Equality versus Equity – What does it all mean? (Part 2)

There are many connections between our climate, health, environment, economics, and social structure and we have seen throughout history examples of how the interconnections work. Globally and at a local level, we are facing an increased number of extreme weather events (e.g. flooding, extreme heat or cold temperatures, etc.) that result in economic loss, detrimental health and environmental effects, and reduced resiliency for communities. Furthermore, when considering the economic effects of climate change alone, it has been shown that on a global scale vulnerability to climate change is inversely tied to gross domestic product, as shown in the figure.[1] This means that it is often the groups and countries that are already less prosperous that will be most dramatically impacted by climate change.

Figure 1. Vulnerability to Climate Change and Gross Domestic Product

Figure 1. Vulnerability to Climate Change and Gross Domestic Product

Within every community there are many activities that contribute to the changing climate through the release of greenhouse gas emissions and related environmental impacts; this includes activities in transportation, electricity use, wastewater treatment, solid waste, industrial processes, and agriculture. Often, the environmental impact of these activities may dis-proportionally affect certain members and groups within the entire community. Taking an equity lens can be useful in understanding how to mitigate environmental impacts in a way that brings benefits to the entire community and does not create undue harm to particularly vulnerable groups. 

A good example of how one can take an equity lens can be found with community electricity generation and use. The fossil fuels that have historically been used for electricity generation are extracted (typically) from less populated, poorer, and disadvantaged areas of the country. Processing and refining plants may also be located in or near these disadvantaged communities. The extraction, processing, and combustion of the fossil fuels causes air pollution, which then impacts the health of surrounding populations, and can also cause other adverse effects including spills, contamination, and accidents. The communities most impacted by the close proximity of these activities do not typically receive significant economic benefit from the extraction, processing, and use of these fossil fuels. A solution to reducing the impact on these front line communities, and toward reducing the environmental impact of electricity generation in general, is through transitioning to renewable energy for electricity generation. Doing so will result in increased economic resilience by creating more jobs, reduced poor air quality and related health impacts to the front line communities that are located near fossil fuel extraction and processing sites, and overall emission reductions from electricity.

However, even with the example provided above of a potential equitable solution to how electricity is generated, there are always challenges and there is no one size fits all solution. The specific needs of the community require careful consideration to identify the most equitable and sustainable strategies to address the challenges of today. Increasing the use of solar energy through a community solar garden may work well in one area, whereas in another it may not because of the cost to subscribers, the approval process, the requirements surrounding how many subscribers need to qualify as low-income, etc. The same situation applies to increasing public transit options. The goal may be to reduce use of single-occupancy vehicles (and the emissions associated with their use), but the community make-up may not be one in which people would use public transit if it were offered. Or, perhaps the transit options offered are ones in which emissions are high, now posing additional potential health complications.

Recognizing the specific needs of a community can occur by listening to the collective community voice through workshops, informational sessions, and dialogue with community members. Light may then be shed on the specific concerns of the entire community, such as whether the community is concerned about the increase in wildfires that destroy community structures and homes, or the flooding that removes bridges and washes out roads. Taking an equity lens to climate mitigation and resilience allows policy makers and program managers to consider the needs of the entire community and account for the well-being of its citizens and the well-being of the environment. Such consideration requires authentic attention, intention, engagement, and integration. Equity is not something to take lightly, as history shows those typically most affected by our changing climate include communities of color, elderly, youth, and disadvantaged communities. Planners, policymakers, businesses, consultants, etc. must address all aspects of equity as it applies to sustainability strategies and climate action. This is vital as our society strives to develop sustainable communities that are healthy places with a high quality of life for residents.

Many of our clients have taken equity into consideration in the past, and many are placing even more emphasis on equity now as they evaluate their initiatives, strategies, and plans moving forward. It’s exciting for Lotus to be a part of the movement forward toward a sustainable, vibrant, and healthy future – one that provides a high quality of life for this generation and generations to come.

[1] For more information, see: https://thinkprogress.org/how-fossil-fuels-make-inequality-worse-61acdb913aa6/