass beds. Sea level rise induced by climate change (are we seeing a pattern here?) can wipe these out, as can coastal development.

Despite slight declines, restoring and preserving both types of landscapes is expected to “remain large” through 2050, according to the report.

What’s next?

The NC Clean Transportation Plan will be finalized by April. It is expected to detail how to speed up the adoption of electric vehicles.

The state Hazard Mitigation Plan is due this spring to explain how state, regional and local governments can adapt to climate change.

And late in the year, DEQ’s Division of Mitigation Services is scheduled to release the draft of the Flood Resiliency Blueprint. The blueprint will be used to write a Neuse River Basin “action strategy.” The blueprint will be applied to other targeted river basins next year. 

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Explain it to me like I’m 12: An analysis of the governor’s “Deep Carbonization Pathways Analysis”