Climate Governance & Equity
Policies that establish targets, plans, accountability, and other important procedures to properly address climate and environmental justice
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.
- National Conference of State Legislatures — Greenhouse Gas Target Tracker
- Environmental Defense Fund — Progress on State-led Climate Action
Climate Action Plan
Under the Paris Agreement, member countries 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, as well as 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.
- City of Aspen — Greenhouse Gas Reduction Toolkit
- Climate XChange — How Do States Plan to Meet their Climate Commitments?
- New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act requires the Climate Action Council to adopt a scoping plan and interim updates to the scoping plan to align with the state’s targets
- Massachusetts Next-Generation Roadmap Bill outlines requirements for 5-year climate plans.
- Maryland Climate Plan
Climate Advisory Group
Climate advisory groups communicate a state’s efforts to include diverse stakeholders in the writing and implementation of their climate plans. Advisory groups can be made up of governmental members only, typically from a state’s executive agencies, but more effective ones will include 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 groups 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 climate advisory groups will be writing their state’s climate action plan, with less effective ones only making non-binding recommendations to a governing body.
Environmental Justice Community Designation
An environmental justice (EJ) community is most basically defined as any minority, low-income, tribal, or Indigenous populations or geographic locations in the United States that experience 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 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.
- USDA — Cities and Towns that Include Environmental Justice Communities
- Sabin Center for Climate Change Law — Emerging State-Level Environmental Justice Laws
- Climate XChange — An Assessment of Environmental Justice Policy in U.S. Climate Alliance States
Environmental Justice 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 dissolvement in the event of an administration change.
- Massachusetts Executive Order No. 552 — Executive Order on Environmental Justice: creates a permanent Environmental Justice staff in the governor’s office as well as establishes a 9-15 member council to advise the Governor the prioritization and implementation of EJ community specific concerns.
- New York S.2385/A.1564 — Establishes a permanent Environmental Justice Advisory Group (EJAG) and Environmental Justice Interagency Coordinating Council (EJICC)
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 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.
- EPA EJSCREEN — Permitting and Mapping Tool — The EPA’s EJ community map which is often used by states that haven’t created their own.
- 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.
- 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.
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 a certain percentage of funds and/or benefits are allocated to environmental justice communities. In some states, this funding comes from fees paid by polluters, while others appropriate state funds to protect vulnerable 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.
- Green for All — Equity Toolkit includes a recommendation to dedicate a minimum of 50 percent of investment funds to disadvantaged communities.
- Sabin Center for Climate Change Law — The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act’s Environmental Justice Promise
- New York S6599 (Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act) requires that 35 percent, with a goal of 40 percent, of the proceeds from greenhouse gas reduction initiatives go to disadvantaged communities
- Illinois SB12184 (Future Energy Jobs Act) requires that at least 25 percent of Illinois Solar for All Program funds are allocated to projects within environmental justice communities
Site Permitting (Site Mapping)
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.”
Site permitting policies face critique by the business community who believe the permitting process is already restrictive without additional environmental justice considerations.
- California Heat Assessment Tool — Created by the California Natural Resources Agency so local and state practitioners can better understand dimensions of heat vulnerability driven by climate changes and where action can be taken to mitigate public health impacts of extreme heat in the future.
- New Jersey Senate Bill 232: 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.