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Sounding the Call for Community-Led Climate Justice Policies for Buildings and Beyond

November 8, 2022

This blog was written by Mandy Lee, Senior Fellow at New Buildings Institute and Senior Program Manager at Emerald Cities Collaborative. It was originally published here.

A network of equity, environmental justice, and building decarbonization leaders are calling for an investment of $100 million to increase community leadership and ownership in climate action and equitable emission reduction strategies that include building decarbonization across the country.

After more than two years of tireless organizing, Alternatives for Community & Environment (ACE) has many lessons to share about community-led climate justice policy for buildings. ACE, the first environmental justice nonprofit organization in Massachusetts, has defended the rights of residents in the historically Black neighborhood of Roxbury for over 25 years. In 2019, ACE was approached by the City of Boston and its partners to craft an updated Building Emissions Reduction and Disclosure Ordinance (BERDO 2.0).

Executive Director Dwaign Tyndal presents the story of ACE's contributions to BERDO 2.0. Photo courtesy of Guiamedios Photography/Film.

Building performance standards like BERDO are not at the top of the list of priorities for frontline communities. These communities are enduring the first and worst consequences of climate change and, as ACE describes, are striving for systemic change that moves beyond solving problems one by one to eliminating the root causes of environmental injustice. Meanwhile, building performance standards tend to have a pretty narrow focus: reducing the carbon emissions of large buildings. These policies set aggressive standards for reduction over time.

ACE agreed to engage in the BERDO update process to fight for a policy that could do much more. ACE is anchoring a movement of people who have been excluded from decision-making to confront power directly and demand fundamental changes that protect their intergenerational longevity. This community was clear: residents wanted more than a policy that would reduce emissions. Every step of the process, ACE made sure that the perspectives of their members were incorporated into the policy. Hundreds of residents voiced the following priorities and concerns:

  • improving indoor and outdoor air quality
  • reducing energy bills
  • not fueling gentrification and displacement
  • making their homes more energy efficient
  • creating jobs for local residents

Only four percent of Boston’s biggest buildings, like those owned by hospitals, universities, and large management companies, account for 70% of the carbon pollution in the city. This pollution contributes to disproportionately high rates of asthma and lung cancer among Black Bostonians. In general, Black, Brown, and low income residents are more likely to depend on public transit and to live in a building that is not energy efficient or weatherized.

Among their victories, ACE ensured that big building owners can’t evade responsibility. If building owners don’t meet the standard, they can make a payment into a Building Equity Fund. ACE pushed the city to prioritize funding projects that benefit environmental justice communities, support housing justice and reduce displacement, and require strong standards for workers. Most building owners also won’t be able to meet the targets just by doing building improvements; they will also need to buy renewable energy to meet their electricity needs. ACE pushed the city not to include the purchase of carbon offsets as an option for compliance, which would result in companies paying for (sometimes dubious) environmental projects in faraway places rather than actually reducing emissions locally.

ACE also made sure that oversight of the implementation of this policy is in the hands of frontline communities. Two-thirds of the review board for BERDO – which will be responsible for considering exceptions from building owners, managing the Building Equity Fund, and changing regulations over time – will be constituted by the nominees of community-based organizations with an expertise in environmental, housing, and climate justice. This process can’t be captured to serve the interests of developers and real estate.

Now, just imagine what would be possible if organizations like ACE were able to take the lead in envisioning and implementing the local solutions we need. Rather than being in a position of revising a predetermined policy approach for buildings, what if frontline communities had the support to build policies and programs for systemic change from the start?

Through Community Climate Shift (CCS), The People’s Climate Innovation Center (PCIC) along with Institute for Market Transformation (IMT) are anchoring a proactive network to increase access to resources among frontline communities, technical knowledge, and shifting and transforming power for climate equity and justice. When the White House recently launched a National Building Performance Standards Coalition, CCS received an invitation to help focus and forward the equity component of the work. Knowing one equity-centered partner can not do this work alone, PCIC sounded the call for community organizations to gather to strategize and rethink what “building decarbonization” or “building performance standards” have to do with frontline community needs and wants. This is a perfect example and opportunity for making sure there is alignment and cooperation across respected partners in the field across the US, especially as over 33+ city and state governments have committed to the White House effort.

Partners behind the “2022 Sounding the Call” (as we lovingly call it) include the PCIC, Facilitating Power, Kapwa Consulting, LLC, and Upright Consulting Services, as well as more than 20 frontline organizations, networks, movement consultants, intermediaries, and facilitators representing hundreds of communities. We believe the participants together will have a special sauce that will help shape how communities can engage in these large, technically-oriented climate efforts in order to shift and transform them.

During an initial planning session exercise, a participant, Sasha Forbes, who is Jamaican, had noted that the convening was like “sounding the abeng”. The abeng, historically an animal horn, is an instrument used to rally people together. This tradition passed on from the Twi people of West Africa to the Caribbean, and was notably associated with Maroon people in Jamaica. To sound the abeng was to sound the call to come together to organize strategies of collective resistance.

Together, we are calling for an investment of $100 million to increase community ownership in climate action and equitably decarbonize buildings and emission reduction strategies of the built environment more broadly across the country. This funding will activate our aligned national network of equity, environmental justice, and building decarbonization leaders to embark on community-led policy making efforts.

ClimateWorks data from 2019 and 2020 show that environmental justice organizations receive an incredibly tiny share of funding in the U.S. We’re talking about less than a percentage point – about 0.5% of all environmental donations, or about 0.01% of charitable donations overall. This amount hovers between $25-60 million, which is about how much The Nature Conservancy raises every week.

The Justice40 Initiative and the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 promise billions of dollars for climate and energy interventions in low-income and disadvantaged communities. However, these funds are still trapped in inaccessible vehicles. In addition to the exhausting effort of navigating burdensome federal grant application processes, the Climate Justice Alliance explains that competitive grants “…will have Black, Brown, low-income, and tribal communities compete for funding with ‘eligible recipients’ that are better funded such as industry or large NGOs. In addition, to have frontline communities compete for funding while including direct expenditures for fossil fuel infrastructure in the same bill will exacerbate pollution in the same communities in need of investments.” Moreover, rebates and tax credits, such as those for home electrification and energy efficiency, either expect low-income families to pay costs upfront or may only fund the partial cost of home improvements for individuals who own their homes. The result: moderate income households and homeowners will be much more likely to participate than low-income households and renters.

With sufficient funding and a trust-based approach to philanthropy stewarded by movement intermediaries, we imagine being able to equip frontline organizations and coalitions in more than three dozen places in the next five years to drive collaborations with governments that reduce emissions in the built environment while redressing systemic racial inequalities and advancing frontline community priorities. Climate change is the symptom of a deeper problem that can only be addressed with justice at the core of anti-racism practice, economic transformation, and radical reimagination of systems designed to extract and exploit.

         

Participants in Sounding the Call gathered in late May 2022 in Seminole lands now known as Orlando, FL, to develop a shared Strategic Compass to guide our collaboration. We also moved and danced together. Photos courtesy of Guiamedios Photography/Film.

For the environmental nonprofits, companies, and foundations reading this blog post, I invite you to join Kresge Foundation, Energy Foundation, Institute for Market Transformation, New Buildings Institute, Greenlink Analytics, Building Electrification Institute, Emerald Cities Collaborative, and Elevate in shifting resources in response to our call. This may look like providing direct funding, advocating to your funders and partners to contribute, and offering your time and energy for strategic and technical support. For the frontline community organization and intermediaries interested in learning more, participating in future gatherings, or collaborating in other ways, we invite you to connect! All inquiries can be emailed to esme@climateinnovation.net.