Air pollution has serious consequences – the World Health Organization estimates that it kills 7 million people a year. Indeed, recent research suggests that nearly 9 million people died each year from exposure to air pollution caused by fossil fuel combustion from 2012 to 2018. The economic impacts on health and productivity of exposure to air pollution s ‘amount to trillions of dollars. Added to this is the deep and existential threat of climate change.
These consequences are not evenly distributed. In the United States, black Americans are three times more likely to die from air pollution. In California, approximately 44% of Latinos live with poor air quality, compared to 25 percent of non-Latinos. The impacts of climate change, including extreme heat and flooding, also disproportionately affect people of color.
It’s American Climate Action Week, and statistics like these underscore the lived experiences of millions of people and the urgent need for immediate collective action.
Governments mobilize to fight against equity and the environment
Thanks to the groundbreaking work of environmental justice leaders across the country, governments are taking bold climate action that tackles these disproportionate impacts. New legislation in states such as California, New York and New Jersey focuses on addressing environmental injustices through data-driven planning and targeted interventions.
And now the Biden administration has set the goal that 40 percent of federal climate investments benefit the disadvantaged communities. Justice40 is an opportunity to systematically address environmental justice and unlock a new wave of economically growing innovations in historically under-invested communities across the country.
Businesses can be growth engines for economic and climate justice
As all levels of government mobilize to invest in environmental justice, it is time for the private sector to get involved as well. Businesses play a vital role in tackling the converging crises of climate change, public health and widening economic disparities.
It’s not just about reducing or even reversing every company’s carbon footprint. It’s about rethinking the way we do business to meet both the public good and economic growth. Products and services should be designed for and with communities. Business models can simultaneously serve shareholders and stakeholders.
Too much of the technological innovation of the past decades has been engineered in a Silicon Valley bubble and centered on convenience, comfort, and status.
Already, environmental and climate justice entrepreneurs are leading the way. For example:
- Donnel Baird, founder of BlockPower, partners with governments, utilities, building owners and community members to generate energy savings and reduce carbon emissions. BlocPower’s smart buildings platform markets, designs and finances renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies for buildings located in underserved market segments, generating financial returns, reducing emissions and improving public health .
- Elango Thevar, Founder and CEO of NEER.ai, brings a next-generation smart platform for water infrastructure to small communities to ensure access to drinking water for all.
- Dana Clare Redden, Founder and CEO of Solar Stewards, is building a more inclusive clean energy economy through on-site solar development with community organizations such as affordable housing, schools, and non-profit organizations.
A common thread for every business is that they design solutions for and with communities underserved by the tech industry.
Building climate solutions and economic growth for and with communities
Environmental justice organizations have been tapping into their own ingenuity to create innovative climate solutions for decades. Yet the tech industry has, by and large, ignored the incredible opportunity to partner with it to innovate scalable solutions that serve both climate and economic justice.
Too much of the technological innovation of the past decades has been engineered in a Silicon Valley bubble and centered on convenience, comfort, and status. But incredible advancements like cloud computing, mobile broadband connectivity, machine learning, and advanced sensing technology have also been combined to treat disease, fight forest fires, grow drought tolerant crops. and supporting data-driven climate action. We have barely scratched the surface of the potential of technology to serve people and the planet. At this defining moment, it is time to extend the innovation economy to all communities.
By creating community-centric innovation through direct partnership with and employing people affected by environmental injustice, businesses can prepare their products and services to catalyze local climate action and economic growth at the same time. .
For example, Aclima designed its environmental intelligence platform with and for communities to help target investments in community-led emission reductions. And our company’s sensor network is operated by full-time employees with benefits hired from the communities we serve. To further deepen the company’s alignment and collaboration with climate and environmental justice leaders, Aclima recently expanded the Aclima advisory board to ensure that the science and technology it develops is continually adapted to the needs of the communities and clients it serves.
Climate entrepreneurs and the tech industry as a whole must constantly evolve their approaches and reiterate their solutions based on feedback from trusted relationships with partners and community stakeholders. We can go further by designing business models to support the public good and generate economic opportunities for people who have been excluded from the innovation economy that has created unprecedented levels of wealth. Communities affected by environmental injustice have been ignored for too long, but they have the power to propel us all forward.
It is time for the private sector to transform itself into a growth engine for economic and climate justice. To ensure equal access to self-determination and economic opportunity, we must ensure everyone’s right to a healthy environment.