Overcoming the “Green Divide”

15 Sep 2016

Significantly improved transparency, accountability, and data collection are needed to ensure California achieves the climate equity targets articulated in the newly signed climate protection bills, according to a coalition of environmental justice and labor union advocates.

“The two most daunting challenges are climate change and social equity,” said Rachel Morello-Frosch, professor of environmental science, policy and management at the University of California at Berkeley School of Public Health. She spoke during the Sept. 13 release of a report on steps needed to ensure the state’s new greenhouse gas pollution mitigation laws serve communities most in need to overcome the “green divide.”

The report, Advancing Equity in California’s Climate Policy, A New Social Contract for Low Carbon Transition, comes on the heels of AB 197 by Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella Valley) and SB 32 by Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) being signed into law. The latter sets a 40 percent greenhouse gas reduction goal below 1990 levels by 2030. The former requires that carbon cap-and-trade revenue provide direct environmental and economic benefits to disadvantaged communities.

“We do not pretend that agreement will be easy to forge: climate change is a complex challenge, and inequality is deeply embedded throughout our society,” states the report.

Just after its release, a handful of other bills were signed, which also focus on carbon emission reductions and funding, including in low-income communities.

The new report provides criteria to measure social justice in implementing the state’s new 2030 carbon emissions reduction goal.

The aim is to “maximize the benefits of the policies being put in place” to achieve full public health benefits and jobs that launch low-income residents into the middle class, said co-author Manuel Pastor, director of the environmental & regional equity program at the University of Southern California.

According to the report, one-third of California’s workers—4.8 million of whom are predominantly ethnic and racial minorities—are low wage earners, making less than $13.63/hour.

Although California’s climate policies since 2012 have allocated a quarter of the carbon auction funds to cutting carbon and other associated air pollutants in disadvantaged communities, their effectiveness is in serious doubt. That’s because industries can pay to reduce emissions outside of these neighborhoods of color plagued by toxic hot spots.

“And as evidence has mounted that public and ratepayer investments have concentrated in more-affluent populations, environmental justice organizations have worked to ensure that disadvantaged communities have access to renewable energy, zero emissions vehicles, and other low-carbon goods and services,” the report states.

Another goal of the new framework presented in the report is to help ensure good green energy jobs are created in these same neighborhoods. Labor and environmental justice advocates, however, don’t always agree on what those jobs should be—utility-scale renewables or community solar. The report provides strategies for finding common ground among the two, Pastor said.

Utility-scale renewables offer the best job prospects, while local solar projects are often low-wage with little chance of promotion. Energy efficiency jobs are mixed, with many poorly paid.

Cleaning up carbon pollution should be an integral part of reducing air pollution in low-income communities that house power plants and other industrial plants and are near freeways. Children and others breathe in “carbon accompanied by gunk coming out of cars and smokestacks of industries,” noted Kip Lipper, Senate Pro Tem Kevin De Leon’s chief advisor on energy and the environment.

Other recommendations in the report seeking to ensure low-income neighborhoods share equitably in the low carbon economy include:

  • Requiring labor standards, including prevailing wage and apprenticeship standards, at green energy projects funded by or mandated by the state.
  • Directing funds—be they from energy efficiency, distributed generation, weatherization, renewable generation, or Proposition 39 programs—towards the public sector. The Los Angeles Department of Water & Power’s weatherization program was singled out as an example to be emulated.
  • Expanding community solar projects, which give priority to developments in disadvantaged communities.
  • Creating a funding source to help fossil fuel industry workers and regions impacted by the move to a low carbon economy.
  • Collecting reliable, publicly available data to monitor the social justice impacts of the climate projection laws.

Elizabeth McCarthy

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