Energy is a basic need that most of us take for granted much of the time. It’s not until our access to energy is disrupted that we realize how necessary it is for a normal, modern lifestyle.
However, access to energy is not equitable. A lot of people regularly struggle to access even the minimum levels of energy needed for basic well-being. If you are living on a low or fixed income, you might commonly have to choose between paying your energy bill or buying food or medicine. According to the EPA,1 roughly 31% of US households experience energy inequity in having to pay over 6% of their annual income for electricity and heating fuel (commonly referred to as energy burden).
Compounding inequitable access, the effects of pollution created by our energy system are also not equitably distributed. The same people that struggle to access energy also tend to have higher exposure to pollution and are more vulnerable to climate change impacts. In other words, they have disproportionately low access to the positives and disproportionately high exposure to the negatives of the energy system. This is environmental injustice.
Do issues of environmental justice affect people more broadly? If one is not in a disadvantaged group, why is it important to care about environmental justice? The answer depends on one’s perspective and one’s role(s) in the energy economy.
If you are a(n) …
Person suffering from environmental injustice, it is a matter of basic survival and well-being.
Person of privilege – It is a matter of ethics. Most ethical systems have a basis in compassion and altruism. Even extremely individualistic systems such as libertarianism have a “do no harm to others” tenet, and our fossil-fueled economy is doing disproportionate harm to certain groups of people.
Person concerned about climate change – It is a matter of practicality: The scale of changes to the economy and energy system to mitigate climate change is so huge that everyone will need access to affordable renewable energy and energy efficiency. We simply cannot achieve meaningful climate change goals while continuing to leave a third of the population out of the solutions.
Advocate or non-profit – It’s about your mission. Environmental justice is a component of social equity.
Policymaker – It is about fairness and opportunity. Everyone is paying into the system, but those already privileged are getting more out of it and paying less than those suffering from inequity.
Utility – It’s about staying in business and being profitable. Utilities will have to comply with increasingly common regulations around decarbonization and environmental justice. Proactive attention to both will make compliance easier and cheaper. Utilities are also dealing with historic levels of arrears worsened by COVID-19 and instability in the natural gas market eating into utility profits.
Investor – It’s about responsibility. More and more investors are starting to adopt ESG goals, which focus on environmental and social responsibility as well as financial returns. Environmental justice is necessary for a sustainable business model and a just clean energy transition.
No matter what your role and perspective, environmental justice is an important part of a successful future. Knowing how and why it’s important to different people can help us tailor our communication to meet our audience where they are, and move forward together towards solutions.