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Putting Equity Front and Center of Climate Change Solutions

As organizations around the world work toward keeping temperature rise to 1.5°C, we are faced with the challenge of ensuring that clean energy strategies benefit all. Just as certain communities are disproportionally affected by climate change, communities can also benefit and be harmed disproportionally by climate change solutions. That is why it is crucial that any work to combat climate change and move the energy transition forward keep equity front and center.

Fully moving our society off of fossil fuels means finding solutions that work for everyone, regardless of income or access to resources. Therefore, whether it is frontline communities in the United States or unelectrified communities in Ethiopia, if we don’t make the energy transition work for marginalized or vulnerable groups, the transition will fail. While we don’t have all the answers for how to achieve an equitable transition, it’s essential for us to analyze the main issues we need to face and how we can ensure inclusivity.


Affordable Electrification of Housing

An important aspect of the energy transition that RMI is working on in the United States is the electrification of buildings. By trying to get fossil fuels out of buildings we’re galvanizing a new market and a new way of doing things. Although in new construction all-electric homes can be cheaper, replacing existing gas appliances with all-electric alternatives, such as heat pumps and induction stoves, can come with a high-up front cost. This makes them harder to attain for lower-income families in existing homes.

In the past, the adoption of new technologies has often relied on wealthy early adopters to bring down the cost (think solar panels and electric vehicles). Then, once there is enough uptake by higher-income populations, the technologies become more affordable to the general public. Although useful in galvanizing deployment, this approach can disproportionately benefit wealthier families and exacerbate wealth gaps.

We must ensure that as wealthier people invest in electric appliances and defect from the gas infrastructure, the cost to maintaining that infrastructure does not get put on lower-income families and communities. To do so we must move at the speed of trust, ensuring that communities impacted by these projects see their benefits, share in wealth creation opportunities, and are part of the process in defining our approach.

“With building electrification, we are trying to disrupt the status quo,” says Ana Sophia Mifsud, a senior associate in RMI’s Carbon-Free Buildings team. “And that means we have a unique opportunity to recognize and fix many of the systemic issues with housing. Let’s make healthy housing more accessible to more people. As we make this change, let’s make sure we’re not repeating some of the same problems that exist today.”


Affordable Vehicle Electrification

Electrifying vehicles is one of the main strategies of the energy transition. However, the benefits of vehicle electrification have accrued mainly in wealthier communities. There have not been affordable electric cars nor reasonable access to charging in low-income communities. That needs to change if there is going to be a ban on the sale of internal combustion engine cars by 2030 or 2035. The United States must invest in EV charging infrastructure in low-income communities and provide financing and incentives to make EVs more affordable. However, there are also other ways that low-income communities can benefit from electrification.

Air pollution is worse in communities of color and low-income communities. One reason is that big freight depots and ports, where emissions are concentrated, tend to be sited in low-income areas. Electrifying buses and freight trucks can go a long way to improving that. It will not only help clean the air in these areas but will also provide less hazardous working environments for employees.


Combatting the Transportation Desert

Beyond electrification, it needs to be easier and safer for people to move around without a personal vehicle. Instead of expanding highways (which have historically been built in low-income communities and communities of color), we should be investing in public transit and pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure.

“These alternatives can be an order of magnitude less carbon-intensive than driving a personal gas-powered vehicle,” says Zack Subin, a senior associate in RMI’s US program. “As we make the energy source cleaner for personal vehicles, we must also serve the segments of the population that can’t drive due to age, disability, or the price of car ownership. Unfortunately, governments are continuing to both explicitly and implicitly subsidize driving, leaving a big equity solution underutilized.”

Currently, many low-income areas are transportation deserts. “These communities have infrastructure that creates negative impacts [highways] and don’t have the infrastructure that they need,” says RMI principal Dave Mullaney. We must work on decreasing the overall burden of pollution from transportation on these communities and increase the infrastructure that will improve their transportation options while decreasing emissions.


Including Equity in Decarbonization Models

At RMI, we often take an analytical approach and use different modeling tools to help us in our work. Our deep decarbonization modeling helps states and cities find the least-cost investments in electricity, transportation, buildings, and industry to meet their climate goals. However, modeling tools such as these often overemphasize technological solutions and their economic costs. Just because something is “least cost” and technologically achievable does not mean it is equitable.

We are among many organizations focusing on how to incorporate equity into these analytical models. Unfortunately, many of the assumptions in these models are based on the racist and classist history of land use and zoning in this country. We need to not only change the assumptions but also understand how costs and benefits accrue differently to different groups. This is our opportunity to focus not only on technological solutions, but also more holistic social solutions that improve people’s daily lives and improve equity more directly.

“In these models, you enter certain inputs and expect certain outputs,” explains Leia Guccione, managing director of RMI’s Carbon-Free Electricity Team. “We need to question those inputs and outputs. We need to invite diverse perspectives to help us decide what the inputs should be and what we want as outputs.”


Equity in Different Contexts

In emerging economies, there may be different equity issues at play. In Ethiopia, for example, RMI is working on bringing electricity to rural communities through electrifying productive use activities. Through our analysis we found that grain flour milling has strong potential for immediate electrification, improving the profits for mill processors throughout the country. However, grain milling is currently a male-dominated field, leaving out half of the population. As we try to improve the lives of women, we need to not only provide ways for women to enter the field (through things such as easier access to financing) but also understand the goals and barriers faced by women in those communities.

According to Kester Wade, a senior associate on RMI’s Africa, Islands, and Southeast Asia team, the questions we need to ask include “Does she want to be a mill processor? How does that fit into her day? Does she have other requirements at home making it difficult to pursue these opportunities?” In an upcoming pilot program, we will be meeting with women in a focus group to answer some of these questions.


Equity on a Global Level

Equity must be looked at on a global level as well. High-income countries have put a huge amount of emissions into the atmosphere using up a large portion of the earth’s greenhouse gas budget. Yet emerging economies need to be able to develop and improve people’s quality of life. While currently these countries emit a small percentage of greenhouse gases, they are the fastest growing populations. How just is it to not allow them to emit in order to develop economically? According to RMI senior associate Katie Mulvaney, “If we can’t resolve that dilemma, it’s a real barrier to global cooperation on climate change. And we desperately need global cooperation to succeed in the energy transition.”

It is also important to take the time to develop solutions that are scalable to the rest of the world. “We may be able to electrify our own single-family homes and personal cars in wealthy areas of the United States,” says Subin. “But that is not necessarily scalable to the global population. We need approaches that are scalable to wider regions of the globe.”


Who’s Not at the Table?

One of the most important things to keep in mind when incorporating equity in climate change solutions is to involve the communities that are being affected. The people closest to the problem are closest to the solution and can provide insights that distant planners miss. As such, it is crucial that frontline communities and a host of diverse voices are involved in the process, and that solutions be developed with local community partners. These can be community-based organizations that are doing energy and climate-related work or organizations that have community connections through environmental justice projects or other campaigns.

Among other things, this can help in understanding the history of race and the income distribution in a particular community. It can help surface what the most important issues are and what kind of entrenched inequity you’re going to be up against.

“You have to ask who’s not at the table,” says Guccione. “Why are they not at the table? How long have they not been at the table? What are we not thinking about because they aren’t at the table? You have unknown unknowns until you are inviting new perspectives and stakeholders to be part of the process.”

For example, in our Africa work, coming in with a high-income US-centric perspective is both alienating to partners and can lead to solutions that don’t work for locals. That is why we have prioritized staffing our Africa team with people from and based in the countries in which we work. “Our priority might be energy, but that could be at odds with the priorities of people in sub-Saharan Africa. Maybe they consider health or economic development first,” says Wade. “We need to ensure that everything we do is shaped and formed by the local stakeholders themselves.”


Clean and Prosperous Communities for All

These are only some of the many equity issues we need to be aware of when working on climate change solutions. Although the climate emergency requires quick and drastic action, that action also must be just. We must ensure that the changes we make in the energy transition minimize impacts to energy customers, workers, and frontline communities. And even further, we must assure that the changes provide healthy community development, for all.