What is environmental equity?

It has become increasingly clear that injustices exist all around us. Often these injustices are drawn based on race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status. What we don’t think about frequently enough is how these inequities extend to environmental pollution as well as environmental benefits.

What does this even mean?

Firstly, environmental equity is not environmental justice. Environmental equity refers to the proportional distribution of pollution and environmental benefits across communities so that no one group bears a larger impact of environmental hazards. Research and conclusions thereof demonstrate that this is not the case. Environmental inequity exists and is also often a result of social disparity based on race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status.

Climate change, environmental hazards, and pollution affect all, but they often impact people of color and low income the most. They lack access to implemented remedies such as green programs, resources, and opportunities. Often, communities of color and low-income experience neglect and lack institutional power to enact change that they need.

To demonstrate an instance, we can refer to the need for space for pollution storage and disposal in urban areas such as Los Angeles. These industries and hazardous waste disposals often lie in areas that have relatively lower land values and are surrounded by communities vulnerable to the detrimental health effects associated with close proximity to hazards. It happens that these vulnerable communities consist of residents who may not be able to afford living elsewhere nor do they have the institutional power to fight against the inequity. There could be the argument that the polluting industrial facility existed prior to the residents’ arrival to the proximity. However, ultimately, it is their socioeconomic status, low income, and racial inequality that drives these groups to live next to environmental and human health hazards.

What are viewed as disparaged communities have few resources to cope with environmental pollution and disparity. Nor do they have the access to the same environmental benefits other communities have. So, the solution? Well, it’s multi-faceted. It requires the education and empowerment of these communities so that they are equipped to stand up and defend themselves. It requires all communities in general to enact their voting power and voice in order to ensure that all groups bear proportional distribution of environmental bads and goods. While there are environmental justice groups out there that address inequalities amongst communities, they need help in order to raise voices to facilitate change, legislative or otherwise, in a faster pace.

We need to invest in these vulnerable communities to provide opportunities and boost socioeconomic status and develop climate resiliency. From a market perspective, pollution is an externality, meaning it's not accounted for in prices. Through market strategies such as taxes on pollution, neighboring polluting industrial facilities and waste disposals can begin to be held accountable for the hazards they release by ensuring that there is a price to pay. In turn, these funds can be returned back to communities for sustainable development.

In the end, when analyzing the instances of environmental inequity and determining possible mediations, it’s important to understand the connection between the environment, social justice, economy, and human health.

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