Possibilities for a Sustainable, Equitable Planet

Posted on by Karen Chapple
Filed under: IURD,

How should we consume the planet’s resources, who should bear the costs, and how, as a society, should we make these decisions? On March 5, 2015, the Institute for Urban & Regional Development (IURD) and the Institute for Research on Labor & Employment (IRLE) jointly sponsored a conference, “Reducing Inequality in a Sustainable World.” A highlight of the day was a panel of key California leaders on climate policy: California State Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de León, California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols, and State Building & Construction Trades Council of California President Robbie Hunter, moderated by Carol Zabin, Chair of the UC Berkeley Donald Vial Center on Employment in the Green Economy.  They discussed the expansion of climate initiatives that are now on the table in California to accelerate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and specifically addressed the need to ensure that workers are protected and good jobs are created in the transition to a clean energy economy.  Throughout the day, the conference panels sparked a lively discussion by faculty speakers from the UC-Berkeley campus, who were joined by Sivan Kartha from the Stockholm Environment Institute, and the 200-member audience.

 

 As IRLE Director and UC-Berkeley Professor Michael Reich noted in his opening remarks, “California is a pioneer in climate policy as well as remedying inequality. But too often it has not considered environment and equity simultaneously. We are able to start that conversation because we have so many of the world’s leading experts right here on this campus.”

 

Throughout the day, speakers explored the multidimensional relationships between inequality and sustainability. Kartha began by examining equity across countries in reducing global emissions, proposing a $20 per capita per day development threshold to define the distribution of responsibility, with countries above the threshold bearing the largest share of the burden. Over time, the U.S. and E.U. would bear less of the cost, while rapidly growing countries like China would assume more.

 

Other speakers developed the equity rationale for taking action on climate change: in Rachel Morello-Frosch’s terms, the climate gap means that changes such as increases in urban heat will have a disproportionate impact on people of color and the poor, particularly in communities that are highly segregated by race and ethnicity.  And Marshall Burke added that, because of heat impacts on crops, productivity, and political violence, climate inaction will slow growth, with negative impacts falling disproportionately on the poorest countries.

 

Speakers suggested a broader definition of sustainability, arguing against one that focuses only on reducing carbon emissions. For Betty Deakin, this means dealing with rapid urbanization in the developing world, and the aspirations of urban in-migrants. Karen Chapple, Clair Brown, and Isha Ray framed the question in terms of Amartya Sen’s idea of capabilities, or how the environmental context can allow people to realize their potential. For Ray in particular, to attain sustainable development will mean capability enhancement for women and the poor, specifically, dealing with water, sanitation, and energy – “the backbone of a decent life.” This in turn shapes gateway capabilities, that is, the ability for women to be healthy, go to school, and avoid unpaid work. Ray disagreed with Kartha’s suggestion that sustainability and equity are mutually dependent and synergistic, arguing that sustainability in practice requires making choices among desirable goals. In the short-term, creating gender-equal pathways is a pre-condition to moving forward on sustainability.

 

Many of the speakers addressed the contradictions of growing consumption and environmental goals. Kartha advocated for differentiating between basic emissions and discretionary consumption as the path to equitable effort-sharing. At the same time, consumption is a key development goal: Dan Kammen described a strong relationship between electricity consumption and economic opportunity and quality of life. Brazil illustrates the challenge of increasing consumption among a growing middle class. Pointing to the example of increased car ownership, Teresa Caldeira suggested the paradox of progress: the very programs that have lifted people from poverty have engendered an individualism that increases consumption and negatively impacts sustainability.  As Brown pointed out, one way to address these contradictions would be to improve our measurement of economic performance or prosperity to incorporate quality of life, justice (inequality), and sustainability (as done, in part, by the Genuine Progress Indicator and the Better Life Index).

 

From this powerful set of ideas, the question is, what are the right policies to pursue, regionally, nationally, and internationally? Kammen asked how we can create an equitable transition to clean energy that provides access to energy for an additional two billion people. Several speakers pointed out that the costs of regulation are not well understood. Carbon pricing is a powerful first step, but will need to take into account the differential social cost of carbon by region, according to David Anthoff. He proposed a system of equity weighting to distribute the environmental and social costs of policies across poor and rich countries. Margaret Taylor showed how regulatory impact assessments of minimum efficiency performance standards for appliances had consistently overestimated their costs, failing to anticipate how they would lower consumer up-front costs while increasing product quality. These in turn may disproportionately benefit the poor, who are most impacted by high energy prices. Peter Barnes argued that there is a crisis in how we manage our common wealth, and both market and government failure would continue to prevent the protection of the commons, especially natural capital. As a remedy, he advocated principles of trusteeship, preserving the globe’s various forms of wealth for future generations through ecosystem trusts that would collect payment for use of common wealth and distribute the proceeds to families as a dividend.

 

California is in the middle of a grand policy experiment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, as described by Chair Nichols of the California Air Resources Board. Nichols pointed to the growing evidence that California is improving its air quality while also addressing the needs of disadvantaged communities. Zabin cautioned that green job opportunities had been overhyped in the past and that standards for job quality and access are needed to ensure that investments create good jobs and build a skilled workforce that performs the quality work necessary to accomplish the state’s ambitious climate goals. Morello-Frosch explained the potential of SB 535, the Community Benefits Fund, to identify and assist climate gap neighborhoods. Deakin argued for land use planning, as supported by SB 375, that would balance jobs, housing and services while reducing trip distance, but cautioned that such tools needed to be implemented with more attention to multiple travel modes and participation in planning. Chapple suggested an SB 375 2.0 that would deal with the rising land costs – since “livable cities are expensive cities” -- that lead to the potential for the displacement of residents and businesses.  Morello-Frosch and Kammen demonstrated the power of measurement tools, from CalEnviroScreen, to CoolCalifornia.org, to shape policy and monitor its impacts. But Brown argued for redefining success itself through a revised GDP measure that accounts for consumption, inequality, nonmarket work and leisure, and negative environmental externalities; she suggested that California follow the lead of Maryland and Vermont in adopting such a measure.

 

The ultimate challenge, however, is politics. In Brazil, progressive policies came about through the rise of a political constituency, organized in part by the Catholic Church. But Caldeira pointed out that a similar push for sustainability has not yet materialized in that country. Globally, increasing urbanization – and how it affects nature, the built environment, and society -- is helping to build a constituency, as Deakin showed. And as Kartha argued, the more equitable that the effort to reduce emissions is, the more countries will cooperate.

 

In California, the politics are increasingly favorable, in part because of the broad support from diverse communities for climate change action – as well as the ability of California’s constituencies, such as the trade unions, to work closely with regulators, as Robbie Hunter pointed out. President pro Tempore of the California State Senate Kevin de Léon sees California as providing a new evidence base for how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while growing the economy and reducing inequality. We are in the middle of a real-time demonstration on the world stage, with implications for the very future of the globe. The conversation, and action, must continue.

 

The conference was made possible by support from the California State Legislature and the UC-Berkeley Vice Chancellor for Research.