These days, racial disparities have been highlighted more than ever with the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. As a result, more policymakers have started looking at all policies through a racial equity lens.
While the police reform bills that the House and Senate have passed were the immediate response to racial justice protests, it’s critical that the Legislature’s clean energy bills aren’t forgotten when it comes to combating racial injustice. The bills to combat climate change are currently in a conference committee, and the Legislature has an immense opportunity to further address racial disparities by passing a strong clean energy bill.
In tackling climate change, we have to remember that the impacts of global warming are felt largely by communities of color. According to the NAACP, “Environmental injustice, including the proliferation of climate change, has a disproportionate impact on communities of color and low-income communities in the United States and around the world.”
The Sierra Club stated in a 2018 article, “A new study by scientists from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that communities living below the poverty line have a 35% higher burden from particulate matter emissions than the overall population. Nonwhites had a 28% higher health burden and African Americans, specifically, had a 54% higher burden than the overall population.”
Fortunately, both the House and Senate clean energy bills contain key language seeking to address equity issues by ensuring the benefits garnered from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ energy policy will flow equally to all residents, not just to wealthier communities.
It’s important that this legislation prevents the continuation of Massachusetts’ reliance on fossil fuels, and especially the production of dirty energy in communities of color. That’s why the environmental justice provision in the House bill carries such significance. This provision would codify the definition of environmental justice. If the Legislature is serious about not just moving away from fossil fuels, but also ensuring that the benefits of the state’s clean energy policies are distributed equally, we need to make sure that it’s not just wealthy suburbs that have cleaner environments, but also inner-cities, poor rural towns, and communities of color.
One way to ensure such communities go green is guaranteeing that our state’s climate laws and programs are benefiting low-income working families. The House and Senate have presented language to aid these communities by carving out more solar opportunities for low-income residents, and mandating all future solar programs to include equity, affordability and consumer protections for them. Provisions in the House bill allow solar splitting to enable low-income households to receive solar savings without having to sign contracts, while Senate language requires the Department of Energy Resources to maintain and set aside a portion of each solar incentive program that benefit solar tariff generation units primarily serving low-income customers.
Given that climate change is already impacting communities of color at a disproportionately higher rate, we need to remain vigilant in reducing carbon emissions. Both the House and Senate bills create a series of emission targets over the course of the next 30 years, to get to net zero emissions in 2050. However, in order to ensure meaningful impact on combating climate change, we must promulgate regulations for 2030 no later than the end of 2021, before Massachusetts, and the world reaches an alarming point of global warming.
It is becoming evident that more state legislation and policies will be viewed through a racial equity lens, which is promising to see. Let’s ensure that key equity provisions in the House and Senate climate change bills remain in the final legislation that reaches Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk.
Jamie Eldridge is a state senator from the Middlesex and Worcester district. Andrea Nyamekye is co-director of Neighbor to Neighbor.
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