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UNC-Chapel Hill students march for end of coal, fossil fuel use on campus

Liz Schlemmer

A large crowd of UNC-Chapel Hill students marched across their campus today urging for climate action.

“No more coal! No more oil! Keep that carbon in the soil!” first-year student Ember Penney called into a megaphone.

The UNC-Chapel Hill students held the march in conjunction with the 2022 Global Climate Strike — an international youth movement for climate action — with a focus on local solutions for their campus.

Penney helped organize the march to call for the university to put more concrete, short-term benchmarks in its Climate Action Plan. The university's stated goal is to reach greenhouse gas neutrality by 2040.

“We're still using an on-campus coal-burning power plant. A lot of the deadlines are listed as 'to be determined' and so today we're going to try to speed up the process,” Penney said.

She said she’s frustrated that without short-term deadlines in place, the university’s goal post for carbon neutrality has moved back and forth.

In 2010, UNC-Chapel Hill’s former chancellor Holden Thorp announced the university planned to end its use of coal by 2020. The university then changed its goal to being greenhouse gas neutral by 2050 — without promising an end to coal — then moved that goal up to 2040.

The university continues to operate a coal-burning power plant on campus today.

The Center for Biological Diversity has alleged that based on air modeling conducted by experts, the permit that the state of North Carolina has issued UNC-Chapel Hill allows its coal production to cause high levels of ambient air pollution across campus and Chapel Hill. The center lost a lawsuit against UNC-Chapel Hill in 2021, and is currently petitioning the EPA to object to UNC’s permit because of its effect on air quality.

“UNC-Chapel Hill stands alone as the greatest air polluter in Orange County,” said Perrin de Jong of the Center for Biological Diversity in an interview with WUNC.

Penney echoed those allegations at the demonstration.

“A lot of UNC students don’t know this, but just by standing here in ‘The Pit’ we are breathing in elevated levels of [nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide],” Penney said before a crowd of students. “Why? Because we have a coal-burning power plant on campus.”

Liz Schlemmer
During the demonstration, students called the chancellor’s office to ask for more immediate goals and benchmarks for the university’s climate action plan, which seeks to be greenhouse gas neutral by 2040. Juniors Deeksha Mittal (left) and Max Lewin (right), pictured here, joined the protest on March 25, 2022.

Tariro Magarira is a junior majoring in environmental science who attended the march. He said he’d like to see the university hire more faculty and admit more students into its Environment, Ecology and Energy Program.

“It’s severely lacking in diversity,” Magarira said, adding that he’d like to have more class discussions about environmental justice for communities of color in North Carolina.

Magarira said he hopes more students will be inspired to take action in favor of climate justice.

“It's not about solving climate change individually,” Magarira said. “Advocate for what you can in your community and hopefully we can have a more clean and equitable future.”

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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