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5 ways businesses can take action to reduce environmental racism

This year’s COVID-19 crisis and racial justice movement have highlighted the systemic inequities in the U.S. Companies can lead the way.

Global Climate Strikes NYC

Global Climate Strike in New York City.

For decades, Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) in the United States have sought environmental justice as a civil right, but now, the grave disparities in environmental harms are coming into national prominence. This year’s COVID-19 crisis and racial justice movement have highlighted the systemic inequities in the U.S. and revealed how crises disproportionately affect certain populations.

The urgency of now is underscored by the climate crisis and the need for climate justice. 

Businesses continue to lead on climate in the absence of U.S. political will. And while we have a long way to go, businesses are also stepping up in the fight for racial equity — some leading the pack, such as Starbucks, and beginning to integrate equitable strategies across their business, particularly in their climate solutions.

Whether we say climate justice, climate equity, the intersection of climate change and people or the social impacts of climate change, one thing is clear: Business has a role to play in addressing the structural inequity that causes low-income populations and communities of color to bear the brunt of the climate crisis. 

Extreme heat and storms, sea level rise, intense wildfires — climate change may threaten everyone, but many BIPOC communities are more vulnerable to climate impacts. These communities also suffer disproportionately from the broader socioeconomic impacts of climate change, such as disrupted access to social services and increased energy costs — so much so that race is the most salient indicator in the U.S. of how the climate crisis affects people. This includes poor air quality due to proximity to polluting facilities such as fossil fuel power plants and refineries, which compounds the impacts of crises such as COVID-19. 

The business role in climate justice 

Business has an important role to play in helping to bring climate justice and racial equity front and center while shifting the finance for the energy transition. Business action, supported by government regulations, investments and incentives, is absolutely critical for transitioning to net-zero emissions by 2050.

Achieving this not only addresses the climate crisis writ large, but it also improves local environments and economies to be more sustainable for everyone. 

The move to a net-zero GHG emissions economy will require systemic transitions in business operations; however, the benefits of this shift are immense both for business and for broader society. Billions of dollars will be spent, saved and made during this transition. A fair, just and inclusive transition with justice at its core calls for climate investments to alleviate or eliminate existing disparities in environmental, social and economic opportunities and outcomes.

Billions of dollars will be spent, saved and made during this transition.

Traditionally, climate action has focused too narrowly on only the global benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, ignoring the potential to generate immediate benefits for community well-being, such as "improving local air quality and economies through investments in infrastructure, restoring ecosystems and increasing community vitality." 

Stakeholders, people, matter to business — whether through direct employment, raw material production in value chains, or markets. The barriers that prevent BIPOC communities from thriving also hinder business growth and sustainability. No longer can businesses ignore entrenched social inequality — greater inequality leads to greater environmental degradation.

This phenomenon, also known as intersectional environmentalism, means that instead of one bottom line, there are three: environment; economy; and equity. Businesses can and should design all activities, especially those that address the climate crisis, with a racial equity and justice lens. As we transition, we must bring BIPOC communities along with us; otherwise, there’s a risk that they’ll continue to be left out, even in the new structure we create.

What business can do about climate justice

While many businesses are stepping up by setting the necessary ambitious climate targets in line with the Paris Agreement, it simply isn't enough to protect those most affected by the climate crisis. The good news is, businesses can do many things to promote climate justice activities, including learning from what others already have done.

For example, learning from the cities of Portland, Oregon and Oakland, California, businesses can take steps to place social justice at the center of their core activities, including those related to climate, within their own operations; enable others to do the same; and influence policies to reduce systemic inequities at their roots.

Portland’s 2015 Climate Action Plan and Oakland’s 2030 Equitable Climate Action Plan (ECAP) center climate solutions that address existing disparities, transitioning away from fossil fuel dependence while increasing community resilience. A companion document to Oakland’s ECAP, the Racial Equity Impact Assessment & Implementation Guide (REIA), describes how to identify the most affected communities and reduce equity gaps in resource allocation and climate vulnerability. 

Here are more ways in which businesses can lead: 

Center climate justice and racial equity in climate activities

Commit to a net-zero GHG reduction target by 2050, or sooner, across the entire value chain. Identify the business activities that disproportionately affect communities on the basis of race, and develop solutions centered in climate justice and racial equity. This can include reducing harmful on-site emissions as well as off-site fleet electrification in high pollution areas.

Identify the business activities that disproportionately affect communities on the basis of race, and develop solutions centered in climate justice and racial equity.

Companies also can develop green jobs in a just manner that respects human rights and livelihoods. Resilience solutions should also ensure that those across the company operations and value chains (employees, factory workers, smallholder farmers, vital communities) are protected from climate-related events. 

Engage those most affected by the climate crisis

Assess your business’ climate impact and compile data showing the impacts on the communities and stakeholders most affected by the structural inequalities (climate risk and vulnerability assessments). Engage them in community-driven climate resilience planning.

For example, businesses can diversify the value chain to support small disadvantaged business enterprises (DBEs) with sustainable practices and enter Community Benefits Agreements with residents living near business facilities to increase climate benefits such as urban tree cover, home weatherization and electric vehicle (EV) access.

Educate and build awareness about climate justice

Educate leadership and employees internally on how race intersects with the climate crisis. Build awareness externally and help educate others on the issue.

Earlier this year, the B Corp Climate Collective launched its Climate Justice Learning Task Force, intended to help others access resources about climate justice.

Collaborate to scale impact

Solving the climate crisis is too big to only act alone — companies should collaborate with others across industries and with expert stakeholders. For example, companies can commit to the Business Pledge for Just Transition and Decent Green Jobs. And Starbucks is collaborating with partners to identify areas across their business to incorporate climate justice, including how they procure renewable energy and build infrastructure. 

Leverage influence and advocate for public policy

Call on all levels of government to integrate a justice lens into their climate solutions. The climate action plans developed by the cities of Portland and Oakland are great examples of how to integrate racial equity into government plans. 

We commend the efforts that businesses already have made, with over 1,300 commitments that formally recognize the transition to a net-zero economy. But businesses are only starting to scratch the surface on climate justice solutions. When business solutions center those most affected by global crises — whether a pandemic or climate change — and improve these communities, everyone benefits. When they are left behind, everyone’s harmed. Now’s the moment to build a truly inclusive future.

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