Background

State and federal policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have the potential to address long-standing inequities in our fossil-fuel-based energy system. However, decarbonization policy frequently fails to account for the public health, affordability, or equity impacts of our current energy system.

To better understand the potential for climate policies to incorporate equity, researchers at PSE Healthy Energy examined decarbonization policies across three states: ColoradoNevada, and New Mexico. Each state has embarked on an ambitious multi-decade effort to expand renewable electricity generation and slash greenhouse gas emissions. The resulting reports outline strategies for integrating equity into state and federal decarbonization policies.

Methods

This analysis was based on decarbonization pathways that rely on demand reduction, renewable energy, and electrification measures to reduce fossil fuel use in buildings, transportation, power generation, and industry between 2020-2050.

Based on these pathways, we assessed opportunities and strategies to integrate pollution reduction, climate resilience, and energy and environmental equity into states’ decarbonization plans, focusing on environmentally overburdened and socioeconomically vulnerable communities in each state.

To do so, we:

  1. Identified regions and populations currently facing high cumulative emissions from fossil fuel production and use,
  2. Characterized household and transportation energy cost burdens and clean energy access across each state, and
  3. Identified decarbonization strategies that simultaneously reduce health-damaging air pollution and energy cost burdens while increasing climate resilience.

Our work for each state is a companion analysis to the Western States Deep Decarbonization Analysis for these states conducted by Evolved Energy, NRDC, Sierra Club, and Gridlab and available here.

Findings

Across all three states, we find that when clean energy infrastructure and emissions reductions are geographically targeted in pollution- and energy cost-burdened communities, decarbonization policies can support significant public health and economic benefits. However, our findings also show that decarbonization policies that fail to account for equity may result in prolonged exposure to health-harming pollutants and even increase energy and transportation costs for communities that are already disproportionately impacted by the current fossil fuel system.

Policy Implications

  • Equity must be integrated from the beginning to ensure that public health and economic benefits of the transition accrue evenly.
  • Decarbonization plans that address equity can result in greater public health and economic benefits than approaches that exclusively focus on lowering greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Certain communities, such as those with high pollution, a large fraction of low-income households, or high energy cost burdens, may see some of the greatest benefits from clean energy adoption.
  • Engagement with affected communities must be prioritized throughout the process to help identify both socioeconomic and pollution burdens of concern and strategies to mitigate them.
  • Disparities in fossil fuel pollution and economic impacts may be exacerbated with a decarbonization strategy focused exclusively on carbon emissions.
  • Policies supporting clean energy adoption should be prioritized in populations with the lowest income and highest pollution and cost burdens.