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INSIGHT: What’s Next—Environmental Justice and Global Energy Opportunities

Aug. 19, 2020, 8:00 AM

In the late Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis’ last call to action, he said: “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself…[and] we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.”

Amid a confluence of our current struggles, there is real momentum for historic changes on environmental issues—from environmental justice to waste management and clean energy production—that will move us toward a more beloved community, and away from exploitation of others.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the brutal reality of the impact of pollution on “frontline” communities of color, which have been targeted from the cumulative exposure from numerous facilities including dirty industries like trash incineration.

Harmful Cycles of Trash Incineration

A Harvard University study published in April showed that higher levels of particulate matter (including those emitted by incineration facilities) are associated with a 15% higher Covid-19 mortality rate. Similarly, communities of color such as Port Arthur, Texas, are surrounded by 570 energy oriented facilities that cumulatively emit approximately 29 million pounds of chemicals and have higher rates of cancer, asthma, and cardiovascular disease when compared to state averages.

While the cumulative burdens resulting from this historic legacy require comprehensive action, a particularly notorious example is the re-emergence of trash burning for energy. Trash burning creates pollution in exchange for exploiting short-term energy production on the backs of environmental justice community residents, and it is now making Covid more deadly for them.

It is clear that issues of racial and environmental justice can no longer be ignored, but the election of former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) is still critically important for momentum on environmental issues to continue. If Biden becomes president, the next steps will already be clearly defined. Policies on environmental justice, sustainable waste management through the development of a circular economy, and clean energy production have already been drafted by both House and Senate legislators, the Biden campaign and the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force.

Three Essential Steps

While each plan emphasizes different elements of environmental policy changes, they collectively support three essential steps:

First, making investments to clean up the most harmed communities. In some cases, this will mean shutting down waste incinerators—a dinosaur of waste management that has, tragically, been growing since China started refusing our recyclable materials. We know too much about their impact on respiratory health, and too much about the racism that led to their geographic placement, to allow the trend of burning trash to continue.

Second, pursuing clean energy and a circular economy by getting global. Growth of a global battery value chain (from raw materials to second use and recycling) and expanded energy storage will increase the availability, and decrease the cost, of clean energy to people all over the world, including in environmental justice communities. Because they provide clean energy when the sun is not out, batteries (filled with power from solar, wind and other sources) could reduce greenhouse gases by 30% in the transport and power sectors, enable energy access for 600 million people around the world, and create 10 million jobs and billions in economic opportunity.

This must be done by eliminating the violation of human rights, including use of child labor, and environmental impacts in the acquisition of raw materials to drive this transformation.

Third, connecting the opportunity for clean energy and lasting cleanup for frontline communities. As noted in the Biden plan for racial equity across the American economy, by investing in infrastructure, job training, and entrepreneurship, we can turn the historic wealth and health gap in these neighborhoods to the innovation opportunity zones for the future.

These three steps will send waste management and energy production in a new direction, ending the harmful (both prejudiced and polluting) cycles of the past. Environmental justice communities would see the most dramatic change—cleaner neighborhoods, with more economic opportunity as well.

I have long been disheartened by the racist element of harmful environmental practices and policies—waste incineration being one of the most egregious. But I have faith that the words of John Lewis are true—that each generation does its part to build a “beloved community.”

By doing our part, we can look forward to a future where the false choice of burning trash for energy is no longer considered because we can, in fact, have it all: preserve recyclable resources, create clean energy, and improve local and global economies.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Mathy Stanislaus served as the EPA assistant administrator for the Office of Land and Emergency Management during the Obama administration. He is currently the interim director of the Global Battery Alliance at the World Economic Forum.

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