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Addressing inequity in the face of climate change

Elizabeth Palchak, Consultant -

Flooded neighborhood

In the environmental conservation sector, it has long been acknowledged that the impacts of climate change are not equal. Wealthy nations and communities have resources to protect themselves and to rebuild quickly, while poorer countries and vulnerable populations suffer at greater rates, with greater losses. This conversation extends beyond the current divide between “rich” and “poor”. A striking example of this was highlighted in a new report from the U.N., in which during Hurricane Sandy thousands of low-income residents in New York City were without power and healthcare for days, while the Goldman Sachs building in Manhattan was protected by tens of thousands of sandbags and powered by a private generator. The report goes on to describe the increasingly severe impact climate change will have on income inequality, which they refer to as a “climate apartheid” and finds that 120 million people could slip into poverty within the next ten years due to extreme weather events amplified by climate change. The findings are clear: not only will climate change cause inequity to increase, it will also act as a catalyst for more moderate-income people to end up in poverty as extreme weather events destroy infrastructure and working lands.

An Energy Future for Everyone

At VEIC we recognize the drastic impact that climate change is having on the world, and its role in worsening inequity. We are dedicated to reducing harmful greenhouse gas emissions and supporting a transition to clean energy. We do this work with communities, governments, utilities, and businesses every day. A number of our programs and services address the climate challenge directly in communities experiencing high energy burdens. For example, two energy efficiency utilities that we administer – Efficiency Vermont and the D.C. Sustainable Energy Utility (DCSEU) – have programs dedicated to reducing energy inequity. The DCSEU’s community solar work is a direct link between clean energy development and addressing income disparity. And Efficiency Vermont has served as a leader in affordable, resilient housing development and energy burden research. VEIC’s consulting operation also has a portfolio of projects focused on the intersection between energy and income. Earlier this year we published a blog post highlighting our ongoing work in New Hampshire’s North Country in partnership with the Tillotson Fund, to address systemic issues of poverty through energy efficiency.

“Climate change is an urgent issue and we’re seeing more and more evidence that harmful GHG emissions will have negative economic and societal impacts. Advancing clean energy and reducing emissions is imperative in order to prevent these negative impacts, which are sure to disproportionately affect our most vulnerable communities.” – Jim Madej, CEO at VEIC

Measuring Energy Justice Impact

We know that focusing on these initiatives is crucial. However evaluating and measuring the societal impacts of energy work in a comprehensive way is challenging. In our industry, consistent measurement is vital to understanding how well we’re advancing the clean energy transition and who is benefitting. It also helps us understand who is not benefitting. Unlike dollars saved, MWh saved, and emissions reduced, which are all relatively easy to quantify, the measure for improving equity is less clear.

At the 2018 ACEEE Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings, in Asilomar, California, attendees at an informal session laid the groundwork for the development of a standardized approach to equity measurement. In the year following the conference, Efficiency for Everyone, Urban Institute, and VEIC took on the prioritized tasks. Energy Trust of Oregon funded the work and each organization provided a matching in-kind contribution. This collaboration produced three related reports. Efficiency for Everyone led development of a draft work plan for creating an equity measurement framework for our industry (available on request). Urban Institute led development of a paper exploring the discourse around equity, as well as definitions and measurement schemes for equity in service fields that could apply to the clean energy field.

VEIC led development of a report, The State of Equity Measurement: A Review of Practices in the Clean Energy Industry, which documents efforts to-date to define, collect, analyze, and report on equity in the clean energy industry. The research highlights practices that have worked well, establishes a comprehensive list of data sources, and synthesizes challenges that clean energy program administrators and evaluators have faced. It also identifies gaps in the availability of equity-related data, analytical techniques, and reporting methods.

Moving forward, Dr. Tony Reames and the Urban Energy Justice Lab at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability will lead the solicitation for funding to develop an equity measurement framework and, once funding is secured, will lead the development of the framework and ongoing support of its users through an equitable and inclusive process.

This high-impact work parallels efforts at VEIC to consider equity as an integral component of addressing climate change. Last year, a group of VEIC staff and board members formed an energy justice working group, under Jim Madej’s leadership, to consider how we can improve our operations, our goal setting, and of course, our measurement and evaluation processes. This is challenging, but important work, and we acknowledge as an organization, we must be willing to constantly evaluate ourselves and find pathways to improvement.

Contact us to learn more about this work

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