In this week’s episode, host Margaret Walls talks with Victoria Sanders and Molly Robertson. Sanders is a research analyst at the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, and Robertson works at Resources for the Future as a research associate. They discuss a recent report that Sanders and Robertson have published alongside coauthors about the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, a 2019 law in New York State that aims to achieve net-zero emissions and specifies that at least 35 percent of the benefits should go toward disadvantaged communities. Sanders and Robertson describe the role of environmental justice communities and advocacy groups in the development and implementation of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, options for implementing the law, and how these implementation options are projected to affect greenhouse gas emissions and air quality in specific communities.
Listen to the Podcast
- Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act aims to benefit disadvantaged communities: “The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act is a statewide emissions-reduction set of requirements. In 2019, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, as well as a number of the organizations that we work with across the state of New York, came together to help push for this legislation that works towards getting more clean energy standards and minimum requirements for wind, solar, and battery development … The law includes critical protections for … disadvantaged communities … in which it requires that a certain amount of the funding actually be allocated towards those disadvantaged communities—and not just the funding, but also the benefits.” —Victoria Sanders (4:24)
- Research process has involved diverse voices: “We were able to bring together groups from all over the environmental advocacy realm and really bring them together for hosted workshops where we and [Resources for the Future] and the researchers were able to present our work, discuss with them, see what their priorities were, and make sure that we were really taking into account what the communities and all of the leaders in the space knew and believed would be most effective.” —Victoria Sanders (11:59)
- Different implementation options will yield different emissions reductions: “The stakeholder case goes above and beyond those requirements of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. The stakeholder case reduces emissions by 58 percent compared to the business-as-usual case in 2030. Compare that with the [New York State] Climate Action Council’s case, which reduces emissions by about 34 percent relative to business as usual. This is driven by … more generous subsidies for electrification and a much more timely phaseout of some of the fossil fuel resources in the power sector and the residential sector.” —Molly Robertson (16:28)
- Communities will experience different benefits from air-quality improvements: “It also is important to note that air-quality improvements don’t affect all populations equally. There’s some evidence to suggest that there are populations that are more vulnerable to deteriorating air quality and can benefit more from improved air quality … It really shows the importance of looking at community-specific impacts and thinking about how benefits are distributed across a state as big as New York.” —Molly Robertson (22:09)
The Full Transcript
Margaret Walls: Hello and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Margaret Walls. I'm excited today to have two guests on the program—my first podcast with two guests. With me today are Victoria Sanders from the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance and my colleague at Resources for the Future (RFF), Molly Robertson.
Victoria and Molly are here today to talk about a study that the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, where Victoria works—or NYC-EJA, as we'll refer to it—and RFF co-led that involves several academic partners. That study was an analysis of the impact of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act’s implementation on emissions and air quality in New York State's disadvantaged communities. We're going to learn more from Victoria and Molly about this Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, or the CLCPA, as we'll refer to it.
In short, the law, which passed in 2019, sets ambitious greenhouse gas emissions goals for the state. And at the same time, the law centers justice and equity in its approach. Specifically, the law states that actions that are undertaken to reduce emissions must prioritize the safety and health of disadvantaged communities and prioritize the allocation of public investments in those communities. It's really exciting that it does this, but, of course, whenever laws pass, the real devil in the details is in implementation.
This two-year study that we're going to talk about today and that was led by RFF and NYC-EJA looked at two approaches to implementation: one that was developed by a group of environmental justice stakeholders, and one that represented options developed by a state climate advisory committee. What they did is compare through a big modeling exercise the emissions and local air-quality outcomes of these two alternative approaches.
Victoria and Molly are going to tell us all about the study, what they found, and how the results matter for moving forward with this very groundbreaking state climate law. Stay with us.
Hello, Victoria and Molly, welcome to Resources Radio. Thanks so much for coming on the show.
Victoria Sanders: Hi, Margaret.
Molly Robertson: Thanks for having us.
Margaret Walls: If you've listened to Resources Radio, you know we always start, before we dive into the subject matter, to learn a little bit about our guests. I want to ask both of you to share just a little bit about yourself and your background and how you came to work on environmental justice issues. Victoria, can we start with you?
Victoria Sanders: Sure. So, hi. I have been an environmentalist for my whole life. It's something that's always been near and dear to my heart. And as a woman of color, as I grew older and learned more about environmentalism and how it impacts people of color and those who are the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, it became something that I wanted to focus on with my career. So, when the opportunity came to work for NYC-EJA and work on these really important policies to help mitigate the impacts of climate change, it was a no-brainer.
Margaret Walls: Interesting. And Molly, how about you? How'd you come to work on environmental justice issues and related environmental issues?
Molly Robertson: My background is in public policy and specific public policy analysis, and I've always been really interested in thinking about the impacts of public policy and how specifically costs and benefits of policies are distributed among different people and communities. Environmental justice is a really, really important space for this work where often data and analysis are not as readily available to determine how policies are affecting communities that are most vulnerable, so this was a really exciting project to get to work on. I'm really excited to be working with NYC-EJA and Victoria, who have a wealth of expertise in this space.
Margaret Walls: That's great. So, let's start with a little lesson on the CLCPA, as I refer to it. Victoria, can I ask you to kind of give us a crash course, some background on the law, what it does, and maybe go a little deeper than I just did in my introduction?
Victoria Sanders: Sure. Essentially, the CLCPA is a statewide emissions-reduction set of requirements. In 2019, NYC-EJA, as well as a number of the organizations that we work with across the state of New York, came together to help push for this legislation that works towards getting more clean energy standards and minimum requirements for wind, solar, and battery development. This is due to the work of advocates. The law includes critical protections for these disadvantaged communities that I've mentioned, in which it requires that a certain amount of the funding actually be allocated towards those disadvantaged communities—and not just the funding, but also the benefits, which is a really big deal, because a lot of these communities have historically been excluded from funding and the benefits that are happening due to policies to protect against things like environmental challenges. The CLCPA works to change that historical issue and protect communities moving forward. We've been working really hard to see that implementation of those goals come to fruition.
Margaret Walls: Yeah, that's great. We're going to talk about that a little bit more. Let me turn to you, Molly, and talk about this project in particular. Can you give us a little background on how it got started, what the overall objective is or was of the project, and who all was involved? I'd especially like to hear more about how this collaboration between RFF and NYC-EJA came about.
Molly Robertson: Sure. RFF obviously has a robust history of climate policy analysis, and we were interested in doing some work on the New York climate law and seeing how different implementations might impact different communities. But this was such a first-of-its-kind law with all of these protections that Victoria mentioned and legal requirements for how different communities needed to receive benefits, so we knew that we would need an environmental justice partner in this work. We were pretty new in this space, and we started talking with folks in the New York State policy conversation like NY Renews, which is another advocacy group, looking for a collaborator who could really help us think through some of the environmental justice implications of this law that we may not be thinking about yet or that we knew would need to be integrated into our analysis. NYC-EJA's name kept coming up as the go-to experts on these issues.
We were really excited when the NYC-EJA team was not only willing to contribute their expertise on environmental justice policy and the CLCPA, but to really engage with us as full partners in this work. They've been involved from start to finish with everything from policy design to how the analysis should be done to how results need to be thought about and what outcomes we need to be looking at. They've also been leading a broader stakeholder-engagement process related to this work to kind of help us think through policy design from a broader stakeholder-engagement perspective and also to help communicate our results and make sure folks know that this kind of analysis is happening and it's available. That was really a starting point—to get this kind of expertise on the team so we could think about how different implementations might look for the CLCPA.
The next step was really building out our modeling capabilities. Thinking about community impacts means getting spatially specific, and that's actually something that a lot of energy models and air-quality models aren't well-equipped to do. We had to be selective in our approach and think about what models would fit this work best. It meant that some sectors couldn't be represented well, but we were able to build out a team that covered energy emissions and three main sectors: the transportation sector, the residential buildings sector, and the power sector. We chose these models because they gave us spatially specific information about emissions changes in New York State.
That was a really important starting point for us to then move to air-quality modeling, where we have a really high resolution air-quality model coming out of Northeastern University that gets us down to a four-by-four kilometer square grid for air-quality estimates. Then, we're able to use those air-quality estimates and, in partnership with a team at the Yale School of Public Health, map air-quality improvements to communities in New York State and estimate differences among community types. It's a really big modeling team. It's a cross-institutional effort, but it's kind of what you need to do when you're answering really big questions like this. We're excited that we got to do it.
Margaret Walls: Yeah, that's great. That's a great background and gives people a feel for the results, which we’re going to talk about in a minute, and where they come from. Victoria, let me turn back to you for a minute. NYC-EJA helped build the policy case for the suite of models to run what the report refers to as the “stakeholder case.” Then, results from that case were compared with the results from the Climate Action Council's policy case, which is kind of a state case, if you will, from a state-appointed board.
NYC-EJA is a member network, and I think you've already alluded to this—that you represent several other grassroots organizations. The first question I want to ask is, How did you work across all these other groups to develop the stakeholder policy case? How did that engagement process work with all of those folks?
Victoria Sanders: It was definitely an endeavor. As you mentioned, we first reviewed what they called the draft scoping plan, which was proposed by the Climate Action Council, and it had recommendations from the Climate Justice Working Group, which was basically a formally appointed group of environmental organizations and climate justice advocates and leaders who were able to make comments and provide expertise through the process so that the Climate Action Council's proposals were reflective of the community.
We were starting from a baseline of community engagement with the original process, which was wonderful, and then we were able to gather a wide range of environmental justice community groups that we at NYC-EJA work with actively on a regular basis. This included several of NYC-EJA's member organizations such as UPROSE, El Puente, POINT Community Development Corporation, Nos Quedamos, and several other members. We actually have 13 members across New York City, so we were able to work with several of them. We also worked with a variety of other organizations from the different coalitions we're part of, such as those within the NY Renews coalition, which is a coalition of over 360 environmental justice, faith, labor, and community groups. They were actually a key force behind the adoption and implementation of the CLCPA. They continue to actively work on that.
So, we were able to bring together groups from all over the environmental advocacy realm and really bring them together for hosted workshops where we and RFF and the researchers were able to present our work, discuss with them, see what their priorities were, and make sure that we were really taking into account what the communities and all of the leaders in the space knew and believed would be most effective. We were able to add that into our work and ensure that our stakeholder case was reflective of all of those opinions, those beliefs, and that expertise that they were able to provide to us.
Margaret Walls: I'm really glad you went through that and named some of those organizations. It just gives people a sense of how much hard work goes on behind the scenes to just make sure everybody's voice is heard and that they have a seat at the table.
Let me ask you a follow-up question then, Victoria, just to lay the groundwork for the results we're going to talk about. How did the stakeholder case that you came up with–that you all developed in this painstaking way you just described–compare with the Climate Action Council's case? What are some of the key differences there between the two scenarios that you all are modeling?
Victoria Sanders: As Molly mentioned earlier, the policy cases covered electricity, residential buildings, and transportation, so there were a lot of differences. A couple differences that were really important to the environmental justice stakeholders were that we needed to have a ban on new fossil fuel generation for electricity, for heating equipment and residential buildings, because the way we see it, we need to stop the cause of the problem before we can start working towards solutions. We also wanted to prohibit hydrogen and carbon capture, utilization, and storage. These are things that we consider to be false solutions.
When we say false solutions, we essentially mean things that are prolonging our reliance on fossil fuels, even though they're purported to be solutions to ending our use of fossil fuels. We try to focus on a variety of techniques and policies that we feel will actually decrease our reliance on fossil fuels. Hydrogen and carbon capture, utilization, and storage are some examples of those false solutions that we're trying to avoid.
We also made efforts to target subsidies for technologies like electric vehicles and heat pumps, which we feel are more realistic ways to decrease our reliance on fossil fuels. We made sure that, when we were modeling those and planning how we wanted those policies to look, they would be generously helping low-income households to make sure that they were getting their fair share of the benefits of the clean energy transition.
One last thing to point out is our economy-wide policy. We priced out not only carbon, but also harmful coal pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxides that contribute to the poor local air quality—a lot of disadvantaged communities already have higher rates of poor local air quality. So, we wanted to make sure that that was reflected in the policies to make sure that the improvements there would be as outsized as the current vulnerabilities are.
Margaret Walls: Gotcha. With that background, Molly, tell us a little bit about the findings. An important part that I want people to understand about the analysis is that you compare these two policy scenarios you're modeling to a business-as-usual scenario. So, what will things look like on a trajectory, given what's already in place?
Maybe start first with a big-picture result. The CLCPA is designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, so how do the two policy cases achieve those goals? Do you all see some pretty significant reductions from the business-as-usual case, and how do they compare with each other just on that basic metric?
Molly Robertson: Sure. Both policy cases were designed to meet the legal requirements of the CLCPA in terms of emissions reductions. Both policy cases do significantly reduce emissions across the state relative to that business-as-usual case that you mentioned, while being in line with those legal requirements. But the stakeholder case goes above and beyond those requirements of the CLCPA.
The stakeholder case reduces emissions by 58 percent compared to the business-as-usual case in 2030. Compare that with the Climate Action Council’s case, which reduces emissions by about 34 percent relative to business as usual. This is driven by those policy differences that Victoria mentioned—those being more generous subsidies for electrification and a much more timely phaseout of some of the fossil fuel resources in the power sector and the residential sector. So, both meet the CLCPA requirements in terms of emissions reductions, but that stakeholder case really goes above and beyond.
Margaret Walls: Okay. Yeah. Now let's talk about the local air-pollution results, because that was sort of a focus here. What happened to emissions and concentrations of PM2.5 particulate emissions? And the big question: How were disadvantaged communities impacted under the two policy cases?
Molly Robertson: The air-quality improvements really follow those emissions differences I talked about. The concentration changes or the air-quality improvements in the stakeholder case are much greater than in the Climate Action Council’s case. On average, PM2.5 concentrations decreased by 0.18 micrograms per cubic meter in the stakeholder case and only 0.03 micrograms per cubic meter in the Climate Action Council’s case.
Those numbers seem small, so, just for reference, good air quality is anything less than 12 micrograms per cubic meter. But these changes that we're talking about would still have a meaningful impact on health benefits, and I think that's really important to call out. It's also important to note that these changes are reductions on a 2030 baseline, where air quality is already estimated to improve dramatically from what it is today. So, while that 0.18 micrograms might seem small in 2023 numbers, it may actually be a much bigger piece of the pie by 2030. Those are important things to bear in mind when we're thinking about the context here.
In terms of your question about differences in communities, we actually found some interesting results there, as well. The stakeholder case offers greater air-quality improvements across all types of communities—both disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged communities alike. The improvements are greater in the stakeholder case, but they're actually particularly pronounced for a few subcategories of disadvantaged communities. Specifically, communities that score highly on the state's socioeconomic vulnerability index, which considers things like income, race, and other variables like that. Those communities are much better off under the stakeholder case. Communities that have historically had the worst air quality are also much better off under the stakeholder case than the Climate Action Council’s case. While the improvements overall are there, we also see some of these important community differences that we were trying to uncover in our research.
Margaret Walls: Right. I realized as you're talking, Molly, that we didn't really explain to folks how the definition of a disadvantaged community comes about. You just said a little bit about it, but I believe there's a mapping tool that allows us to do that. Do you want to just say a couple of words about how that works?
Molly Robertson: Yeah, thanks for asking. We used the index that was developed by the state-appointed Climate Justice Working Group, which was tasked with basically identifying key indicators for community vulnerabilities so that the state could define these disadvantaged communities it's mandated to protect in the CLCPA. There are dozens of indicators, and there's this index that ranks communities based on their relative vulnerability. We looked both at the overall assignment of disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged according to this index. But we also dug a little bit into some of these key indicators to look at specific community types, and that's where I was talking about socioeconomic vulnerability and then also those historic worst-air-quality communities, which are both part of the overall index.
Margaret Walls: Right. Okay. Thanks for that. And just one last follow-up question on results—you talked about emissions, talked about air quality, but I know you all also went a little step further and looked at health impacts on different populations, and you hinted at that a little bit. Can you tell us a little bit more about those findings?
Molly Robertson: Unfortunately, we couldn't do a full health analysis in this project. It's something we really wanted to do, and I’m hoping that we can add it to our team's capabilities in the future. But we did want to provide some context to our report to help really highlight what these concentration improvements mean for avoiding negative health outcomes. We used analysis from previous research focused on population responses to air-quality changes, and we estimated that the stakeholder case could save hundreds of lives in 2030 alone, relative to the business-as-usual case. That's above and beyond all the climate benefits of the emissions reductions. This is just about the health benefits of air-quality improvements, so that's really meaningful.
It also is important to note that air-quality improvements don't affect all populations equally. There's some evidence to suggest that there are populations that are more vulnerable to deteriorating air quality and can benefit more from improved air quality. So, for example, previous research shows that Black folks experience worse mortality impacts when air quality deteriorates. When air quality improves in Black communities, it can actually lead to more lives saved than when air quality improves in other communities. It really shows the importance of looking at community-specific impacts and thinking about how benefits are distributed across a state as big as New York.
Margaret Walls: Yeah, super interesting. So great. That's a great summary of the findings, although, honestly, I've read this draft report, and there's a lot in there, so we can't possibly cover—
Molly Robertson: Yeah, there's a lot more to read.
Margaret Walls: Yeah, we can't cover everything in a 30-minute podcast.
Victoria, let me turn back to you. Can you tell us a little bit about what these research findings mean for your coalition's engagement on CLCPA implementation? What are the next steps for environmental justice advocates?
Victoria Sanders: Yeah, so obviously, getting the CLCPA across the finish line to make sure that it was adopted was a huge achievement, but, obviously, as we've discussed, there's so much more to be done, and implementation is really complex, and there's a lot of ways that it can be done. We want to make sure that it's done in a way that is as protective to the most vulnerable as possible.
At NYC-EJA, and with a lot of other environmental justice advocates, we are encouraging the adoption of policies that are ambitious and targeted to ensure that these disadvantaged communities are protected. We're looking ahead at additional policies coming forward. Particularly, NY Renews is doing a lot of this work, and NYC-EJA is a key member of that coalition.
Some of those policies include the Climate, Jobs, and Justice Package, which consists of legislation to help us reach CLCPA mandates, and the “just energy transition act,” which is focusing on the transition of fossil fuel power generation by having state agencies do a one-year study to establish a phaseout plan for that fossil fuel use. Also, there's something called “cap, trade, and invest,” within which we want to emphasize direct emission reductions for environmental justice communities. All of these have the capacity to have a huge impact on the state and our efforts toward addressing the climate change crisis. If we're able to do them well, we'll be able to—as we've discussed through this whole chat—make sure that disadvantaged communities are prioritized and protected, but also hopefully decrease those historic injustices that they are still suffering from today.
Margaret Walls: Yeah, that's great. That tells us a little bit about next steps on policy. Molly, let me turn to you about research follow-up. Is this kind of a one-and-done project, or are there going to be more collaborations between RFF and NYC-EJA and others around these issues? What's next?
Molly Robertson: Well, I'm happy to say that the RFF–NYC-EJA dream collab is still very much alive. We have another round of analysis going on as we speak that is still relevant to the CLCPA, where we're specifically going to be looking at, as Victoria mentioned, specific designs of the cap, trade, and invest program being designed by the state, thinking about how an economy-wide policy that covers all of these sectors can still protect disadvantaged communities, and what policy designs may have positive impacts for communities. So, we're still working together and we're still pushing forward on this policy analysis. Keep an eye out for more.
Margaret Walls: Yes, I definitely will. That's great.
Well, we're running out of time here folks, so we want to close our podcast with my favorite feature, our regular feature, which we call Top of the Stack, where we ask our guests to recommend a book, or an article, or a podcast perhaps, or something—any good content, really—to our listeners. I'm going to let you each have a go at this, starting with you, Molly. Do you have something you'd like to suggest to our listeners?
Molly Robertson: Sure. I know that the Resources Radio podcast has a broad audience, so I'm going to recommend a podcast for folks who heard this and maybe are interested in learning a little bit more about environmental justice issues.
The podcast Broken Ground was one that I listened to when I first got started in this space. It covers environmental justice stories mostly in the South, but it has really good, detailed reporting and coverage about environmental justice issues and environmental justice communities and advocacy. One of the recent ones that I thought was really interesting was talking about media and journalism and environmental justice issues and how community perspectives and experiences are often kind of overshadowed by industrial experts that have more cachet in the media and how it can be difficult to represent community stories well in journalism. I thought it was a really interesting perspective that I hadn't heard before. Definitely give it a listen if you're interested in learning more about these issues.
Margaret Walls: That's great. I love that recommendation.
So, Victoria, let me turn to you. What's on the top of your stack?
Victoria Sanders: Sure. So I will recommend a book. It's not actually very new. I think it was published in 2017, but it's a book called Never Out of Season by Rob Dunn. And it basically discusses the weaknesses of our agricultural system and how at risk we are as things like pathogens can disrupt our agricultural system. I think this is really relevant to what we discussed today, because climate change could easily put our agricultural systems at risk. I think it's good for people to kind of think about all the different ways that climate change can really impact humanity, all of us, and start thinking about ways that we can make real change.
Margaret Walls: Great. You might've heard me scribbling notes as you guys were saying those things. These are great recommendations.
Molly and Victoria, it's been a real pleasure having you on Resources Radio. I'm so glad we were able to tell folks about this really important work that you all are doing, you did, and you're still doing on climate policy, air quality, and environmental justice. Thank you both so much for coming on the show.
Molly Robertson: Thanks so much for having us, Margaret.
Victoria Sanders: Thank you, Margaret.
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