Historically marginalized communities are at risk of losing out on the benefits of a green transition. As policymakers and organizations invest in a low-carbon economy, they must build strategies that intentionally deliver green jobs, infrastructure and improved health outcomes for the communities that need them the most.
Actions and policies of the past impact present day society in profound ways. For minority communities in the United States, decades of discriminatory policies have driven these communities to live in neighborhoods that were consistently, systemically deprived of clean air, quality education and local, high-wage jobs. Research now shows that these populations are also predicted to be the most negatively impacted by the effects of climate change, but least likely to benefit from the economic activity exacerbating it.
Today, as billions of dollars are invested in green infrastructure and green jobs, decision makers have the unique opportunity to channel those investments to support the communities that need them the most. However, recent research reveals a concerning trend: early clean energy investments have not been distributed equally. In this article, our experts explore how this disparity is taking shape in Southern California and propose four key actions that decision makers can take to drive environmental justice, ensuring a clean and equitable transition.
Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies (EPA).
Like many American cities from 1930 to 1970, San Diego, California used redlined maps to inform mortgage lending and refinancing options. While residents in designated zones (Grades A and B) could easily access loans, those in Grade C and D zones, occupied by a majority of Black and Hispanic residents, were deemed to be higher risk and offered either unfavorable loan terms or no loans at all.
These discriminatory policies, known as redlining, were officially outlawed in 1977, but their effects endure today. Not dissimilar to the climate feedback loop, where the impacts of climate change compound and accelerate the warming of our planet, a socio-economic feedback loop continues to perpetuate the cycle of inequity in disadvantaged communities. Residents in the historically Grade C and D zones continue to experience lower home values, lower median household income, higher unemployment rates and significantly poorer health outcomes.
As seen in Figure 2, due to their proximity to heavy polluting industries, residents of Grade C and D zones experience a greater concentration of diesel particulate matter and elevated rates of asthma.
Inequalities are also playing out in terms of access to clean infrastructure. According to an ENGIE Impact analysis, current zip codes that had substantial grade C and D zones contain the highest proportion of black residents in the county and have significantly less access to electric vehicles and supporting infrastructure.
San Diego County averages about 8 EVs per 1,000 residents and has 855 total public charging stations, with roughly 12 charging stations per zip code. The analysis revealed that a zip code in zones A&B has 75% more EVs compared to zones C&D and is 92% more likely to have access to charging stations.
These outcomes are not limited to San Diego alone. How can policy makers, corporations and institutions ensure a more equitable clean transition?
The low-carbon transition presents a transformative moment in history. Significant investment, new policies and broad public support present a unique opportunity to begin to address the deeply entrenched social and racial inequities. Low-emissions transportation, specifically, offers a uniquely beneficial opportunity to low-income and minority populations. These new investments can dramatically reduce vehicle pollution, improve mobility access, and create green jobs for the marginalized communities that need them the most.
When designing policies that offer the potential to transform underserved communities, amplifying the voices of the community is critical. To better understand the needs of the community, officials should actively engage with local stakeholders, including residents and community leaders. Local policymakers and community groups should explore starting petitions, encouraging participation in public town halls and sharing resources that enable their communities to co-develop the future investment and infrastructure decisions in their neighborhoods.
To successfully deploy equitable zero-emissions transportation, policies must not only tackle the cost of electric vehicles but also ensure that charging stations are affordable and convenient for minority communities.
At the federal level, President Biden’s “Build Back Better” program includes a strong $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan that emphasizes the development of a “modern, resilient climate infrastructure and clean energy future.” A key pillar of the Build Back Better agenda defines and acknowledges racial disparity through plans for direct investments to advance racial equity as a part of the nation’s economic recovery. President Biden proposes to integrate equity as a vital criterion in bold infrastructure and clean energy investments to improve access to affordable housing for black, brown and native families – among other initiatives. Efforts to bring the pillar to life is evident through increasing partnerships with local communities on several buckets of funding, including, but not limited to the allocation of $600M for EVs and charging infrastructure to aid the transition to zero carbon government fleets, paving the way for a cleaner and more equitable transportation network across the nation.
At the local level, California’s Driving Clean Assistance Program provides a template for equitable low-carbon policy. By offering grants and guaranteeing low-interest rate loans for individuals beneath a designated wage threshold, these policies catalyze adoption in lower income communities by making electric vehicles more cost competitive with their emissions-intensive counterparts. To ensure these funds are appropriately allocated, there is a dedicated effort to formally define ‘disadvantaged communities’, facilitating coordination between agencies and channeling monies to those communities for a range of initiatives. For example, several utilities in California have special incentives for EV charging infrastructure when located in disadvantaged communities.
However, without supporting infrastructure to assist those without access to home charging, (e.g., those without designated parking or a garage with a power supply), charging will become prohibitively expensive and inconvenient. Leveraging grant dollars from, for example, the Department of Transportation’s Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) can help fund the dissemination of needed charging infrastructure.
As companies embark on their own green transition, they, too, play an important role in building the equitable infrastructure of tomorrow. To electrify their own corporate fleets, many companies are investing in solar farms and charging infrastructure. As they plan these investments, they should consider expanding the green benefits to neighboring communities, especially disadvantaged and underserved ones. Granting or expanding access to residents so that they may utilize charging infrastructure or green spaces can stimulate the local economy and have a direct positive impact on the local communities’ own green transition. To do so, organizations can use geospatial tools to inform planning efforts, mapping vulnerable populations against their own economic activity to identify ideal locations for infrastructure investments.
Providing underserved communities access to quality green jobs is vital for an equitable green transition. Educational institutions, including technical and trade schools, community colleges, and universities, should be provided sufficient resources to equip the new generation of students with the right knowledge, skillsets, and tools to excel in this new era of green economy.
As companies, school districts and other organizations continue to electrify their fleets and build charging infrastructure, they should work with suppliers and vendors that are classified as a disadvantage business enterprise (DBE). Doing so will promote green jobs in minority communities, diversity in small-business ownership, greater economic activity and an increased transfer of knowledge for underserved populations.
Though it will take decades to right the wrongs of historical inequities, we face a unique opportunity to catalyze action and investment toward an equitable low-carbon transition. If done well, this transition offers tremendous potential to transform the lives of marginalized communities. There is no shortage of creative ways in which governments, communities, corporations and institutions can unlock a more equitable transition.
Change and disruption of the existing transportation network is inevitable, but worsening inequality doesn’t have to be.
Let’s get to work.