Op-Ed: Environmental Justice Is Key Aspect of Climate-Change Policy

Nicky Sheats | November 3, 2017 | Opinion
Climate-change mitigation must not only reduce carbon dioxide emissions but also reduce the disproportionate amount of pollution in many environmental-justice communities

Nicky Sheats
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) has produced evidence that suggests there are race- and income-based inequalities in our state connected to the amount of pollution in New Jersey neighborhoods. The evidence was yielded by a nascent cumulative-impacts screening tool created by the NJDEP. In this context, cumulative impacts can be thought of as a very rough estimate of the total amount of pollution in a neighborhood.

Data produced by the tool shows that as communities of color grow larger or the number of low-income residents in a neighborhood increases so does the estimated amount of pollution. This unfortunate reality goes against everything the state and nation profess to stand for when it comes to race and income-based justice and explains why there is an environmental justice (EJ) movement in this country. It also forms the basis for a debate over climate-change mitigation policy between the environmental justice community and the environmental movement and policymakers.

The New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance (NJEJA) and its allies on both a state and a national level want to use climate-change mitigation policy to not only fight climate change by reducing carbon dioxide emissions but to also reduce the disproportionate amount of pollution that currently exists in many EJ communities (i.e., communities of color and low-income communities). The NJEJA wants polluting facilities that fall under a climate-change mitigation policy and that are located in EJ communities to be forced to reduce emissions. Such a policy would reduce carbon dioxide emissions and probably also decrease other air pollutants in EJ communities that are emitted along with carbon dioxide. These other pollutants, often called greenhouse-gas co-pollutants, are harmful to the health of local residents. Reducing emissions of these co-pollutants would be an important step towards improving the health of residents in communities often overburdened with pollution.

The problem is that the primary policy mechanism currently being implemented and supported by environmental groups and policymakers to fight climate change is carbon trading and it doesn’t guarantee emissions reductions in EJ communities or from any specific facility. Instead, it largely allows the market to determine where reductions occur. There is an existing carbon-trading program in the northeast named the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) that once included New Jersey. Gov. Chris Christie pulled the state out of RGGI but many environmental groups and environmentally conscious people want New Jersey back in. The NJEJA opposes New Jersey rejoining RGGI since it doesn’t guarantee consistent emissions reductions in EJ communities over time. The NJEJA believes that important equity decisions such as where emissions reductions occur should not be entirely decided by the market but should be planned and intentional. For this and other reasons, there should be an open and informative discussion on the merits and drawbacks of RGGI before a final decision is made regarding returning to the program.

The NJEJA favors utilization of the Global Warming Response Act, a New Jersey Law that mandates reductions of carbon dioxide emissions to fight climate change. A regulatory system implemented pursuant to the Global Warming Response Act would be more compatible to NJEJA’s emissions-reductions recommendation than a market system like RGGI. However, we are urging that our mandatory emissions-reductions recommendation be part of any coherent climate-change mitigation state policy whether it is regulatory or market-based. Therefore, if the New Jersey state government chooses to rejoin RGGI over the objections of the state’s EJ community it should at least incorporate NJEJA’s mandatory emissions-reduction recommendation into any state climate-change policy that is developed.

It is important to note that several environmental groups and alliances are supporting the NJEJA’s mandatory emissions-reduction recommendation as tangible evidence of their concern for EJ and equity. The NJEJA appreciates their support and hopes others will follow their example.

There are several other important EJ policies that should also be included in a New Jersey mitigation policy. The use of energy efficiency and renewable energy will be a critical part of efforts to turn away from a fossil fuel-based energy system. However, special efforts must be made to ensure that these important tools are available in EJ communities. In addition, residents of EJ communities and organizations that work with them must be meaningfully involved in the development of a state climate-change policy.

Our nation’s battle against climate change has the potential to significantly change our society and if it is conducted in a “business as usual” manner it could perpetuate or exacerbate currently existing inequalities that are rooted in race and income. To ensure this does not occur, New Jersey must incorporate EJ and equity into any state climate-change policy. To that end, the NJEJA urges the state’s next governor to adopt the recommendations discussed in this essay. In addition to ensuring there is an open discussion on the merits and drawbacks of rejoining RGGI the recommendations include:

  • Ensuring there are mandatory emissions reductions in EJ communities;
  • Ensuring that EJ communities have access to energy efficiency and renewable energy;
  • Ensuring that EJ communities and organizations that work with them are involved in the development of any state climate-change plan.
  • Implementation of these recommendations would be a demonstration of the new governor’s commitment to EJ and equity.