Climate Governance & Equity

Policies that establish targets, plans, accountability, and other important procedures to properly address climate and environmental justice

Climate Governance

Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Targets

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are the primary driver of global warming, and limiting them is key to mitigating the effects of climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets are policies set by a state to reduce the amount of carbon emissions across all economic sectors. These targets aim to reduce emissions by different amounts over time, often in a percentage based on a baseline year. These targets can be set at the city, state, or country level.

Well-designed greenhouse gas targets sharply reduce the state’s emissions consistent with the Paris Agreement goals through 2050, and they will have short-, intermediate-, and long-term goals. More ambitious targets have steeper emission reductions in the short-term, such as a 2030 target, and reach net zero by 2050. Codifying a state’s emissions targets into law can help to ensure that the state takes appropriate action to meet their commitments. The best policies will also have provisions for citizens to take legal action if the state fails to meet their targets.

Key Resources

Model Rules

  • The Lawmaker Network — Model legislation to establish greenhouse gas targets and develop a climate action plan to meet those targets.

State Examples

  • Hawaii HB 2182 (2018) — Establishes a net-negative target by 2045 for the state
  • Massachusetts S.9, Creating a next-generation roadmap for Massachusetts climate policy (2021) — Sets a net-zero target by 2050 and requires the state to set interim 2025, 2030, 2035, 2040, and 2045 emissions reduction targets.
  • Maryland SB 528, Climate Solutions Now Act of 2022 (2022) — Establishes a target of 60% reduction below 2006 emissions levels by 2031 and net-zero emissions by 2045.
  • Colorado SB 23-016 (2023) — Updates the state’s climate targets to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, and establishes interim 2025, 2030, 2035, 2040, and 2045 targets. The state is the first to codify 5-year incremental climate targets.

    Climate Action Plan

    Under the Paris Agreement, member countries are committed to nationally determined contribution targets (NDCs) that would specify the nation’s intended mitigation measures. At the subnational level, it’s important for U.S. states to have a “climate action plan” that clearly outlines the ways that state intends to not only meet its emissions reduction targets, but also improve quality of life for its citizens.

    Effective climate action plans will have a legislative directive with input from a climate advisory group, a near-term due date for a finalized plan, and a structure to update their plan. Climate action plans typically include policies that the state intends to implement to mitigate climate change across all sectors of the economy, and they should address environmental justice at every level of the plan. The best plans will forecast what effects the outlined policies will have on emissions, address the cost of inaction on climate, and explain other social, environmental, and economic benefits the plan will have for the state.

    Key Resources

    Model Rules

    • The Lawmaker Network — Model legislation to establish greenhouse gas targets and develop a Climate Action Plan to meet the targets.

    State Examples

      Climate Bureaucracy

      Interagency Commissions & Task Forces

      Interagency climate bodies, typically a “commission” or “task force” are governmental bodies responsible for coordinating state-wide climate policy efforts, and often for researching and writing a state’s climate action plan by a short-term deadline. They are typically created through greenhouse gas target legislation or executive order.

      Interagency climate bodies include members from departments and agencies focused on energy, environment, transportation, agriculture, public health, and housing. Effective bodies also include representation from agencies and departments that are indirectly implementing policies to address climate change and transition to clean energy, such as commerce, labor, administrative services, and public safety. Due to their governmental membership, interagency bodies can directly influence and implement aspects of their state’s climate action plan.

      Non-Governmental Advisory Bodies

      Climate advisory bodies communicate a state’s efforts to include diverse stakeholders in the writing and implementation of their climate plans. Effective advisory bodies  will include governmental members, as well as representatives from all economic sectors, youth and environmental justice advocates, non-profit leaders, and other climate experts that can help ensure an equitable transition from a fossil fuel economy.

      Climate advisory bodies are often created through greenhouse gas target legislation or executive order and are tasked with researching and writing that state’s climate action plan by a short-term deadline. The most effective advisory bodies will be directly influencing their state’s climate action plan, with less effective ones only making non-binding recommendations to a governing body.

      State Examples

      • New Mexico Interagency Climate Change Task Force — The Task Force is made up of nine smaller, interagency Climate Action Teams responsible for proposing, planning, and implementing strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enhance New Mexico’s ability to adapt to climate change.
      • Minnesota Governor’s Advisory Council on Climate Change — ​​The advisory council works with the interagency Climate Change Subcabinet to identify opportunities for, and barriers to, policies and strategies to reduce GHG emissions and increase climate resiliency.
      • Massachusetts Office of Climate Innovation and Resilience — The Office of Climate Innovation and Resilience is charged with harnessing all of the resources and authority available to the Governor and the executive department to advance the Commonwealth’s climate innovation, mitigation, adaptation and resilience policies.

        State GHG Emissions Inventory

        Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions inventories report the major sources and activities responsible for emitting GHGs in a given year. Common greenhouse gases reported include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrogen oxide (N2O).

        A state’s total and sector-specific emissions, such as electricity, transportation, and industry, are reported to highlight the biggest sources of emissions. Inventories also include historical emissions, typically the baseline year of a state’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction target, which allows a state to see where progress has been made in reducing emissions and where additional measures are needed. In addition to sector breakdowns, some inventories include data on emissions by fuel type in each sector and source.

        Key Resources

        State Examples

        • Washington State RCW 70A.45.020 — Requires the state to track and report greenhouse gas emissions in each major sector every two years.
        • Colorado SB 19-096 (2019) — Requires the state Air Pollution Control Division to update Colorado’s GHG inventory at least every two years and include emissions forecasts tracking progress made toward achieving the state’s GHG reduction targets.

          Green Bank

          Green Banks, also called Clean Energy Funds, are institutions focused on financing clean energy adoption. They are public, quasi-public, or non-profit institutions that are established at the county, state, or national level. More than a dozen states have established a green bank, under several different structures, legislative directives, and funding sources.

          Green Banks address clean energy market gaps and financial barriers, and aim to attract private investment in clean energy and energy efficiency. Green Banks achieve this through direct financing, such as loans and co-investments, and market development activities, such as information sharing and partnership building. Programs financed by a green bank typically include clean energy and energy efficiency upgrades, climate-resilient infrastructure, water infrastructure, and waste management infrastructure.

          Key Resources

          Model Rules

          • Sabin Center for Climate Change Law — LPDD Model Law: Green Bank State and Local Legislation: Model statute to establish a green bank following the nonprofit model and takes its basic structure from legislation to establish the Nevada Clean Energy Fund.
          • The Lawmaker Network — Model legislation to establish a Clean Energy Bank, also known as a green bank.

          State Examples

          • Connecticut Public Act-11-80 (2011) — The Connecticut Green Bank is the country’s first green bank. It has financing programs for energy efficiency upgrades, renewable energy development, and building electrification.
          • Hawaii Act 211, Session Laws of Hawaii 2013 (2013) — The Green Energy Market Securitization (GEMS) program provides affordable and accessible low-interest loan options to residential and commercial customers in Hawaii, with minimal barriers to entry in their pursuit of renewable energy and energy efficiency equipment and infrastructure.
          • Nevada SB 407 (2017) — The Nevada Clean Energy Fund provides financial and technical assistance to increase access to clean energy opportunities such as renewable energy, energy efficiency, zero-emission vehicles, and energy storage.
          • Minnesota SF 3035 and HF 2310 (2023) — Creates the Minnesota Climate Innovation Finance Authority with $45 million in state funding.

            Lead by Example

            “Lead by example” is an umbrella term for policy actions that a state government can take to show energy efficiency leadership. Lead by example follows the concept that state governments can make significant changes that inspire local governments, and potentially individuals, to follow suit and adopt energy efficient technologies. 

            Governments may adopt energy efficiency policies and programs to reduce energy usage in public buildings, facilities, and property. These can include setting energy savings targets, retrofitting older or more energy intensive buildings, providing benchmarking data, and other related policies. For government vehicle fleets, including school buses, public transit buses, and emergency response vehicles, states may establish fuel efficiency or electric vehicle adoption requirements. These requirements typically become more stringent over time, making a greater share of vehicle fleets more efficient and/or zero emission.

            Key Resources

            Model Rules

            State Examples

            • Vermont HB 529 (2019) — Set a 2021 target to make 75% of purchased or leased vehicles for the State Vehicle Fleet fully electric or hybrid.
            • Connecticut SB 4 (2022) – By 2030, 100 percent of state-purchased and leased cars and light-duty trucks are electric vehicles. By that same year, 30 percent of new school buses purchased or leased by the state are zero-emission and 100 percent of school buses in environmental justice communities are zero-emission. By 2040, 100 percent of school buses state-wide are zero-emission buses.
            • Hawaii HB 4552 (2021) — Sets a goal to have the state’s light-duty vehicle fleet be made up of 100% zero-emission vehicles by 2035. Beginning January 2022, all new light-duty passenger vehicles purchased for the state fleet must be zero-emissions.
            • Minnesota Executive Order 19-27 (2019) — Requires a 30% reduction of state fleet fossil fuel consumption by 2027 from 2017 baseline


              Environmental Justice Community Designation

              An environmental justice (EJ) community is most basically defined as any minority, low-income, tribal, or Indigenous population or geographic location in the United States that experiences disproportionate environmental harms and risks. This disproportionality can be a result of greater vulnerability to environmental hazards, lack of opportunity for public participation, or other factors. EJ community designation describes the state’s recognition of situations where multiple factors, including both environmental and socioeconomic stressors, may act cumulatively to affect health and the environment and contribute to persistent environmental health disparities.

              To identify environmental justice communities, states establish explicit, directly measurable definitions. These definitions describe the specific, quantifiable thresholds that qualify a geographical area as an EJ community, including household income levels or cumulative pollution burden. These definitions typically occur at the census tract or block group level within states.

              Key Resources

              State Examples

              • California SB 535 (2017) — CalEPA established a tailored “disadvantaged community” definition based on 20 geographic, socioeconomic, public health, and environmental hazard criteria.
              • New York S 6599 (2019) — Created a Climate Justice Working Group (CJWG) to establish criteria for identifying and defining “disadvantaged communities” (DACs) in the state. The final DAC criteria includes two types of data: (1) environmental burdens and climate change risks and (2) population characteristics and health vulnerabilities.
              • New Jersey Chapter 92 (2020) — Establishes a tailored “overburdened community” definition based on income, race, and English proficiency.
              • Minnesota HF 7 (2023) — Codifies a definition of “environmental justice areas” based on race, income, English proficiency, and Tribal boundaries.
              • New Mexico SB 112 (2021) — Defines “Disproportionately impacted communities” as a community or population of people for which multiple burdens, including environmental and socioeconomic stressors, may act to persistently and negatively affect the community or population and includes tribal communities, communities of color and low-income rural communities and native people, people of color, women, immigrants, youth, formerly incarcerated people, LGBTQ people and people with disabilities.

                Environmental Justice Bureaucracy

                EJ Advisory Bodies

                EJ advisory bodies are policy consultants composed of appointed experts and stakeholders representing various communities and are responsible for making recommendations and increasing public engagement. They can be a helpful vehicle of influence into government decisions but have historically failed to include community voices. EJ advisory bodies can help influence governmental decision-making by representing EJ priorities and public interest within a group of authority that is independent from state government.

                Advisory bodies are useful for increasing intentional representation and public engagement, while dedicated environmental justice staff within a state’s government act as vital implementers of EJ policy. However, the existence of either of these authorities does not ensure that environmental justice goals are being met; they are subject to political capture and subversion and can also lack the authority to counteract environmental injustices. Advisory bodies established through other means are typically formed through an agency or interagency initiative. Unlike bodies formed through executive orders, these have more staying power and are closely related to those created through legislation. Many environmental justice advisory bodies are established and maintained through a governor’s executive order — making them vulnerable to dissolution in the event of an administration change.

                EJ Government Staff

                EJ staff are employees of a state office or agency who are dedicated to developing, implementing, and evaluating EJ policies and programs. These staff members work to address EJ issues in communities across the state, and their work often includes engaging with communities for consultation on environmental justice issues, including providing guidance for state environmental grants, enhancing participation in permitting processes, improving environmental education among residents, and elevating community stakeholders such as EJ organizations, tribal governments, labor groups, and more. They can also assist with coordinating EJ initiatives between the office of the Governor and state agencies.

                Key Resources

                Model Rules

                • Sabin Center for Climate Change Law and WE ACT for Environmental Justice — Model Law Establishing an Environmental Advisory Board: This model law establishes an Environmental Advisory Board to provide insights, accountability, and a platform for historically marginalized communities to engage with government decision-makers.

                State Examples

                • New York S.2385/A.1564 (2019) — Establishes a permanent Environmental Justice Advisory Group (EJAG) and Environmental Justice Interagency Coordinating Council (EJICC)
                • California EJ Advisory Committee — EJ advisory group is codified in law, has permanent staff, and includes multiple entities in different parts of state government dedicated to EJ.
                • Washington SB 5141 – Healthy Environment for All (HEAL) Act (2021) — Creates an Environmental Justice Council to provide recommendations and guidance to the state. Also requires a coordinated state agency approach to environmental justice, resulting in seven state agencies having or adding environmental justice and equity-focused directors.
                • Oregon HB 4077 (2022) — Codifies the existing Environmental Justice Task Force (EJTF) as the Environmental Justice Council, with expanded capacity and dedicated staff and funding.
                • Massachusetts Environmental Justice Task Force and Undersecretary of Environmental Justice & EquityThe Task Force is developing an EJ Strategy to promote environmental, energy and climate justice. The Undersecretary oversees the training of EEA agency staff and focuses on establishing environmental justice principles in the work of the EEA, which oversees state energy policy, public lands, and environmental policy. The Undersecretary also works with external stakeholders on community outreach and engagement to ensure that historically marginalized communities are represented as the state advances its energy and environmental agenda.

                  Environmental Justice Mapping Tools

                  Interactive environmental justice screening tools and maps visualize key environmental justice concepts, such as demographic information and environmental and public health threats. These tools increase transparency and allow decision-makers, activists, and residents to identify environmental justice communities and take action. Although the EPA’s EJSCREEN is nationally available, several states have developed their own contextual mapping systems.

                  Some states have socioeconomic data, air pollution data, and EJ community definitions established in the state, but they have yet to consolidate and democratize this data together. The efficacy of these mapping tools is contextual to the state and dependent on the public inclusion process through which the tool was developed.

                  The area of land or size of the population measured by state-specific tools have varying degrees of granularity, typically mapped by census blocks, census block groups, or census tracts. A census block is the smallest geographic unit available, whereas a census block group consists of clusters of blocks and are generally defined to contain between 600 and 3,000 people. Census tracts are small, relatively permanent statistical subdivisions of a county that typically capture between 1,200 and 8,000 people.

                  Key Resources

                  State Examples

                  • Maryland MD EJScreen — Assesses environmental justice risks among census tracts in the state of Maryland. Developed by the Community Engagement, Environmental Justice, and Health Laboratory at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, this tool combines the average pollution burden of a community with the average population demographic characteristics to produce an Environmental Justice (EJ) score.
                  • California CalEnviroScreen — A statewide mapping tool (headed by the California OEHHA) that  identifies California communities by census tract that are disproportionately burdened by, and vulnerable to, multiple sources of pollution. It specifically covers California Senate Bill 535 Disadvantaged Community Designation and is targeted for identifying areas to investment proceeds from the state’s cap-and-trade program.
                  • Washington Tracking Network — Includes an interactive mapping tool, rather than a static image, showing demographic and environmental factors and drawing from both national and state level census data.
                  • North Carolina Community Mapping System — Includes an interactive mapping tool, rather than a static image, and uses both environmental and demographic indicators which include socioeconomic factors, race, and community characteristics.

                    EJ Community Benefit Requirement

                    EJ community benefit requirements are provisions to help ensure communities most impacted by environmental burdens are benefitting equitably from public programs. This policy typically requires that a certain percentage of funds and/or benefits are allocated to environmental justice communities. Investment in these communities seeks to reconcile the gap left by environmental racism and a lack of opportunities to meaningfully engage in zoning, development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws. In some states, this funding comes from fees paid by polluters, while others appropriate state funds to protect vulnerable communities. At the federal level, the Justice40 Initiative set a goal that 40 percent of the overall benefits of climate, clean energy, and water infrastructure investments flow to disadvantaged communities.

                    Key Resources

                    State Examples

                    • New York S6599 – Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (2019) — Requires that 35 percent, with a goal of 40 percent, of the proceeds from greenhouse gas reduction initiatives go to disadvantaged communities.
                    • Illinois SB2814 – Future Energy Jobs Act (2016) — Requires that at least 25 percent of Illinois Solar for All Program funds are allocated to projects within environmental justice communities.
                    • Washington SB 5126 (2021) – Requires that 35 percent, with a goal of 40 percent, of cap-and-invest revenue to overburdened communities and 10 percent to Indian tribes.

                      Site Permitting

                      Site permitting policies require permit applicants to follow a set of protocols to ensure overburdened communities are not adversely affected by the proposed project. These protocols include the incorporation of environmental justice concerns in permitting, the inclusion of community stakeholders in the permitting process, and the use of tools such as the EPA’s EJSCREEN to identify potential impacts on vulnerable communities. States with site permitting policies will not grant permits until a comprehensive impact assessment is conducted by the permit applicant.

                      A lack of regulation in the site permitting process places a disproportionate burden on low-income and minority communities. Site permitting policies help to alleviate the potential adverse impacts of new construction on overburdened communities and the environment. Permitting policies ask applicants to assess the “cumulative impacts” of a future project. New Jersey’s site permitting law defines cumulative impacts as “the disproportionate exposure of a community to public health or environmental hazards from one or multiple facilities including power plants, recycling facilities, sewage plants, incinerators, landfills, and others.”

                      Key Resources

                      Model Rules

                      State Examples

                      • New Jersey Senate Bill 232 (2020) — Requires the New Jersey Department of Environmental protection to evaluate the environmental and public health impacts of certain facilities on overburdened communities when reviewing certain permit applications.
                      • New York S8830 (2022) — Requires an analysis of cumulative impacts on disadvantaged communities before a permit is approved or renewed. Permits that will cause or contribute to a disproportionate and/or inequitable pollution burden on a disadvantaged community will be denied.
                      • Minnesota HF 2310 (2023) — Requires cumulative impact analysis for certain permit applications, and gives the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency authority to deny permits if an analysis shows that the permit will result in additional environmental stressors in environmental justice areas.
                      • Connecticut SB 1147 (2023) — Gives the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) and the state’s Siting Council the ability to deny a permit for new facilities based on the “cumulative impact” of environmental and public health stressors that already exist in environmental justice communities.

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