Berkeley Blog, Opinion

Embrace equity to win on climate goals

By Carol Zabin and Manuel Pastor

California has taken a historic stride by setting the next generation of targets for greenhouse gas emissions cuts — and in the process, a new political coalition has emerged that will be sorely needed in the daunting task of figuring out how to actually meet those goals.

The two landmark climate bills signed Thursday by Gov. Jerry Brown cemented an unexpectedly strong alliance of labor unions, grassroots “environmental justice” organizations and environmentalists. In the face of business opposition, these groups helped pass SB32, a bill to require a 40 percent emissions reduction by 2030, by pairing it with a companion bill, AB197, designed to ensure that emissions reductions and job benefits actually occur in less advantaged neighborhoods.

advancingequityA research report we co-authored analyzes these groups’ concerns and identifies strategies that can build public support for the wide-ranging emissions cuts that must be accomplished in the years ahead.

For environmental justice advocates, the key concerns are that low-income communities of color be identified as locations for environmental clean-up, clean energy projects and good green jobs. Research has shown that incentives for residential rooftop solar and clean cars have gone disproportionately to more affluent people, forcing those left out to advocate separate programs for renters and low-income drivers.

Similarly, labor unions and their allies have been concerned that not all the jobs generated by climate policy are good jobs. The building trades and other unions fear that the nationwide trend toward income inequality will spread within the low-carbon sector, replacing good jobs in conventional energy infrastructure with “green” (clean energy) jobs that do not offer enough “green” (wages) to keep families in the middle class.

A climate equity agenda responds directly to these concerns. We suggest tackling potential pollution hot spots in disadvantaged communities through strict data collection and analysis that assesses the relationship of cap-and-trade expenditures and local emissions, with a trigger for corrective action if excessive pollution is found. Similarly, incentives for households and businesses to invest in low-carbon technologies can reach low-income families if participation is not built around home ownership or other forms of wealth.

While the utility-scale renewables sector has produced career-track, family-supporting jobs, this is not true of all clean energy jobs. Labor and skilled workforce standards, including local-hire provisions, can be an integral component of all emissions-reduction regulations.

Although California’s climate regulations have not resulted in job loss so far, jobs could be at risk as cutbacks go deeper, especially in oil production and refining. Strategies are needed to protect displaced workers and communities, including retraining, community economic redevelopment and environmental remediation. All this is possible and affordable.

Social equity and emissions reductions are not always easy to pair, and we acknowledge that in some cases there are trade-offs. But a clear-eyed analysis of winners and losers can help creative problem-solving to find the sweet spots in which lower emissions, good jobs and community benefits can be achieved simultaneously.

One example is community-scale solar, which involves decentralized, midsize solar projects that are larger and thus lower-cost than solar rooftop on individual homes. Community solar can be located in poor areas, does not require homeownership, and can be contracted to include prevailing wage standards and entry into apprenticeship programs for local residents.

As the Golden State embarks on this phase of climate action, it needs to design climate policy in ways that engage workers and disadvantaged communities. A new, green social contract will ensure that all Californians benefit directly from the clean energy future.

This post originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on September 12, 2016. You can read it here.