California Should Fight Inequality to Fight Climate Change

So. Many. Carbon. Emissions.
Photo: Getty

California announced a sweeping rooftop solar mandate earlier this month. The first-in-the-nation policy will require all newly-constructed homes and small apartments to have solar panels on their roofs starting in 2020.

It’s a radical move that amounts to save the planet, screw the poor. Things don’t have to be this way, though. There are climate policies at California’s disposal that could also help solve some of the state’s other major problems, namely a dearth of affordable housing, and transit-oriented infrastructure. And they could be more effective at reducing carbon emissions than rooftop solar, to boot.


The median listing price in California is $515,000 as of March (the solar panel mandate will add another $9,500, which homeowners are expected to make back over time in lower utility bills). In Los Angeles alone, a recent report indicates the city needs nearly 570,000 units of affordable housing to satisfy current demand.

Meanwhile, the transportation sector is responsible for 39 percent of California’s greenhouse gas emissions, easily the largest share of the pie. These two issues work hand-in-hand against the working poor, with people moving further from their jobs as they get priced out. And of course, the cheapest areas to live in California’s expensive cities happen to be near freeways and busy roads, exposing lower income residents—largely people of color—to more air pollution.

Building more dense, transit-oriented housing is one simple fix that would reduce residential and transportation emissions. Ethan Elkind, a law professor at University of California, Berkeley, co-authored a study last year looking at a specific type of more dense housing knowing as in-fill housing, which the study defines as within three miles of major rail stations, or is in areas where people are already driving less than normal.

The study assumed the state would build enough housing to meet population growth, which comes out to roughly 1.9 million new housing units that need to be built between 2015 and 2030. It found that adding them as in-fill housing rather than business-as-usual development could avert 1.79 million metric tons in greenhouse gas emissions annually, by reducing miles driven and lowering energy use.


That’s a huge leap over the solar mandate, which the California Energy Commission (the group that passed the regulation) said will reduce emissions 700,000 metric tons over the course of three years.


Offering additional carbon-free forms of transportation could make the savings go even further. Elkind stressed to Earther that building bike lanes and making cities more walkable are smaller investments that pay major climate and quality of life dividends.

But for a state will inevitably continue to rely on vehicles to travel far distances, electrification is the white whale of reducing transit’s carbon footprint. About half of the electric vehicles sold in the U.S. are sold in California, but the majority of those are too expensive for poor families to afford. Cars also still cause gridlock.


“Electrifying cars rolling around with Lyft and Uber is not greatest solution,” Stephanie Chen, the energy equity director at Greenlining, told Earther. “We’re still in single car model of transit.”

Electric buses are one potentially more equitable transit solution that also provide storage for solar in the form of the batteries that power them. From an energy wonk perspective, this is a big deal, because it helps makes use of all the excess solar power being produced during the day, something California is already struggling to do and which the solar mandate is likely to make even worse.


“Those are big batteries rolling around and you can schedule for the grid so they can soak up some of that excess daytime sunshine,” Chen said. “It’s going to help with mobility in communities that are lacking in public transit.”

Electric buses would also help reduce air pollution, which again, would have outsized benefits in low income and communities of color.


China is currently the only major market for electric buses, but that’s going to change, according to a new Bloomberg New Energy Finance report. By 2040, the report projects that 80 percent of the world’s buses will be electric. The U.S. is projected to be only a small portion of that, and California has been called out for dragging its feet by a member of the state’s own Air Resources Board.

That said, there are also signs of progress. Some school districts are tinkering with electric school buses. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority plans to go zero emissions bus by 2030, including dropping $138 million on 95 new electric buses last year.


All this doesn’t even begin to touch on changes that could be made to existing housing stock. While the state needs 1.9 million new abodes to keep up with growing demand, there are still nearly 14 million houses that could be retrofitted in ways that reduce their emissions, whether through low-energy appliances, improved insulation, or any other number of basic fixes that will reduce the amount of energy consumed.

Improving efficiency could also save people money. Households in the bottom 50 percent in California spend 53 percent of their wages on energy, well above the norm. The state has a number of policies in place to help low income people make retrofits, but it doesn’t necessarily make it easy, with byzantine websites and regulations that residents struggling to make ends meet might not have the time or expertise to parse.


“Energy efficiency is a real win for people in existing buildings,” Laura Tam, San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association’s sustainable development policy director, told Earther. “Making that money and those updates hard to access is not a good strategy to improving people’s carbon footprint and quality of life.”

Finally, if solar is really your bag, then perhaps I could interest you in community solar—centralized local solar projects that power local homes. The state passed a 2015 bill authorizing the construction of 600 megawatts of community solar, yet only 33 megawatts of capacity was installed as of late 2017, owing largely cost issues.


But the allure of community solar is it gives air quality benefits to local communities and lets them control their own energy fate. One place where community solar has major potential is in the San Joaquin Valley, where many residents rely on wood and propane according to Roger Lin, an attorney at the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment.

Lin told Earther residents in 12 communities there are in the midst of deciding how to remedy their heating conundrum. One solution could be to extend natural gas lines. Natural gas is cheaper than propane but still causes air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Another potential solution is community solar, which Lin said would allow communities to “leapfrog [fossil fuels] and go straight to renewables.”


Ultimately, this isn’t an easy either/or decision. The California Energy Commission has one mandate: to set energy rules. So it did that with its new rooftop solar mandate.

Transportation and housing are outside of its domain. City legislators are responsible for solving those issues, and so far they’ve been loathe to push for more affordable housing and public transit, largely due NIMBYism. The state tried to jump in with a recently-proposed bill that would’ve allowed developers to side step local government zoning and build five-story residential buildings near rail stations. It didn’t make it out of committee, which Elkind called an act of “political cowardice.”


The bill may have failed, but it points toward where California has to head if it wants to meet its ambitious climate goals and serve its entire population.

“California has done a really good job in last several years of incorporating equity into clean energy and climate politics,” Chen said. “I’m quite optimistic we can tackle and solve these challenges as as state.”


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