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What a Just & Equitable Clean Energy Transition Looks Like

To avoid a climate disaster, the world needs to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy. But the way we do it matters. An equitable clean energy transition ensures that the costs and benefits of the shift are equally shared.

It’s clear that the world needs to make a switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy. It’s the only way to mitigate the damaging impacts of climate change, including heat, drought, powerful storms, and rising seas. These dangers threaten everyone, but they’re generally worse for the world’s poorest people. Although these people have contributed the least to global warming, they stand to lose the most from it. But there’s a way around this problem. The transition away from fossil fuels presents an opportunity to change the equation. A just and equitable energy transition delivers help to the people suffering most from climate change. It also aids those who will lose out as jobs in the fossil fuel industry disappear.

What is an equitable clean energy transition?

A switch from fossil fuels to clean energy offers many benefits. Besides mitigating climate change, it can deliver cleaner air, cheaper energy, and jobs in the renewable energy field. But these perks aren’t always evenly distributed. Often, wealthy people and wealthy nations gain most from them.

For instance, wealthy individuals can more easily afford to outfit their homes with solar panels or heat pumps. Wealthy school districts can more easily afford to upgrade to cleaner electric school buses. Meanwhile, poorer families continue to heat their homes with fossil fuels and send their kids to school in diesel buses. And they continue to pay higher utility bills and breathe more polluted air as a result.

The same problem applies on a global scale. Right now, many developing nations are struggling with energy poverty. They have a growing need for energy, but little money to invest in new clean energy infrastructure. These are often the very countries most endangered by climate change. Many are in tropical regions facing deadly heat waves; others are island nations threatened by sea level rise. But the solution—a rapid transition to clean energy—is out of reach.

Another group that’s overly burdened in the clean energy transition is fossil fuel workers. This includes coal miners, oil rig workers, and employees in fossil fuel power plants. Most of these workers don’t have college degrees and aren’t trained for any other kind of job. Many live in communities where most jobs are in the same field. If one coal mine or power plant shuts down, it can throw a whole town out of work.

The solution to all these problems is a just and equitable energy transition. It’s a way to ensure the benefits of the shift to clean energy go to everyone. In particular, it aims to aid those who need these benefits most and can afford them least. That makes it an example of environmental justice: creating and enforcing environmental laws that help everyone equally. 

Why is an equitable transition important? 

Pollution in an impoverished neighborhood

A just and equitable transition matters for two main reasons. The first is basic fairness. Climate change and the need for clean energy are global problems. Wealthy people and wealthy nations have caused most of the damage through many decades of fossil fuel use. Now they need to pay their fair share to make the solution possible. The burden shouldn’t fall on those who have least to give and have already been harmed most.

The second reason is sheer necessity. Developing nations need energy, and if they get it from coal, the world probably can’t meet its climate goals. Thus, it’s in the interests of developed nations to support developing ones in making the shift. In the short term, that could mean helping them switch to less polluting natural gas. But the ultimate goal is to make renewable energy the standard everywhere on earth.

What are the elements of an equitable energy transition?

There shouldn’t be winners and losers in the fight against climate change. All workers, communities, social classes, and ethnic groups should share both the costs and the benefits. And they should all have a voice in decisions about how the transition will work. Elected leaders and other decision makers need to recognize and respect each group’s unique perspective.

Australia’s Institute for Sustainable Futures outlines four main elements of a just and equitable energy transition:

1. Support for workers

The shift away from fossil fuels is costing many workers their jobs. The good news is, it’s also creating new jobs in the clean energy field. However, these jobs aren’t usually in the same place as the ones that are lost. An equitable energy transition needs to support these displaced workers. This can involve job training and helping former coal towns diversify their economies.

A just transition should also ensure that disadvantaged groups have equal access to new clean energy jobs. Right now, that’s not generally the case. According to a 2019 solar industry study, jobs in this field—especially high-level ones—are going overwhelmingly to white men.

Solar panels with a hardhat

2. Cleaner environments

Obviously, a shift to clean energy is good for the global environment. But it can also improve local environments by replacing dirty fossil fuels with clean renewables. In an equitable transition, the areas that benefit will include lower-income and minority communities. Cleaner air shouldn’t be a perk for the wealthy only.

An equitable transition will also help poorer communities cope with the effects of climate change itself. Climate change affects our health in all kinds of ways, including extreme temperatures, wildfires, floods, and the spread of tropical diseases. And it is often poor nations and neighborhoods that bear the brunt of these impacts. A fair transition can help these areas adapt to the changing climate. One good example is adding street trees, which are much less common in low-income and minority neighborhoods. More trees would help mitigate heat and provide a host of other health benefits.

Finally, a just transition shouldn’t impose environmental costs on the most vulnerable people. For instance, the shift toward electric cars has created a large demand for lithium batteries. That, in turn, has led to more mining of lithium, cobalt, and nickel. These mines produce harmful waste, endangering their workers and people who live nearby, including many indigenous communities. Stricter regulation of mines, along with more recycling of batteries, can reduce these impacts and make the transition fairer.

3. Shared opportunities

One key to an equitable energy transition is sharing opportunities fairly. Part of this is sharing the economic benefits of new clean energy jobs, as discussed above. Another big part is sharing the public health benefits of green energy. This means making new energy technologies available to everyone. Making tech like electric cars and heat pumps more affordable will ease the energy burden on low-income individuals, including people of color.

One way to improve energy access is community solar. Right now, four out of five solar installations go to high-income families. Many people with lower incomes can’t get them because they’re renting; others can’t afford the up-front costs. Community solar removes these barriers. It allows a group of people to share the output from a solar farm rather than installing their own panels. They get to enjoy lower electric rates while also contributing to a cleaner energy grid.

4. Social dialogue

Most of the factors in an equitable energy transition have to do with outcomes. They’re about sharing the costs and benefits of clean energy equally. But the process of achieving these outcomes also matters. Often, a group of “experts” simply swoops in with a plan to help displaced workers or minority communities. But if they don’t listen to the people they’re trying to help, the plan may fail to meet their needs. A fair transition needs to give everyone a seat at the table to ensure it truly benefits them.

How can we achieve an equitable energy transition?

Wealthy countries have a duty to help developing countries finance their energy transition. One tool for this could be a carbon tax. This is a tax on fossil fuel producers that charges them for the emissions they create. The money raised could go toward funding clean energy in the developing world. Taxing carbon would also raise the price of fossil fuels in developed countries, speeding their shift to renewables. And it could spur investment in energy efficiency and carbon capture technologies.

Within developed nations like the U.S., we need our transition to aid those most affected by our dirty energy system. That could mean spending money on:

  • Job retraining for displaced fossil fuel workers
  • Health care for those sickened by fossil fuel pollution
  • Cleanup for polluted air and water
  • Energy upgrades such as building electrification, efficiency, and electric vehicles for those who can’t easily afford them

What is the federal government doing to promote a just transition?  

U.S Capitol Building

The U.S. government has taken several actions to promote a just and equitable energy transition. For example.

  • The Biden administration’s Justice40 Initiative aims to steer 40% of federal climate investments to disadvantaged communities.
  • The Weatherization Assistance Program funds home efficiency improvements for low-income Americans.
  • The Equity in Energy initiative helps minorities, women, veterans, and formerly incarcerated people train for energy jobs.
  • A provision in the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act gives low- and middle-income communities priority when building new EV charging stations.
  • The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act contains several provisions to lower energy costs for low- and middle-income Americans. It also prioritizes new clean energy projects in low-income communities and “energy communities” formerly dependent on fossil fuel jobs.

What role do state and local climate action plans play?

So far, 33 U.S. states and many cities have created climate action plans (CAPs). A CAP is a roadmap toward a clean energy transition. It sets targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and lays out strategies to meet those goals. Many CAPs also outline strategies for coping with the impacts of climate change. Each plan is unique, based on the geographic, economic, and political features of the specific area.

Equity can, and should, be a factor in climate action plans. For instance, a CAP can:

  • Ensure all residents have access to affordable clean energy.
  • Improve access to clean transportation, such as mass transit or EV chargers.
  • Make new and existing buildings energy efficient for both homeowners and renters.
  • Help small businesses stay open, especially in disadvantaged communities.
  • Require clean energy suppliers to recruit displaced fossil fuel workers, people of color, or both.

What does an equitable transition look like for individuals? 

Communities across the U.S. are working to make their energy transitions fair and equitable. Here’s a look at how that’s playing out in several areas:

  • Peoria County, Illinois. A Texas company bought an old, dirty coal power plant. Locals feared it would take all the plant’s assets and leave the former workers with nothing. So, the National Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups helped the city sue the new owners over the plant’s illegal pollution. The settlement they got included funds for worker retraining and health care for residents sickened by pollution. It also covered steps to clean up the environment, such as building electrification and new electric buses. And advocates pushed to make sure a fair share of these benefits went to communities of color.
  • Portland, Maine. This city was the first in the nation to create a climate action plan. But after 25 years, it wasn’t meeting the needs of minority residents. They tended to live on the city’s outskirts, with fewer transit options, fewer trees and parks, and less infrastructure. Getting to work was difficult and costly, and the air quality was inferior. To fix this, the city called on community leaders to help update its climate action plan. Its revised plan will address problems such as pedestrian safety and harassment on public transportation.
  • New Jersey. In 2020, New Jersey became the first state to create an Office of Clean Energy Equity within its Board of Public Utilities. Its purpose is to expand clean energy and efficiency to all residents, especially those with low and moderate incomes. It also develops plans to make the clean energy industry more diverse. The state is also focusing heavily on community solar programs in disadvantaged communities. In 2019 it approved 45 new community solar developments, all in low-income areas.
Sun shining on solar panels

Toward an equitable clean energy transition

The world doesn’t have a choice about transitioning to clean energy. It’s literally a matter of life and death. But we do have a choice about how we make that switch. Done right, the energy transition can make the world not just a cleaner, safer place, but a fairer one too.

A just and equitable transition will help low-income people afford energy. It will help former fossil fuel workers find new jobs. It will help people sickened by pollution improve their health. It will help communities adapt to a warmer world. And it will help all the world’s people avoid the deadliest effects of climate change.

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