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Greening Chapel Hill: Practical Environmental Actions for Change

Chapel Hill is home to students and residents who are passionate and knowledgeable about protecting the environment. Thus, we should be an environmental leader. We have a Climate Action Plan, but we have made little progress against it. It is time to revitalize that plan and focus on four specific actions to reduce our carbon footprint: protect our trees, produce zero-carbon buildings, go electric, and connect our trails.

Trees clean the air, reduce temperatures, and lower pollution. Thus, they are vital to protecting our environment. Yet, we are not protecting them. Recently, we have seen the loss of large sections of our tree canopy due to blunt clear-cutting of sites for development. Let’s stop this by strengthening our tree protection ordinance and working with developers to conserve the ceiling.

Developers should be required to find ways to build the trees into their design, preserving as many trees as possible, particularly mature trees that take decades to replace. The town could assist with this process by creating a Tree Board, which could work with developers to determine how to incorporate our existing canopy into their plans. This Board could also help direct a new, simple, proven policy requiring two new tree plantings for every tree cut down.

Saving our tree canopy is one of the lowest cost, aesthetically pleasing actions we can do today to protect our local environment for the future.

Buildings account for 39% of greenhouse gas emissions; thus, we need clear policies that guide building designs and construction in a way that reduces their carbon footprint. There are several options available to us, which include encouraging builders to use more solar panels, daylight buildings with more windows to reduce the amount of electricity needed to keep them lit, encouraging the use of environmentally responsible materials, and creating rooftop gardens.

It is possible to build buildings with zero carbon emissions. The Sancar Turkish building on East Franklin Street provides an excellent example to learn from. While a town cannot legally mandate everything developers choose to do, we can take advantage of opportunities as they arise. For example, should a developer request a zoning change to upzone, we can set policies on what that would require from an environmental perspective to offset the increased density. Those policies could include mandating solar panels, daylighting, and rain gardens.

Our world is rapidly moving towards electric vehicles. In fact, in Q1 of 2023, an electric car (the Tesla Model Y) became the top-selling car in the world. Chapel Hill should be part of this environmental trend. When buying new town vehicles, we should purchase electric vehicles to have an all-electric fleet eventually.

Chapel Hill should encourage the addition of more electric charging stations to encourage visitors to our town to drive electric vehicles as well as encourage our residents to buy electric—instead of building car parks like the $48M that is being built in downtown Chapel Hill now.

Electric or not, ultimately, we would like to help our residents rely less on their cars. We can do this by connecting our trails and greenways such that more of us can walk or bike to school, work, and downtown. Other ways to reduce car reliance are to support the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system and invest in a bike-sharing program. We need these safer bike lanes and connected paths to give our residents the choice of going places without adding to our carbon footprint.

Chapel Hill has the popular will and the knowledge to make real progress in protecting our environment. We need to do more than write a Climate Action Plan. We need to take the steps to help ensure that the Chapel Hill we pass on to our children is as green as the one we inherited.

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