The blog of the Urban Institute
September 19, 2019

Six Ways to Prioritize Equity in Energy Efficiency and Climate Policy

September 19, 2019

Millions of students and activists across the globe plan to march Friday to demand public action on climate change. Among other calls for action, the Global Climate Strike’s organizers are demanding “climate justice for everyone”—a socially equitable approach to reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change (in other words, climate mitigation) while addressing the effects we are already seeing (climate adaptation).

The strikers’ demands are the latest chapter in the story of environmental justice scholars and advocates calling for equity in addressing climate change. Robert Bullard and Beverly Wright have pointed to how pollutants and toxic sources have disproportionately harmed people of color and low-income communities, and Dorceta Taylor and Julian Brave NoiseCat have shown that the US environmental movement has historically not prioritized equity.

Today’s climate justice activists are applying that same lens when they highlight the dangers these US communities face from climate change’s effects—increased coastal and riverine flooding, longer heat waves and droughts, and more frequent and intense severe weather—all while lacking the financial and political resources and social networks to weather the storm and bounce back.

But today’s marchers are also calling for something new. They demand that proactive access to the benefits of climate mitigation actions be as equitable as our climate adaptation reactions. Through policies, regulations, and programs that expand energy-efficient retrofits of buildings, renewable energy sources and storage, and transportation not reliant on fossil fuels, climate mitigation can also break a historical pattern in which environmental amenities are reserved for only a few.

Climate equity, then, means more than just distributing the risks fairly; it also means equitably distributing the benefits. This sentiment echoes the principles in a Green New Deal, the legislative policy resolution proposed earlier this year as a framework for environmental, economic, labor, and social transformation in response to the climate challenge. The resolution prioritizes communities who have historically suffered from past environmental harm.

Steps for equity action in energy efficiency advancements

Defining and measuring climate equity are no small tasks. In a newly released white paper coauthored with the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative and supported by the Energy Trust of Oregon, Urban Institute researchers begin to pin down theories of equity measurement for the energy efficiency field. Based on the established scholarship of a rising group of energy justice researchers, we found six dimensions for energy equity action:

1. Acknowledge the historical legacies of energy systems.

Energy production and distribution is complex and varies across the country. From taking over tribal lands for a hydroelectric dam to siting transmission substations in low-income communities, energy providers need to be aware of past injustices implicated in their regional energy infrastructure.

2. Identify and understand the specific populations in an energy service territory.

An energy service may not know all consumers’ usage rates and energy use behaviors or know if they receive aid from programs like the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program or the Weatherization Assistance Program.  Better information for each population can lead to tailored energy efficiency interventions.

3. Include all energy consumers at each level of design, staffing, and execution.

Engaging all community members in designing energy improvement programs is a start, but making them a decisionmaker goes even further toward equitable stewardship of energy resources.

4. Ensure eligibility and applications for an energy service are not discriminatory.

Reviewing marketing materials for energy efficiency programs can improve basic access, and minimizing regressive costs and inconveniences for low-income households will increase interest in the service.

5. Monitor differences in energy use and efficiency program take-up across groups.

The quality of interventions can vary widely—sometimes intentionally. Elderly households, for example, may need additional guidance for newer technologies. Programs should ensure that all services are equally available, but they should also pay close attention to why and how some services don’t result in the same completion rates.

6. Confirm that gaps in life outcomes, such as health and financial conditions, are shrinking.

The energy services world is starting to look at energy’s financial burden, energy poverty, and the health effects of energy access (often tied to substandard housing). These life outcomes are the ultimate test for whether energy services are a productive means to broader social and economic ends.

The paper also surveys possible equity-related measurement techniques and data sources, while being conscious (PDF) of the limitations—and opportunities—for public- and private-sector energy providers.

Why we need a structural shift in how we measure equity

Energy efficiency is one of several strategies for mitigating future climate change, and mitigation is only one side of the climate action coin. But the social and economic equity dimensions and possible measures could be the same for policymaking across all these areas.

If equity means rethinking the underlying social structures and institutions that resulted in unequal conditions, then measuring equity also means changing how we quantify and qualify who in America is served and how.

Climate scientists and Friday's marchers are demanding change to institutions now. So our capacity to measure equity must ramp up too.

A worker in Los Angeles, CA, installs a greywater system, which diverts discarded water from sinks and washing machines away from sewage lines and recycles it for later use. Photo by Citizen of the Planet/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

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