By Joshua Blanco
Last year was a crazy year for humans. But for the planet, these past 12 months painted a more hopeful picture of what’s to come. In spite of a ravaging pandemic, activists still pushed forward with the fight to curb climate change. Western North Carolinians in particular adopted an aggressive stance toward solving the climate crisis, inching us further away from the dreaded tipping point.
The decade kicked off with Asheville declaring a climate emergency, the first city in the state to do so. Near-term goals of the declaration include the conversion of municipal operations to run on 100 percent renewable energy and putting a stop to greenhouse gas emissions, all by 2030.
Though the goals might seem ambitious, they’re exactly what we need. According to the North Carolina Climate Science Report revised last May, we can expect to see more drought, wildfire and flooding in years to come. What’s more, temperature increases observed in recent years are projected to climb higher, with the number of hot days and nights expected to double in coming decades. Changes like these add a layer of difficulty to ongoing progress. If, for example, Asheville intends to run on renewable energy, planners will have to account for the increase in energy needed to cool buildings in hotter temperatures.
In the summer of 2019, the Asheville City Council, along with the County Board of Commissioners, approved more than $11 million in funding that would provide approximately seven megawatts of solar power to schools and public facilities—a project that is expected to pay for itself more than two times over in the next two decades. That fall, the city started running its first solar energy production site, “a major step forward in supporting the City’s 100 percent renewable energy goal by 2030,” says energy program coordinator Bridget Herring in a press release.
Other innovations to the environmental landscape of 2020 include the merging of two Buncombe County departments to create the Agriculture and Land Resources Department; completion of a nearly $40 million renovation project for North Fork Reservoir and North Fork Dam; and RiverLink’s Central Asheville Watershed Restoration Plan.
But of all the changes we’ve witnessed in 2020, improvements in air quality resulting from COVID-19 travel restrictions seem to have people asking the most questions. According to Ashley Featherstone, director of WNC Regional Air Quality Agency, it’s too early to tell. “It looks like air quality is better this year,” she says. “That could be related to travel restrictions, but we still need to conduct a thorough analysis to account for all the different factors.” Featherstone also says that air quality in the region had been improving long before the COVID-19 outbreak, and any positive changes resulting from the pandemic could be erased if we go back to the way things were.
That’s why, as we move into the new year, it’s important to focus on the wellbeing of our environment—setting our sights on moving ahead rather than falling behind. Because in helping the planet, we’re also helping ourselves.
To monitor Asheville’s solar energy generation in real time visit AshevilleNC.gov. More information about the climate in North Carolina is available at ncics.org.