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Climate Justice Benefits of Dismantling Energy and Transportation Apartheid

December 13, 2011

Climate change is a major global environmental justice issue of our times. Electric power generations and transportation account for nearly three-fourths (73.8 percent) of the CO2 emissions in the United States annually. Getting these two major greenhouse gas sources under control would go a long way in the fight against climate change and move us closer to achieving environmental justice.

Clearly, green and renewable energy is the way to go. It makes environmental, health and economic sense. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, the electric power sector is the largest source of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions by end-use sectors, accounting for 40.6 percent of all energy-related CO2 emissions, followed by the transportation (33.1 percent) and the residential and commercial sector (26.3 percent). Air pollution claims 70,000 lives annually, nearly twice the number killed in traffic accidents. Nevertheless, getting greenhouse gases and other co-pollutants under control and integrating air-quality (i.e., reduction in criteria pollutants  such as ozone, particulate matter; carbon monoxide; nitrogen oxides; sulfur dioxide, and lead) into climate change policymaking would result in disproportionate positive co-benefits to over-polluted communities.

Energy Apartheid

Much attention in recent years has been devoted to green energy and reducing the human carbon footprint to counter the global warming and climate change threat. The U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) reports that renewable generation made up 10.6 percent of total generation in 2009.  Dirty coal is still king—accounting for half of U.S. electricity in 2009.  The average African American household emits 20 percent fewer greenhouse gases than its white counterparts. Yet, they are forced to bear a disproportionate burden in hosting “dirty” energy such as coal-fired power plants. African Americans are also at greater risks from energy price shocks—spending 30 percent more of their income on energy than whites. This is not an insignificant statistic since the average black household wealth is substantially lower than the average white household. The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households.

The siting of power plants has significant environmental justice implications since all Americans do not have the same probability of having a dirty coal-fired power plant as a neighbor.  More than 68 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant, the distance within which the maximum effects of the smokestack plume are expected to occur. In comparison, 56 percent of whites and 39 percent of Latinos live in such proximity to a coal-fired power plant. Over 35 million American children live within 30 miles of a power plant, of which an estimated 2 million are asthmatic.

Moving away from coal-fired power plants would not only have greenhouse gas reduction benefits but would have additional health benefits by removing a major source of mercury pollution, a neurotoxin especially harmful to children and developing fetuses. Coal-fired power plants are the single largest source of mercury air pollution, accounting for roughly 40 percent of all mercury emissions nationwide. Talking clean and acting dirty is a form of energy apartheid that places African Americans at special health and environmental risk.

Transportation Apartheid

Transportation consumes more than 65 percent of the petroleum used in the United States, and motor vehicles account for 84 percent of that consumption. Americans tend to drive less-efficient vehicles, and tend to drive more miles. Traffic congestion in American cities wastes $78 billion and 2.9 billion gallons of fuel annually, equivalent to 58 fully-loaded supertankers. On average, Americans spend 19 cents out of every dollar earned on transportation expenses. Transportation costs range from 17.1 percent in the Northeast to 20.8 percent in the South—where 55 percent of African American now reside. Americans now spend more on transportation than they do on food, education, and health care.   

Car ownership is almost universal in the United States with 91.7 percent of American households owning at least one motor vehicle. Nationally, 7 percent of white households own no car, compared with 24 percent of black households, 17 percent of Latino households, and 13 percent of Asian-American households. Blacks with No Car:  Pittsburgh (48.6%), Baltimore (44.4%), Washington, DC (42.1%), St. Louis (36.2%), New Orleans (34.8%), Atlanta (34.6%).

Pollution hurts.  Ground level ozone sends an estimated 53,000 persons to the hospital, 159,000 to the emergency room and triggers 6,200,000 asthma attacks each summer in the eastern half of the United States.  The asthma epidemic hits African Americans especially hard.  Asthma attacks send African Americans to the emergency room at three times the rate (174.3 visits per 10,000 population) of whites (59.4 visits per 10,000 population). African Americans are hospitalized for asthma at more than three times the rate of whites (35.6 admissions per 10,000 population vs. 10.6 admissions per 10,000 population).

Roads get 80 percent of transportation dollars while public transit struggles along with only 20 percent funding. Roads routinely get priority while transit systems crumble or struggle to stay afloat. Motor vehicles account for 75 percent of carbon monoxide emissions, nearly half of smog-forming volatile organic compounds (VOCs), more than half of nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, 60-90 percent of air pollution in U.S. cities. More than 30 health studies have linked diesel emissions to increased incidences of various cancers. Diesel emissions may be responsible for 125,000 cancer cases in the U.S. each year

The death rate from asthma for African Americans is twice that of whites (38.7 deaths per million population vs. 14.2 deaths per million population).  In 2004, an estimated 3.5 million African Americans had asthma. African Americans have the highest asthma prevalence of any racial/ethnic group; the asthma prevalence rate among Blacks was 36 percent higher than that for whites. African Americans make up about 12 percent of the U.S. population but account for 25 percent of the 4,099 deaths attributed to asthma in 2003.

African Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is suspected of posing the greatest health danger. Ironically, vulnerable populations in the developing world and poor communities in the U.S. that contribute least to global warming and climate change suffer the greatest negative impacts first, worst, and longest. For many environmental justice communities located on the frontline of climate change, getting climate mitigation and adaptation policies right is a life and death matter.

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