Proposed Plan Would Bring Climate Justice to Providence
October 7, 2019
PROVIDENCE — The city’s forthcoming Climate Justice Plan frames the intensifying climate crisis around those most at risk of suffering the consequences: the poor and people of color. These communities already endure some of the highest asthma rates in the state and many of their neighborhoods lack trees for cooling, meaning that pollution and health problems will only worsen as the city warms.
The proposed plan lays out a path to meet the city’s goal of achieving neutral carbon emissions by 2050. To get there, according to the plan, the city will curb the release of carbon dioxide and other pollutants, and close attention will be paid to the city’s climate-justice neighborhoods such as South Providence, Washington Park, Olneyville, and communities abutting the industrial waterfront and Interstate 95.
If the climate crisis is worse in areas with income disparity, the impacts will be pronounced in Providence. According to the Brookings Institution, the city has the fifth-highest income inequality in the nation and the fifth-highest low-income energy burden, which is the amount of income spent on energy costs.
The city’s Office of Sustainability notes that “these frontline communities contribute the least to the problem, yet are already suffering from climate pollution.”
Buildings produce 70 percent of emissions in Providence. The transportation sector accounts for 30 percent. A report by the Acadia Center identified the major sources as homes, schools, office buildings, hospitals, cars, and buses.
The Climate Justice Plan will also identify climate-justice zones, the areas most susceptible to flooding and sea-level rise. The city is already experiencing flooding from more frequent and heavy rains and from increasing storm surge. Both will only worsen as the local sea level rises by an estimated 9.6 feet by 2100. The number of days above 105 degrees Fahrenheit is expected to reach 12 days per year. A changing climate and longer stretches of warmer temperatures will increase mosquito and tick seasons.
Community engagement was key to the drafting of the city’s climate plan. Last year the city conducted an energy-democracy retreat with community leaders. Those leaders then interviewed people from the neighborhoods most threatened by the climate crisis. They found that any plan shouldn’t create “green gentrification” that displaces communities of color.
Emissions from buildings will be curtailed by requiring large energy users to track their energy use and greenhouse-gas emissions, according to city officials. Building owners could then be fined for failing to meet reduction targets. They could avoid possible fines by tapping into energy-efficiency programs and other services they already pay for through their utility bills.
“The idea is to get building owners to use the resources that are available to them to reduce their energy bills,” said Leah Bamberger, Providence’s director of sustainability, at the Sept. 24 meeting of the city’s Environmental Sustainability Task Force.
Emissions would also be lowered by switching the electricity used across the city from National Grid to a third party that gets its energy from renewable sources. The higher cost for “greener” electricity will be lowered by aggregating the electrify purchases with other cities and towns.
“It provides us an opportunity to have more say in where our energy is coming from,” Bamberger said.
So far, Central Falls, Pawtucket, and Newport will join together to find the most affordable electricity supplier. Ratepayers will have the opportunity to opt out of the community choice aggregation program or elect to pay more for a plan that offers a greater amount of electricity from renewable sources.
The Climate Justice Plan will be rolled out with a three-year, $375,000 grant from the Barr Foundation. Portions of the grant will pay for new employees to implement the plan. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management will also assist by prioritizing the money it spends on so-called “green zones.”
The Just Providence Framework, written in 2017 with the Racial and Environmental Justice Committee, also guides the Climate Justice Plan.
The city intends to hold a press event for the Climate Justice Plan when its final version is ready. The Racial and Environmental Justice Committee is scheduled to host an event for the plan at the Davey Lopes Recreation Center on Oct. 26.
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