The United States has rejoined the Paris Agreement, which has created a good deal of positivity in climate change circles. The box-fresh Biden administration has announced a series of new climate change measures, beginning the process of reversing the damage and neglect of the Trump years.
What’s caught my eye about the new American approach is that it weaves together climate change and social justice. It’s not being billed as a Green New Deal, but it’s certainly learned from it and consulted with the people behind that vision. A lot of lessons have been learned from discussions around environmental justice, and there’s a real desire to make sure that the country’s climate actions benefit the most vulnerable.
Take the Justice40 Initiative, which was in Biden’s manifesto and was swiftly put in motion by presidential executive order. It creates a specific goal for 40% of federal climate spending to benefit disadvantaged communities. This will help to reduce previous injustices, and reduce carbon emissions at the same time as addressing poverty and exclusion. It should also reduce the risk of creating new environmental injustices, with new projects assessed with an ‘Environmental Justice Scorecard’.
The initiative will “focus on investments in the areas of clean energy and energy efficiency; clean transit; affordable and sustainable housing; training and workforce development; the remediation and reduction of legacy pollution; and the development of critical clean water infrastructure.” Among those set to benefit are “communities of color, rural and urban low-income communities, and tribal communities”.
It’s early days yet. At the moment the executive order requests recommendations for a goal. The exact detail remains to be seen. And as campaigners have noted, it’s in the detail that the project could fail – for example, federal maps of disadvantaged areas are very out of date. Much will depend on how frontline communities participate in the process too, and whether they feel that they are being adequately consulted. (See the ladder of participation here for what good looks like.) But on paper, it’s a sound idea.
Could we do something similar in Britain? The Conservative government’s climate strategy currently is a ‘10 point plan for a green industrial revolution‘. It’s very focused on technology, and the word ‘justice’ is nowhere to be seen. Many of the 10 points are much more likely to benefit the richest. Electric cars, for example, benefit those who drive and – in the short term at least – the very small minority who buy new cars. As I’ve described before, the focus on offshore wind guarantees that only the big boys can play, and it cuts out smaller firms and community energy. These things are still worth doing, but they won’t deliver the multiple benefits that are there for the taking if you do things right.
Some of the ten points could help to reduce inequality and improve social justice at the same time as reducing emissions – green public transport, for example. But that depends on how and where it is done. High speed rail, if it can be counted as green at all, will serve business travellers at very great expense. The same money invested in electric buses would make a much bigger difference to those on lower incomes, and to those dealing with the environmental injustice of high air pollution.
The advantage of something like the Justice40 Initiative is that it sets a specific target, and generates the data needed to measure success. Boris Johnson talks about ‘levelling up’ and about creating jobs in post-industrial areas. But unless someone is tasked with measuring who benefits, the default position will always be that funding is drawn towards high profile projects and wealthier areas that command more political attention.
It can be done differently. Like Biden, it doesn’t require a full-blown Green New Deal if your political friends get scared by the term. But it does need us to be deliberate. Can we imagine a specific target that will push the benefits of our climate action towards marginalised communities and those most vulnerable to environmental harm?