Why Sustainability Must Be Centered On Environmental Justice (Part 1)

By Gia Hoa Lam, G&A Institute, Sustainability Analyst Intern

Alok Sharma, president of the COP26 climate summit, held back tears in his closing speech at the climate change conference in Glasgow last November. Many environmentalists felt dejected by late changes that seemed to weaken climate agreements, such as the “phasing down” rather than “phasing out” of coal or the delay in 1.5 degree C commitments.

However, commitments to environmental justice and supporting adaptation projects were strengthened and many nations doubled their contributions to adaptation funds and funds for developing countries.

Some businesses seem to have the opposite approach. Corporations today are leading the charge on GHG emissions reductions and disclosure, but we often see shortcomings on commitments to environmental justice. Environmental justice refers to the fair treatment of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to equal environmental protection.

Oftentimes new projects or plants that pose environmental impacts—regardless of industry—are located in areas where businesses believe there will be the least resistance from the community or are the cheapest to implement.

In the effort to avoid delays or to be cost-effective, vulnerable communities often bear the burden of environmental effects. These environmental effects can be anything from increased air and water pollution leading to respiratory issues to decreased land value and community deterioration.

In the U.S., the environmental justice movement first gained national attention with the demonstrations of hundreds of Black Americans in 1982 at Warren County, in the State of North Carolina.

The state bought land in Warren County to build a landfill to store 31,000 gallons of polychlorinated biphenyls, a known carcinogen and endocrine disruptor. The county’s citizens were predominantly Black and low-income. Nonviolent protests barring trucks from beginning construction of the landfill and marches to the state capitol led to 520 arrests. National attention and mobilization from environmental groups revealed the disproportionate health risks that minority and low-income communities face.

Researchers collaborated with environmental groups to begin studies into this disproportionate risk and found preliminary evidence that a majority of Black and Hispanic communities live in close proximity to one or more uncontrolled dumps.

The mainstream environmental movement finally responded to environmental justice action after an open letter was sent in 1990 to the directors of the ten largest environmental groups, charging them with a history of racist and exclusionist practices and a failure to support environmental justice efforts.

Today, more than 30 years later, systemic racism and inequity continue to affect disadvantaged communities greatly, beyond the scope of proximity to waste. Current risk assessments by federal agencies for programs do not effectively factor in procedural equity or identify vulnerable communities.

Infrastructure that pollutes local areas are often in close proximity to disadvantaged groups. Policy is therefore needed to curb emissions from vehicles and plants, while also avoiding latent issues that may harm the environment or long-term sustainability.

Cancer Alley refers to the predominantly Black and poor populations around the Mississippi River in the southern U.S. who are at greater risk of cancer, such as 30% higher risk for leukemia.

A study published in 2020 considered Louisiana to be, “one of the most toxic states, annually discharging 7.2 tons of hazardous waste per capita, and accounting for 12.5% of the country’s hazardous waste from only 6.5% of the nation’s chemical facilities”.

This toxic waste is often dumped into the Mississippi River from petrochemical plants, leading to high nitrates. Emissions from petrochemical plants have also led to high concentrations of formaldehyde and benzene.

The Clean Water Act does little to tackle non-point sources of effluence. The nitrates in the Mississippi River cannot be traced to any one petrochemical plants, or its proportional contribution to air pollution. Citizens looking to report these plants find it hard to sue because of this shared cause of damages.

Public policy changes are needed to ensure vulnerable communities are not withstanding the worst of environmental effects due to a lack of political resources that leads to zoning and land use decisions without proper input from those affected.

The growing body of evidence shows the largest determinants of environmental and public health are tied to the color of one’s skin. Additional inequities include higher risk for unsafe drinking water, less access to recreational areas, and fewer environmental grants.

The Institute of Environmental Science and Technology at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona have constructed an Environmental Justice Atlas, mapping environmental injustices across the world.

What Can the Private Sector do?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gia Hoa Lam is a G&A Institute Analyst-Intern. Due to his previous work as a corporate sustainability intern at Ceres, a sustainability nonprofit, Gia Hoa has sustainability consulting experience across multiple industries from sustainability planning for the apparel industry to analyzing human rights policies for investment banks. On campus, Gia Hoa is a founding member of Bentley University’s Green Revolving Fund, facilitated the Bentley 2026 Sustainability & Climate Action planning process, and is currently advocating for endowment stewardship.

Gia Hoa centers people in his sustainability work with a deep passion for climate justice, DEI, and climate refugees. Initially interested in psychology, Gia Hoa realized mental wellbeing was directly linked with access to environmental and social resources. Thus, he began his journey to be a change leader through stakeholder engagement and facilitation. He believes the corporate world has the capacity for compassionate and collaborative change.

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