Equilibrium & Sustainability

Certain communities don’t benefit equitably from state emissions reductions: study


Low-income populations and communities of color are not benefiting equitably from the emissions reductions programs that their states have initiated, a new study has found.

The study, published in PLoS One on Wednesday, investigated the pollutants emitted from electricity generation adjacent to “environmental justice communities,” in a group of Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states that are party to a regional greenhouse gas reductions program.

Environmental justice communities are those that tend to face a disproportionate share of environmental health threats. Residents of such communities are predominantly people of color with a lower socioeconomic status. 

“While the power sector has made progress in reducing emissions in the aggregate, current policies and market trends fail to address the fundamental problem of disparate pollutant burdens among communities,” lead author Juan Declet-Barreto, senior social scientist for climate vulnerability at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement.

Declet-Barreto and his colleagues specifically probed these pollutant burdens in states involved in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) — a cooperative, market-based effort that includes Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia.

As RGGI members, these states have agreed to adhere to a region-wide cap on carbon dioxide emissions from their power sector, according to the initiative. All regulated power plants must acquire one RGGI carbon dioxide allowance for every short ton of carbon dioxide they emit — and they can then sell these allowances at quarterly auctions.

The Union of Concerned Scientists investigation, which focused on electricity generation in RGGI states from 1995 through 2015, found significant differences in siting and operation of power plants in environmental justice communities, compared to the general population.

The percentage of people of color who live less than 6.2 miles form a power plant is 23.5 percent higher than the percentage of white people living in that same proximity, according to the study.    

In addition, the authors found that the percentage of people living in poverty within 5 miles of a power plant is 15.3 percent higher than the percentage of those not in poverty living within that same distance.

The study also determined that 42.6 percent of environmental justice communities hosted between two and five electricity generation units within their vicinity, while the same could only be said for 28 percent of other communities. 

“The effect is that emissions reductions from power plants within RGGI states have largely benefitted non-environmental justice communities,” Declet-Barreto said.

Understanding the local impacts of electricity generation is critical to ensuring that future emissions reductions policies are both “just and effective,” according to Declet-Barreto.

“Although power plants in RGGI states have seen a reduction in heat-trapping and co-pollutant emissions due to generation changes resulting from market trends and policies, the benefits are not reaching everyone equitably,” he added.

Tags Environmental justice Pollution

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