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A New Climate of Resolve

by Christa Wagner

March 6,2007

I moved to Raleigh from Charlotte in November to take a position as government affairs coordinator for the Sierra Club, the environmental advocacy group. Raleigh is a delightful city filled with the same familiar sights and sounds of my former home: jack hammers, scaffolding, hard hats and traffic. All signals of welcome new prosperity and rapid population growth in this changing Southern state.

In my new position I have the great privilege to navigate the halls of the General Assembly, an august institution that proudly testifies to the splendid diversity of North Carolina. Sure, I live and work in a place where a lot of wheeling and dealing goes down. But by and large, the public's business is done publicly in the committee rooms and chambers of the legislature. And in my opinion one of the more urgent matters under consideration is the State’s response to global warming. No secret communiqué here: this is a sunshine story about the open and resolute way that North Carolina has begun to tackle the challenge that ultimately faces the entire globe.

We don’t need to have the conversation about whether it’s real. A conference last month in Paris among world leaders unveiled an updated report on the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. When the same report was issued in 2001, man-made greenhouses gases produced by industrial processes, power generation, agriculture and other sectors were believed at 66 percent certainty to be responsible for disturbing trends in the earth’s climate. Now scientists are 90 percent certain. That, as they say, is as good as it gets.

We don’t need to talk about who should take action. In Washington, the new Congressional leadership has set up a House Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming to jump start energy policy debate and response. Meanwhile, in the State House, members have formed the Energy and Energy Efficiency Committee to provide North Carolinians critical information about the decisions that will influence their energy future. And mayors across the country are signing the U.S. Mayor's Climate Agreement – a commitment to find cost effective ways to reduce emissions in local government.

One important piece of legislation that the N.C. House Committee will take up this session is a measure to establish a Renewable Energy and Efficiency Portfolio Standard. It will require the state’s electrical generators to ensure 20 percent of energy supply comes from renewable sources (wind, solar, biomass) and that kilowatts are offset through savings. Over 20 states have such a program.

In North Carolina energy supplies have historically been cheap and plentiful. But that dynamic is changing. A key example: last week, the North Carolina Utilities Commission, the body that regulates electric suppliers, permitted only one of two coal plants Charlotte-based Duke Energy hoped to build near Charlotte. If built, these new plants would pump 11 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air each year, the equivalent of 1 million automobiles. Although not a final outcome, the Commission decision clearly shows that the tenor of the energy debate has changed.

Reality continues to bump up against the best laid plans. In 2006, a legislative study commission was formed to examine ways North Carolina will be affected by climate change. An interim report in February of this year included 20 recommendations to the General Assembly including a charge to augment building codes to promote energy efficiency. Following the model of other states, the Committee found North Carolina could establish a fund to direct revenue from utility bills into energy efficiency programs. There are several key regulatory changes that could help bring more clean power on-line from customer-generators, like that neighbor you might have who just put a solar panel on her roof.

We’re not alone in our thinking, or in a radical state of mind. A group of delegates from the British Parliament addressed the North Carolina Climate Commission the day the recommendations came out. For all governments around the globe, they said, responding aggressively to global warming is the “most important task most of us will ever be asked to do.”

In North Carolina, the climate is changing and we're getting down to business.

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