The Fairest, Greenest Cities of Them All

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Article Was Originally Published July 29, 2019 in U.S. News & World Report.

Just because a city is green doesn't mean it's fair.

Today, U.S. cities are leading the way to a greener future, filling a void left by the federal government's retreat. They are reducing climate-changing carbon emissions and planning for the now inevitable impacts of a warming world.

For cities at the head of the pack, there is much to be gained: good jobs in the emerging green economy; cleaner air and water; lower energy costs; and reduced vulnerability to disaster. But if those gains are not distributed fairly, U.S. cities won't achieve true climate resilience.

The good news is that it is possible to be green and fair, according to the 2019 City Clean Energy Scorecard, released July 25 by the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, or ACEEE. A handful of cities – Minneapolis, Seattle, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington and Providence, Rhode Island – are showing how it can be done.

Here's why it matters: Scientists warn that we now have about a decade to head off catastrophic climate change. Cities, which account for two-thirds of the world's energy use and 70% of energy-related carbon emissions, are key to preserving a livable climate.

Cities are rising to the challenge, the Scorecard shows. Municipal governments are using a range of policy levers, including zoning laws, building codes, public finance, transportation investment and workforce development, to promote energy efficiency and scale up renewable energy sources like solar and wind. On these measures, Boston, San Francisco and Seattle come out on top.

But, are the cleanest, greenest cities sharing these benefits equitably? The question is important, because low-income communities and communities of color have the most to gain from green energy efforts – and the most to lose in a changing climate.

Low-income communities pay dearly for dirty energy. Energy costs take a bigger bite out of their household income, making it harder to pay rent and put food on the table. People of color are especially hard-hit: Compared to their white counterparts, Hispanic households spend roughly one-third more of their income on energy bills, and African-American households pay about two-thirds more. Low-income folks are often shut out of energy efficiency and renewable energy programs that can reduce their energy costs. And their communities bear a disproportionate burden of health impacts from fossil fuel use.

Low-income communities and communities of color stand to gain from cost-cutting energy efficiency measures and from clean, low-cost renewables. They would also benefit from job opportunities in solar and wind energy, which are growing at a rate 12 times as fast as the rest of the U.S. economy.

At the same time, low-income communities and communities of color are hit first and worst by climate change impacts. It's a tragedy we see over and over again: the residents displaced from New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward by Hurricane Katrina; the public housing tenants who went without power, heat or running water after Superstorm Sandy; the senior citizens on fixed incomes who were unable to flee the fast-moving Camp fire. That's why cities must prioritize vulnerable, "frontline" communities – and involve them in planning for climate resilience.

To determine whether cities are green and fair, the 2019 Scorecard looked at several metrics, including whether frontline communities engaged in climate and energy planning, whether workforce development programs reached communities of color and whether low-income residents accessed energy efficiency incentives and efficient public transit.

While no cities completely aced the equity test, several stood out. Minneapolis emerged as the fairest green city, followed by Seattle – with Boston, Philadelphia, Providence and Washington tying for third place. Here are a few examples of what those cities are doing right:

  • Minneapolis created "Green Zones," where residents of frontline neighborhoods advise the city on climate action plans and track the outcomes of sustainability initiatives. The city's low-income utility customers have access to a variety of money-saving efficiency programs. Public transportation is widely available, while tax and other incentives encourage transit-oriented development.
  • Seattle formed an Environmental Justice Committee, which empowers frontline residents to influence environmental planning. The city also offers energy efficiency programs targeting low-income and multifamily customers. And the city's electric utility, Seattle City Light, funds a weatherization program for low-income households.
  • Washington launched an Equity Advisory Group led by residents of neighborhoods most at risk from climate impacts. The D.C. Sustainable Energy Utility offers energy efficiency programs for low-income residents, including those living in affordable apartment buildings. And through Solar Works DC, the city trains low-income residents for jobs installing solar panels.

These cities are working to make sure that the benefits of clean energy are broadly shared. And, importantly, they understand that our communities are only as resilient as their most-vulnerable residents. In this way, they may prevent the worst impacts of climate change – and build a fairer, greener future for all.

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