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Report: For Best Results, Address Equity and Climate Change Together

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California Governor Jerry Brown just signed major new climate change legislation, and people will be grappling for a while with what the new laws will mean on the ground—and how California will be able to achieve its new greenhouse gas reduction targets. Tomorrow, several state agencies will be tackling the question of how to reach those targets in the transportation sector—Streetsblog will have more coverage of that later.

Meanwhile, a new report from researchers at the University of Southern California and the University of California Berkeley sets out to guide the ongoing policy conversation by pointing out the interconnections between climate change and equity.

The report, Advancing Equity in California Climate Policy: A New Social Contract for Low-Carbon Transition, discusses why climate change policies need to address equity and outlines benefits that will accrue if the state gets it right:

While many economists—and more than a few politicians—believe that disparities are simply a necessary (although unfortunate) consequence of economic growth, recent research shows otherwise: high levels of inequality are toxic for economic prosperity and sustainability. Research on environmental and health disparities parallel this finding, revealing that environmental injustices have negative spillover effects for society at large.

“What is climate equity?” ask the authors. “How can it be defined in a way that promotes both good jobs and prioritizes those communities that are hardest hit by climate change, multiple environmental hazards, and socio-economic stressors?”

The report sets out to help create a framework under which policies like renewable energy standards, incentive programs, and cap and trade can be developed—and assessed. It calls for policies to promote environmental justice, economic equity, and public accountability.

Professor Manual Pastor, Director of the Center for Environmental and Regional Equity at USC and one of the authors of the report, said that a well-thought-out framework is key. It could allow policymakers to address more than just global greenhouse gas emissions by connecting them to associated pollutants that affect people's health directly and locally, he says. It could help educate the public about climate change and its connections to other health problems. And it could help create a mechanism for discussing tensions and trade-offs that will inevitably arise.

Kip Lipper, chief policy advisor on energy and the environment for Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De Leon, pointed out that the “signature achievement” of the just-completed legislative session—the passage of S.B. 32 along with “a whole suite of policies under the Climate Change portfolio”—came after “enormous effort over several years” by a large number of participants.

“It's critical that this not just be a conversation about one or two or three constituencies,” he said. “Implementing new targets won't be easy—and how we do it matters.”

Carol Zabin, a researcher at UC Berkeley and another co-author, said that the report “identifies ways we can reduce GHGs while making sure that low-income Californians don't bear the brunt of costs and also benefit from the transition to a clean economy.”

The right policies can bring economic benefits, but “it's more than about a net growth in jobs,” she said. The quality of new jobs created in a new green economy also matters, as do benefits and training. She pointed out several successful examples of green job creation and added, “The state also has to address the risk of job loss in fossil fuel industries. There hasn't been job loss so far, but the state needs to plan ahead to protect workers in communities where they might become declining industries.”

The report offers specific recommendations, including:

    • Expanding low carbon programs, like community solar programs and energy efficiency in the public and institutional sectors, that create good jobs and prioritize low-income communities—rather than focusing on individual homeowners and the more affluent, which can be hard for low-income people to access and provide benefits for fewer people
    • Promoting labor standards, including skilled workforce and local-hire provisions on renewable energy, energy efficiency, and other “green jobs”
    • Monitoring “pollution hotspots” in disadvantaged communities with strict evaluation and data collection that assesses the relationship between the cap-and-trade program and local emissions—and creating a route for action if data show a problem
    • Establishing “Green Zones” in California’s most disadvantaged communities to focus investments on comprehensive emissions reduction and community resilience, via community planning that includes environmental justice and labor organizations
    • Planning for protecting workers and communities who may later be affected as green industries replace greenhouse gas-emitting industries. California, said Zabin, has not experienced job loss in those sectors yet, but as the state reaches its GHG targets there may be a decline in oil and gas extraction and refining
    • Develop an annual Climate Equity Report to track equity outcomes and enable state officials to monitor whether equity goals have been reached and identify areas where climate policy should be improved

In addition to the framework and recommendations, the report also looks at how they have already been applied. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's low-income weatherization program, for example, was designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by funding energy efficiency retrofits for low-income households, while at the same time creating a training and employment program for entry-level utility workers.

The report also contains a detailed discussion of how tensions between the interests of environmental justice groups and labor organizations can be addressed, specifically referencing different models for creating solar projects.

Different priorities have put the two groups on “opposite sides in a number of critical legislative and regulatory deliberations,” says the report. “For the labor movement, utility-scale solar has provided good, mostly unionized, jobs with family-supporting wages, broad occupational training through apprenticeship, and a path to a career in the skilled trades. By comparison, most solar rooftop installers are non-union, are paid low wages, receive few benefits, and lack clear pathways for training.”

But environmental justice advocates see distributed rooftop solar as an opportunity to provide direct access to clean energy in disadvantaged communities, including jobs and investments in disadvantaged urban areas. “Because evidence shows that ratepayer subsidies and incentives for rooftop installation have thus far concentrated in higher-income groups in California, environmental justice groups have thought it important to support policies that promise to bring rooftop solar panels to disadvantaged communities, along with the benefits of utility bill savings and clean energy jobs.”

The industry is rapidly evolving, and the framework in the report offers a way for the two seemingly opposing groups to work together to achieve everyone's goals.

The full report is available here, and an executive summary that hits the highlights can be found here.

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