DURHAM, N.C. — On any given day, North Carolina’s fourth largest city is tackling climate change on multiple fronts.
What you need to know
- Officials in several North Carolina towns have approved plans to become carbon-neutral by 2050, or earlier.
- Common strategies include all-electric vehicles, tree planting programs and investing into renewable energy sources.
- Over the past 50 year, the Triangle’s average annual temperature and precipitation has risen slowly but steadily.
Jena Gibbs and other drivers heat up GoDurham’s electric buses to fight climate change. They are part a continuous transition to zero-emission buses. Gibbs explained that driving electric buses takes some time to get used to. They are quieter than diesels and also more responsive.
“If I could drive an electric bus every day and completely dead out diesel, I would,” she said.
It continues into the morning when Daniel Hickey, Durham’s urban forester, leads a team planting trees in Durham neighborhoods that have historically been without tree cover. Hickey explained that the city has a tradition of replacing every tree it removes.
City officials also directed crews in 2016 to plant 1,500 more trees every year until 2025, greatly increasing the city’s tree canopy. Hickey stated trees provide shade and filter out pollution, as well as cooling the air. They also reduce stormwater runoff.
“Say this was just pavement instead of grass and a tree, the second it rains, it would run right off that pavement and go to the stormwater, which puts more pressure on our infrastructure for stormwater management,” he said.
Raleigh-Durham International Airport data shows that climate change has already had a tangible impact on North Carolina.
The Triangle’s annual average rainfall has nearly doubled, from 45.64 inches in 1971, to 55.19 inch in 2020. Meanwhile, the average annual temperature has risen 3.5 degrees to 62.5 degrees Fahrenheit, a 3.5-degree increase in temperature.
Half a century ago, Durham residents were able to expect to go a whole year without experiencing a day with temperatures above 95 degrees. The average number of such days in the Triangle was 11 per year by 2021, which is an average increase from one 95-plus degree day every three decades.
Durham is one of many North Carolina cities that have adopted climate action programs in response to the climate crisis in recent years. Approved at the end of Oct by the city council the Bull City’s planCalls for carbon neutrality in all urban operations by 2040, and 100% renewable energy use by 2050. It is a decade earlier than the deadline North Carolina state lawmakers set for carbon neutrality.
Durham already owns four electric vehicles that are used by city staff.
Paul Cameron, a sustainability and energy analyst, said that the city will eventually replace all its gas-powered passenger cars and light trucks with electric ones. Cameron stated that he uses electric cars whenever possible.
“The electric vehicles are just very easy to use. They’re quiet, easy to maneuver, they’re just a pleasure to drive in every way,” he said. “I’m going to purchase an electric vehicle for my next personal vehicle.”
Other cities also have climate plans that include electric vehicles.
Chapel Hill’s planThe goal is to have a 100% electric fleet by 2050. This includes heavy-duty vehicles. Greensboro is currently developing a draft plan that calls for an all-electric fleet by 2040. Durham is one of the cities that have added public electric vehicle charging points to encourage residents to ditch their gas-powered cars.
Strategies also apply to city-owned properties.
In CharlotteOfficials in Durham are exploring ways to retire gas boilers and use alternative heating methods as part the city’s plans for making its buildings carbon neutral by 2030. Durham’s new water treatment facility will use ground source geothermal heat pump and solar panels to reduce its energy consumption. Other buildings are also included in the city climate plans. Raleigh’s climate plan recommendsIncentivizing high efficiency construction in residential and commercial buildings.
Cameron and Hickey acknowledged the enormity of the climate plan task Durham and other cities are facing, but they said their roles in it were only a small part of a full day’s work.
“If we can do something to mitigate those climate change results by, let’s say, planting trees and cooling streets down, I think that’s a benefit. It definitely feels good,” Hickey said. “I think our guys are pretty happy about the work they’re doing.”