Every year, once a year, the world comes together to celebrate the one thing that allows us to live and breathe: our planet.

Last month, Earth Day arrived with its usual outpour of love. People planted trees, and social media overflowed with lightly-filtered photos of families posing in front of landmarks and sunsets. And while it is a day for appreciating the beauty of our oceans, forests, mountains, and deserts, Earth Day is also one for political action and environmental accountability.

The year 2020 marked 50 years since Earth Day’s founding. By the time we reach 100 years, however, scientists believe that the impacts of climate change and increased natural disasters may transform this annual day of appreciation into a cry for help.

Gov. Roy Cooper signed a new executive order in early January to address these effects of climate change in North Carolina, setting statewide goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and encourage green transportation. Executive Order 246 is the most recent of a series of orders passed over the last few years.

What are the goals of Executive Order 246?

EO 246, or “North Carolina’s Transformation to a Clean, Equitable Economy,” contains ambitious goals: 50 percent reduction of statewide greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2030 and net-zero carbon emissions no later than 2050.

Now four months since the order’s release, it is important to revisit its goals and evaluate the state’s progress during a climate crisis that calls for immediate action, says Steve Kalland, who serves on an advisory committee for EO 246’s Clean Transportation Plan.

“All of these kinds of changes take time, and [it has probably not been] long enough for most of this to actually register yet,” Kalland says. “The flip side is, the clock is ticking and we’ve got a lot of ground to cover, both to meet the goals in the executive order and to meet the goals necessary to avoid greater than two-degree temperature increase because of climate change.”

One of the order’s main provisions is the NC Clean Transportation Plan, which gives the Department of Transportation (DOT) 15 months to create a viable plan for decarbonizing the transportation sector, reducing vehicle miles traveled, and increasing the availability of zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) so that 50 percent of vehicles sold are zero-emission by 2030.

In addition to this provision is a required greenhouse gas inventory to be updated biennially, a decarbonization pathways analysis that will identify potential paths to reduce emissions, and the appointment of a mandatory environmental justice lead within every cabinet agency.

This order expands on the goals of past executive orders in North Carolina, says Dionne Delli-Gatti, the state’s clean energy director who helped create the Clean Energy Plan.

“It builds on some of the efforts that date back to 2018 when Executive Order 80 started us on this course,” Delli-Gatti says. “This increases those goals to meet and keep up with the science, it increases the economy-wide targets and really tries to take a look at where we are and what we’ve been successful in and where there’s still gaps.”

History of climate action in North Carolina

EO 80 contains a Clean Energy Plan that encourages the use of clean energy resources like solar power and wind to create a resilient electric grid and a NC ZEV Plan with a goal of 80,000 ZEVs by 2025, Delli-Gatti says.

While he has no doubt that the state will meet the ZEV goal set in 2018, this newest executive order ups that target significantly, says Brian Powell, director of communications at NC Conservation Network.

“The executive order sets a goal of 1.25 million registered zero-emission vehicles by 2030,” Powell says. “This one is going to be more difficult, but the Department of Transportation thinks that we’re on track.”

Although EO 246 tackles the issue of climate change head-on, the state’s attitude toward climate concerns was dramatically different only a decade ago, Powell says.

“In August of 2012, the North Carolina legislature, which was controlled by a governor who was a Republican and supermajorities of Republicans in both houses, passed a law that said the state was not allowed to consider science around sea level rise when establishing coastal policy,” Powell says.

State government has grown in leaps and bounds since this stance of complete climate change denial, Powell says. In 2021, bipartisan law House Bill 951 was passed to address climate change, and a budget was signed to increase the state’s funding for storm resilience and other impacts of climate change.

While this is all positive progress, Kalland says that not much tangible action has taken place since EO 246’s passing in January.

“I think that [so far], all we’ve really done is get ourselves situated to really dig into the questions,” Kalland says.

Back to the original question: What’s happened since January?

Much of the progress that has occurred so far has centered around forming the committees that will eventually create climate action plans, says Kym Hunter, a lawyer at the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and an environmental representative on the Clean Transportation Plan’s board.

“The Clean Transportation Plan Advisory Board has been set up and those subcommittees have been set up,” Hunter says. “But there hasn’t really been much progress made yet—we’re still in pretty early stages.”

Although EO 246’s Clean Transportation Plan allowed the 15-month period of planning, Hunter says that that timeframe should be looked at like a race, not a deadline.

“The governor’s office said when they passed the executive order that that did not mean they were going to wait 15 months before they actually did anything, but I haven’t really seen any signs from DOT that there is any kind of imminent action plan,” Hunter says. “So, I think it’s going to take work to push forward and make sure that action happens in a more expedited time frame.”

Another EO 246 goal completed in late January was the updated greenhouse gas inventory, which showed that transportation emissions have overtaken energy generation emissions as the largest contributor of greenhouse gases in the state, Powell says.

One of the biggest accomplishments to date was the recent appointment of an environmental justice lead in every agency. This required position isn’t just about checking a box, but it prioritizes accountability and transparency with underserved communities, says Mary Maclean Asbill, the director of the NC offices of the SELC.

While all of the steps that have been taken since January are important, Asbill says there needs to be a push toward taking real action as soon as possible in order to reach the goals in EO 246.

“I think it can be met by 2050, but the time is now,” Asbill says. “We can’t plan to make a plan and have too many work sessions—they’ve got to roll up their sleeves and get it done now. We don’t have a minute to lose.”

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