Over recent years, policymakers are increasing their focus on communities, recognizing the importance of their role in sustaining equitable solutions and enabling a just transition. Major federal legislation, including the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), and American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) all recognize the need to empower and encourage communities to be resilient, connected, and sustainable. So how policymakers define “community” will have important and lasting impacts.
A modern definition of community can be found in the Justice40 Initiative, which aims to ensure 40% of the gains from certain federal programs benefit “disadvantaged communities” (DACs). The question policymakers are now asking is how to define DACs to ensure the 40% goal is met and those that need support receive it.
While the specific definition of DACs is still under development, DACs are generally considered areas that have been underserved and are overburdened. To begin identifying where DACs might be, the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality developed a Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool, which provides a map that shows areas that experience high energy costs, limited access to employment, and dozens of other risk factors. Interestingly, this tool shows that a majority of the U.S. meets the current working definition of a DAC, and this broad interpretation may be helpful to ensure those that have been historically left out of the discussion have room to be empowered and sustain solutions.
Another example of a recent federally defined community is the “Energy Community.” The IRA defines an Energy Community as either 1) an area that heavily relies on fossil fuel industries and experiences higher than average unemployment, 2) a community where a coal mine or coal-fired power plant has been closed within the past two decades, or 3) a brownfield site. Some early mapping shows a considerable area that would qualify as an energy community. At the same time, alternative, more specific definitions are being evaluated to ensure fossil fuel-dependent communities are more directly supported. These communities often bear the brunt of the current carbon intensive economy, so more targeted support may be required to enable a successful transition to a clean energy economy.
Although the IRS and Department of Treasury are expected to issue further guidance in the future, these early definitions are informing programs now. Fifteen federal agencies have identified Justice40 covered programs, including over 140 programs from the Department of Energy and 39 new and existing programs out of the Department of Transportation. More recently, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that $100 million in environmental justice grants are currently available and will rely on these new definitions.
Two of these grant programs include the Environmental Justice Government-to-Government Program and the Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem-Solving (EJCPS) Cooperative Agreement Program. The EPA is currently accepting applications from state and local governments as well as community-based nonprofits to collaborate on programs that strengthen environmental justice efforts. There is a vast spectrum of eligible activities, including public education, community revitalization planning, and investing in zero-emission technologies as well as workforce development that supports resilience.
To become healthy, thriving places, capable of addressing the environmental and public health challenges communities have historically faced, they must be enabled to exercise self-determination and empowered to realize their full potential. Communities are complex, unique systems of people with many layers and dimensions. So when advancing a regional decarbonization strategy, communities need more than a seat at the table and funding. They need policies that can meet the scale of the challenges they face. They need to be genuinely involved, regardless of whether the topic is workforce, transportation or industry or if the region is rural or urban. And they need robust and comprehensive systems that measure and track progress to ensure accountability to carbon and equity goals.