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More solar panels, pedestrian paths among Charleston climate plan to cut carbon emissions

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Charleston officials released a "climate action plan" to help the city cut down on its carbon emissions, which are contributing to global warming and sea level rise. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Charleston officials unveiled a new list of potential strategies this week to help the city shrink its carbon footprint and limit how many tons of heat-trapping gases it pumps into the atmosphere every year.

The "climate action plan" seeks to limit Charleston's role in global warming by cutting down on the carbon dioxide emissions tied to the city's buildings, its fleet of vehicles and its waste streams. 

The city's Office of Resilience and Sustainability is asking Charleston residents to weigh in on the new plan before it is voted on by City Council later this year. 

Many of the proposals focus on how the city government can cut down on its own carbon emissions by upgrading buildings to make them more energy-efficient, installing solar panels and battery storage technology on city offices, and transitioning the city's vehicles away from gas and diesel engines. 

But the plan also lays out changes that will help Charleston residents cut down on their carbon footprints, too. That list of ideas includes installing charging stations for electric vehicles throughout the city, expanding opportunities for people to compost more food waste, and building more pedestrian pathways to increase the number of people who walk or bike to work. 

“The success of our climate action plan is largely dependent on participation from the community, which is why we’ve made it a priority to engage our citizens from the start," said Katie McKain, the city's director of sustainability. "Their input is at the heart of our current draft list of strategies, and will continue to shape the plan in all its forms until a final version is adopted.”

McKain and her team created a survey to solicit input from city residents this week. It is also holding a virtual meeting on March 24 to listen to what people have to say about the action plan. 

Many large cities in surrounding states have already developed similar plans laying out their emission reduction goals, including Raleigh, Charlotte, Atlanta and Miami.

At this point, McKain said the broad goal for Charleston is to have net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. That means the city eliminates part of its emissions and offsets the remaining emissions by restoring forests or undertaking other projects that pull carbon out of the atmosphere. 

In 2018, Charleston, its residents and its businesses were estimated to have produced 1.3 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. 

Charleston, in many ways, is on the front lines in the battle against climate change, as rising sea levels and more powerful rainstorms threaten to swamp parts of the city in the coming decades. 

The city's elected leaders are already preparing for that reality, spending millions of dollars on stormwater improvements and flood protection measures. City Council is even considering the construction of a new seawall to help protect the Charleston peninsula against powerful hurricanes and major storm surge.  

The new action plan is the opposite side of that coin. Instead of focusing on how to protect Charleston from the side effects of a warming planet, it will enable the city to do its part to curb rising global temperatures. 

"Charleston has felt firsthand the very real impacts of climate change — an increase in flooding, more frequent storms and sea level rise, to name a few," the city wrote in the March 22 release announcing the climate action plan. "Both adaptation and carbon reduction strategies will be required to protect the city and its resources now and in the future." 

Belvin Olasov, who took part in the panels that developed the action plan, said he was pleased to see Charleston formally recognize the "existential threat" of climate change and to highlight the ways the city contributes to global warming. 

"I'm extremely happy to see this movement," said Olasov, who helped found the Charleston Climate Coalition, a new advocacy organization. "You can't solve a problem unless you have it clearly identified." 

Still, Olasov emphasized that adopting the plan won't curb the city's carbon emissions on its own. The new initiatives that are outlined will take further action by City Council in the coming years to work. Otherwise, the plan will just be words on paper. 

"I see this as the beginning of what will be a continuing process," Olasov said. 

The final action plan is expected to be presented to council by the end of April. 

Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.

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