Sam Adams is the former mayor of Portland, Oregon, and was the founding director of the World Resources Institute’s U.S. program. He is currently the Director of Strategy for CleanTech Methods, Inc.
The Global Climate Action summit in San Francisco began on Wednesday. This year’s goal: “Take Ambition to the Next Level.”
What is that next level? As part of the We Are Still In, Mayors Climate Alliance, and other city climate-action efforts, many U.S cities are creating their first ever climate-action plans; others are rewriting theirs to meet more ambitious goals. The next level is ensuring that these multi-year plans integrate equity considerations or risk perpetuating an unjust life for millions of already marginalized Americans.
The latest statistics on the state of urban equity in this country are mostly miserable: Gentrification is racially re-segregating cities; the urban income gap is widening, especially for people of color and women; homelessness is ruining a record number of lives and swamping local services.
Climate action can address these problems or make them worse, depending on whether the research and planning make equity and empowerment issues central to their approach.
What’s that mean? It’s easiest to explain through an example using a common climate action plan goal statement. Without equity: Collaborate to reduce the role of carbon—including from coal and natural gas sources—in a city’s electricity mix. With equity: Collaborate with utilities, customers and stakeholders to reduce the carbon content in a city’s electricity mix; mitigate any potential cost increases to low-income households by providing subsidies for energy efficiency retrofits that reduce their home energy use and its cost.
Programs to address carbon can stoke what academics call low-carbon gentrification. Cities that enacts measures to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions but fail to build in equity safeguards, likely will push more low-income ratepayers out of the city.
The Austin Energy Community Solar Project is an example of climate action equity done right. Austin, Texas, had a goal of achieving 65 percent renewable power supply by 2027 including local solar. But city officials realized that, while solar installations had increased, most had been by middle- and high-income single-family homeowners. Renters and lower-income residents faced various barriers to accessing solar, yet including these groups was recognized as crucial to facilitating community-wide growth and commitment. The Community Solar program reduced physical barriers to on-site solar and the city council allocated more resources to increase solar energy adoption and access for underserved markets. This project won the U.S. Conference of Mayor’s 2018 Climate Protection Award.
In Portland, Oregon, the incorporation of equity considerations in climate action plans is an effort that has been growing for the past decade, resulting in a “Climate Action through Equity” plan in 2016. This grew out of the Portland Plan, the citywide equity framework, and the Office of Equity and Human Rights we established during my tenure as mayor of the city to ensure that all programs and agencies included these considerations in their work.
In Portland, we also created a local nonprofit, Enhabit, to offer homeowners loans for residential energy efficiency upgrades, paid off with a charge on their utility bills. In a city with too few non-male and non-white tradespeople, we aimed to have the work done largely by women and minorities working with local equity partners, like the Oregon Minority Contractors Association and Oregon Tradeswomen, to make sure what we intended made sense on the ground. And, a national equity partner, Green for All, made sure we used best practices learned in other cities. Now, more national climate justice organizations stand ready to help cities integrate equity issues in their plans: Emerald Cities Collaborative, Environmental Health Coalition, WE ACT, and 100 Resilient Cities.
The movement for making equity and empowerment a central aspect of climate-action plans is growing and has taken hold in some cities as these examples show. Yet a startling number of city climate action plans still fail to include equity in any meaningful way.
In a recent study, Pursuing Equity and Justice in a Changing Climate, Assessing Equity in Local Climate and Sustainability Plans in U.S. Cities, Portland State University researcher Greg Schrock and his colleagues decided to quantify this problem, using different measurements to analyze climate and sustainability action plans from cities around the country.
One finding is that many cities, perhaps the vast majority, “ignore equity goals as part of their climate and sustainability plans, or at least treat them as secondary or tertiary goals relative to environmental and economic goals,”the researchers wrote.
We need to move climate action equity from an afterthought to the way cities go about their work. The American climate action movement can help American cities make strides in two important ways:
Develop protocols for cities to collect and report on climate equity
Data can drive action for change, as we’ve seen before in climate action. For example, before 2014, for over a decade, cities devised their own methods to evaluate greenhouse gas emissions or lacking methods, just didn’t evaluate them at all. With so many different ways of measuring (if any) it was hard to tell who was making progress and where, and what to really believe. Then, in 2014, the “Greenhouse Gas Emissions Protocols for Cities” were created. These protocols made it much easier a city to see how it was doing, face down the naysayers, compare to other cities, and learn from them.
We need “Climate Equity Protocols for Cities.” These goals would set measurable and more ambitious environment justice goals, be transparent, and ensure that cities measure both equity status and carbon emissions. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the United States could serve as the basis for creating these city equity reporting protocols.
Recognize the cities making strides in equity-driven climate change plans
Doing the difficult climate equity work should be rewarded. Cities get certifications as things like a Scenic City, Smart City, or are recognized in the US and Canada Green City Index, as a Tree City USA, or among the Best Places to Live. Cities use these to market themselves and to attract and retain businesses and workers. But few such programs include climate equity in their evaluations. For example, trees are often a very cost-effective urban climate action. Yet, there’s a major disparity in urban canopy covers. Generally, rich neighborhoods have trees; poor and minority neighborhoods don’t. The Tree City USA program could add the equity of a city’s tree canopy coverage to its evaluation criteria.
“Environment, economy and equity” have long been mentioned as three goals of the climate-change action community, but in our plans, we have most often dropped the last “E,” equity, leaving us with paltry results in our collective mainstream environmental justice efforts. This week, as leaders from the United States and around the world meet in San Francisco, this value should infuse their discussions.
And in the United States, as cities gear up for more ambitious long-term climate action plans, we find ourselves at an urban environmental crossroads. Cities will make choices on what kind of carbon-free future they plan for. The choices we make now will shape the social equity and inclusion of America’s urban life for decades to come.