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Missing the Mark: How North Carolina’s Decarbonization Efforts Fall Short and How to Fix Them

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Climate Justice Air Climate Energy Environmental Justice North Carolina Public Participation

Decarbonization in North Carolina is vital to mitigate the effects of climate change and its accompanying environmental health disparities. According to data from the Energy Information Administration, between 2020 and 2021, carbon emissions in North Carolina increased by 8.4 percent, and energy-related carbon dioxide pollution increased from 106.6 million metric tons to 115.6 million metric tons. However, the effects of this carbon pollution are not evenly distributed among the state’s residents, but map on to existing economic and social disparities.

A complex mix of policies and practices rooted in economic incentives and institutionalized racism that produced redlining, mortgage and lending discrimination, and structural disinvestment has created segregated, under-resourced communities that are especially vulnerable to environmental and climate catastrophes. These communities are more likely to comprise low-wealth people and people of color and be in rural areas.

Respiratory issues such as asthma, consistent with the high level of emissions, are the highest in communities of color. Specifically, in the Durham-Chapel Hill metro area, people of color are twice as likely to face respiratory risk from air pollution as white residents in the same area. In the nearby Raleigh-Cary area, people of color face a 1.5 percent increased risk of respiratory-related illness compared to white residents.

As of January 2024, 33 states have passed laws to curb emissions. North Carolina joined that list in 2019 when it passed its Clean Energy Power Plan. In 2021, the state went further and passed House Bill 951 (HB951), committing the state to slash power sector carbon emissions by 70 percent by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

Unfortunately, implementing this carbon neutrality goal (the state’s Carbon Plan) has been frustratingly slow. Despite the law requiring regulators — namely the North Carolina Utilities Commission (Commission) — to devise a plan to cut emissions by the end of 2022, the Commission instead delegated Carbon Plan development to monopoly utility provider Duke Energy (the Company).

The Company’s December 2022 filing failed to meet carbon reduction goal timelines in two of its three proposals for decarbonizing electricity production. Instead, the Company delayed implementation by proposing new nuclear facilities, which, though considered low carbon, are an unnecessary and more costly approach to achieving decarbonization goals.

Still, in December 2022, the Commission partially adopted the Company’s Carbon Plan, and as part of the order, the plan must be updated every two years in tandem with the Integrated Resource Planning process (IRP), a “road map” for utility demand planning projections. Environmental advocates have argued that the Company’s Carbon Plan unnecessarily relies on polluting methane gas and unproven technology, like miniature nuclear reactors, instead of increasing the capacity of proven, cheaper, and more environmentally beneficial energy resources like wind and solar. Nevertheless, the Commission will likely fully adopt the Company’s second version of the Carbon Plan without amendment in December 2024.


North Carolina’s Carbon Planning process can be significantly improved to ensure marginalized communities are not shut out and that climate goals are met on a timeline that recognizes the urgency of the crisis, not just globally but locally. Successful decarbonization plans across states share many features. Drawing from these, we recommend that to meet the state’s carbon reduction goals, North Carolina should:

  1. Center community feedback in person and virtually, ensuring meetings are convenient for working people. Public hearings should be in-person and virtual and held during the day, evenings, and weekends, and on multiple occasions, for maximum scheduling flexibility around the state. These hearings should reflect principles of meaningful community engagement, including soliciting and adopting community recommendations.
  1. Embrace a higher proportion of renewable energy for decarbonization — including rooftop solar, community solar, commercial solar, wind, offshore wind, geothermal energy, and battery storage. North Carolina should not build any new natural gas power plants.

Read the policy brief
Read the summary blog post
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Watch the related webinar recording

Related resource:
Local renewable energy restrictions in North Carolina

Climate Justice Air Climate Energy Environmental Justice North Carolina Public Participation