Don’t Overlook Equity Issues in City Climate-Action Plans

Cities that fail to make issues of equity and empowerment central to climate-action initiatives are not living up to the values of the movement, says a former mayor of Portland, Oregon.

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.

A startling number of city climate-action plans still fail to include equity in any meaningful way.

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.


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