TL;DR — Both air pollution and climate change are recognized as global crises with significant negative impacts on public health, economic output, and environmental sustainability around the world. However, there is another consideration that is essential to bring to the table when we discuss these issues — the inequitable distribution of risks associated with both air pollution and climate change. In this blog, we will examine how the impacts of these crises are distributed both within and across nations — and how they tend to be concentrated in communities that are already disadvantaged, making both air pollution and climate change not only environmental and economic issues, but environmental justice issues as well. (Image source: Stanford)

Classifying air pollution and climate change as environmental justice issues

To classify these crises as environmental justice (EJ) issues, we must first define environmental justice.

Environmental justice is a social justice movement that seeks to dismantle the flawed environmental policies that have long harmed low-income communities and communities of color, and instead pursue policy and development that work to create a sustainable, cooperative, and equitable future for the environment. It rests on the principle that everyone has a right to a clean and healthy environment”

— Patnaik et al., 2020

The USEPA’s definition of environmental justice states that everyone has the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, as well as equal access to the decision-making processes that work to support environmental health.

The negative impacts of both air pollution and climate change are disproportionately distributed, and the unequal burden of harm placed on disadvantaged communities by environmental crises like air pollution and climate change does not occur by accident. This complex phenomenon is the result of historical discrimination occurring in housing, education, employment, and healthcare that has contributed to underserved communities’ increased vulnerability to environmental crises, as well as:

  • Historical underinvestment in communities of color and other marginalized communities
  • Structural racism
  • Higher pollution burdens
  • Inadequate access to healthcare resources

The unequal impact of climate change and air pollution at the global level

The effects of climate change and air pollution are distributed unequally at the global level. Socioeconomic status is a major predictor of exposure to both air pollution and climate change impacts, both within a country and across countries and regions. 

When it comes to air pollution, those in economically developing countries tend to fare worse than those in richer, more industrialized countries, with higher levels of mortality linked to air pollution. Data also shows that while air quality has improved in industrialized countries in recent years, it has gotten worse in some economically developing countries, such as those in south and southeast Asia.

The harm from air pollution exposure is not distributed equally across the globe. Those countries that compose the Global South — primarily those in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania — suffer the most in terms of air pollution-related premature deaths, making air pollution an environmental justice issue. (Image source: Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, Global Burden of Disease, 2019)

Like air pollution, climate change is a global issue that will impact low-income countries the most, particularly in the Global South. Because of larger temperature-driven reductions in GDP per capita in the poorest countries, it is estimated that the ratio between the top and bottom income deciles is likely to be 25% larger today than it would have been in the absence of experienced global warming

Though climate change is an issue that affects the entire planet, its impacts are not distributed equally and are skewed toward lower-income countries. (Source:  Kiss-Dobronyi & Mihalyi, 2021

Climate change can also hit economically developing countries harder because of the financial resources required to fight climate change. A 2021 study by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) found that despite 80% of developing countries beginning to formulate and implement national climate adaptation plans, 46 of the world’s least developed countries do not have the means to carry out their plans.

Many economically developing countries face food insecurity, and climate change can exacerbate droughts, flooding, and extreme weather that can damage agricultural yields. For example, in the East African nation of Burundi — where food insecurity is already a significant problem and chronic malnutrition is the highest in the world — extreme droughts and flooding are predicted to decrease agricultural yields between five and 25% in the coming decades. This country has the lowest annual CO2 emission rate in the world — a testament to how the effects of climate change are not localized or restricted to high-emitting countries, but damage the most vulnerable.

The image above shows how lower-income countries experience greater climate-induced reductions in per capita GDP growth, suggesting that a changing climate may increase the existing economic inequality between countries seen at the global level. (Image source: Climate Econometrics)

The impacts of climate change are expected to be the most concentrated in economically developing countries and those that make up the Global South. A UN report finds that rapidly urbanizing cities in developing countries will feel the strongest effects of a changing climate — such as greater vulnerability to heat waves, flooding, extreme weather, and disease — because their sprawling, often unplanned urban development and less extensive infrastructure is less adaptive to these issues that arise.

The image above shows the geographic distributions of climate change’s impacts on GDP growth. Regions in the Global South — including Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania — face greater projected decreases in annual GDP per capita growth under the scenario of a 2-degree Celsius increase in global mean surface temperatures (Image source: Climate Econometrics)

Inequitable distribution of air pollution exposure within a nation: The United States as an example 

Within a country or city, poor people tend to live where the air quality is poorer — in areas closer to pollution sources like refineries, factories, and freeways with fewer green spaces and, often, less air quality monitoring in place. The United States provides a very clear example of this phenomena, which can be found in most developed or developing countries around the world.

In the United States, communities of color bear the brunt of climate change and air pollution at vastly disproportionate rates. According to the American Lung Association’s 2020 “State of the Air” report, people of color are one-and-a-half times more likely to live in an area with poor air quality compared to white people. 

Data from the Columbia Climate School also finds that people of color are, on average, exposed to 38% higher levels of nitrogen dioxide in the outdoor air and that Black people are three times more likely to die from air pollution exposure than white people because they are 70% more likely to live in counties that exceed federally acceptable air pollution levels. 

These disparate outcomes are often cited as the result of communities of color and low-income communities being located in closer proximity to factories, major roadways, diesel truck operations, and other polluting facilities.

[The Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States] report showed that race was the single most important factor in determining where to locate a toxic waste facility in the U.S. It found that ‘Communities with the greatest number of commercial hazardous waste facilities had the highest composition of racial and ethnic residents...While Black [people] make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, 68 percent live within 30 miles of a coal plant. LatinX people are 17 percent of the population, but 39 percent of them live near coal plants”

— Columbia Climate School

Research investigating why communities of color tend to have such a disproportionately high number of landfills, chemical plants, bus terminals, and other businesses that create air pollution located in their neighborhoods shows that residents tend to have fewer connections to lawmakers who can protect them and have a harder time hiring technical and legal support to fight against this placement. Furthermore, especially in immigrant communities, residents may have a harder time understanding how they will be impacted because the information is not in their native language.

[In the United States] more than one million African Americans live within a half-mile of natural gas facilities, over one million African Americans face a ‘cancer risk above EPA’s level of concern’ due to unclean air, and more than 6.7 million African Americans live in the 91 US counties with oil refineries. In total, African Americans are 75% more likely than White people to live in “fence-line” communities (areas near commercial facilities that produce noise, odor, traffic, or emissions that directly affect the population)”

— Princeton Student Climate Initiative

Marginalized communities also tend to lack the same resources, social and economic opportunities, and access to education and healthcare — and tend to have higher social stressors — which can make the impacts of poor air quality even more devastating to health. 

The disparities of climate change impacts at the national and regional level

Like air pollution, climate change does not touch us equally. In addition to bearing a greater burden on countries in the Global South, climate change also creates more negative harm to disadvantaged communities.

As time goes on, [communities of color, immigrants, low-income communities, and those for whom English is not their native language] will suffer the worst impacts of climate change, unless we recognize that fighting climate change and environmental justice are inextricably linked.”

— Columbia Climate School

In Europe, ethnic minorities such as Roma communities have been found to be more prone to the damage of flooding as a manifestation of climate change. Research suggests that this may be because the areas that have a higher risk of flooding are inhabited by communities that are either unable or unwilling to move to safer locations. Because many minority communities also suffer from economic inequality, this issue shows how lower-income groups may be relegated to cheaper, more undesirable, and potentially dangerous housing.

The impacts of climate change, like air pollution, are worsened by the fact that marginalized and disadvantaged communities tend to lack the same access to good medical care and health insurance. In addition to people of color and those with low-socioeconomic status, older people, children, people with existing health problems, and those who work in certain occupations — like people who perform physical work and/or work outdoors — are disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change.

A similar outcome occurs according to race, with a 2021 EPA report showing how climate change disproportionately impacts socially vulnerable populations, finding the following outcomes according to a 2°C (3.6°F) increase in global temperatures:

  • Black and African American individuals are projected to face worse impacts of climate change in all six types of impacts analyzed in the report
  • This demographic is 34% more likely to currently live in areas with the highest projected increases in childhood asthma diagnoses, and 40% more likely to currently live in areas with the highest projected increases in extreme temperature-related deaths
  • Under a scenario of 4°C, these numbers rise to a 41% and 59% risk, respectively

Why this matters: the impacts and outcomes for those in underserved communities

The impacts of both climate change and air pollution tend to be concentrated in underrepresented communities, making them both environmental justice issues. Though this link is supported by data, it is not always acknowledged in public discussion and work towards environmental solutions.

While climate change is often primarily regarded as an environmental issue, it also brings with it a slew of negative health impacts that are most severe for those in underserved communities.

The bouts of extreme heat that come with a changing climate can cause health outcomes such as heat cramps, heat stroke, heat exhaustion, hyperthermia, and dehydration, as well as infant mortality, which has been found to occur at higher rates in Black infants compared to white infants. 

This issue is made worse by the fact that environmental justice communities are more likely to live in crowded housing, have housing with poor insulation and no air conditioning, and live in dense urban environments — which can give rise to even higher temperatures due to urban heat island effects — that can make the effects of extreme heat even worse.

Our changing climate has been linked to more frequent and extreme weather, including heavy rains, droughts, and heat waves, compared to the pre-industrial era. Even one degree of a temperature difference across the globe means significantly more frequent extreme weather phenomena, with the greatest effects seen on 50-year heat waves. (Data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Sixth Assessment Report)

Climate change is expected to make certain weather phenomena — such as droughts, wildfires, heavy downpours, winter storms, floods, and hurricanes — more frequent and intense. As we have seen in recent years, this extreme weather can bring about injury, illness, and death, and underserved communities tend to have less access to adequate health care, health insurance, and transportation to escape extreme weather damage and/or to relocate after disasters.

Like with extreme heat, lower socioeconomic status individuals are more likely to have housing that is vulnerable to power outages, water issues, and water damage, and immigrant communities may not have access to public health warnings in a language they can understand.

One USEPA study looked at how economic impacts are also felt unequally by those underserved communities affected by climate change, finding that Hispanic and Latino communities are 43% more likely to live in areas with the highest projected labor hour reductions due to extreme temperatures. 

In a study done by Rice University and the University of Pittsburgh, it was found that white counties saw an increase in average wealth after natural disasters while predominantly minority counties saw a wealth decrease. The study notes that white communities saw higher levels of reinvestment in their communities after natural disasters in comparison to their minority counterparts. Additionally, it was found that white families in communities with significant damage from natural disasters saw an increase in wealth due to generous reinvestment initiatives. However, minority families in communities with similar damage from natural disasters saw a smaller increase in wealth or they actually saw a decrease in wealth.”

— Princeton Student Climate Initiative

Certain factors tied to socioeconomic status affect one’s ability to avoid or cope with the consequences of climate change, such as flooding, droughts, and heatwaves, including whether or not they own a home, the extent of their social network, and their knowledge of the country’s official language, as well as their existing level of exposure — influenced by their occupation, whether they live in a flood-prone area or overheated house, etc.

Air pollution is more widely acknowledged as an environmental justice issue whose health and economic impacts are disproportionately distributed in underserved communities. Asthma, one common health outcome of air pollution exposure, impacts African American children at almost double the rate of white children, according to research out of Princeton.

For more information on how air pollution exposure negatively impacts health, read our deep dive on the health impacts of air pollution blog here. We’ve also detailed how different air pollutants impact human health differently, including particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and ground-level ozone.

Potential solutions — better policy, driven by better measurement

A key part of the work towards finding solutions for these environmental crises is ensuring that these vulnerable groups — those most impacted by air pollution and climate change — have a voice in conversations around potential solutions. The actions taken to mitigate these environmental crises must be appropriately focused on mitigating the worst impacts for those groups that will be disproportionately impacted.

Because the data reflecting the impacts of climate change can be perceived as abstract or long-term, it can be effective to use air pollution-oriented rationale  — which is more directly measurable and short-term — to make the case for policies that also benefit the climate. To learn more about how we can leverage air quality co-benefits to incentivize and drive climate action, read our blog here.

As far as climate-oriented policy goes, any legitimate greenhouse gas emission reduction program must produce emission reductions or carbon dioxide removals that meet a number of criteria:

  • Real and measurable — realized and not projected or planned, and quantified through a recognized methodology, using conservative assumptions
  • Permanent — not reversible; relating to projects with a reversibility risk such as forestry projects, which could suffer from fire, logging, or disease. Here, comprehensive risk mitigation and a mechanism to compensate for any reversals need to be in place.
  • Additional — would not have been realized if the project had not been carried out, and the project itself would not have been undertaken without the proceeds from the sale of carbon credits
  • Independently verified — verified by an accredited, independent third party
  • Unique and traceable — transparently tracked in a public registry and not double-counted

At this point in time, unfortunately, most GHG reporting protocols are based not on direct measurement but on abstract accounting mechanisms that do not yield GHG reductions of the quality or precision required to address a mammoth challenge such as climate change. 

Allowing companies to use average rather than specific and traceable data fundamentally undermines the integrity of Scope 3 measurements. Imagine a financial accounting standard that allows a company to use industry-average raw-material costs rather than actual invoiced raw-material costs. Would such a financial report, based on average rather than actual profit margins, be acceptable to shareholders, financial analysts, and tax authorities? Yet this is the standard set by the Protocol for reporting Scope 3 emissions.” 

— Harvard Business Review

High-resolution data is crucial to effectively fight both air pollution and climate change. Having air quality data at the neighborhood level can help us understand air pollution hotspots, and hyperlocal data and action are necessary for fighting pollution inequality, especially in environmental justice communities. Likewise, measuring specific air pollutants that contribute to climate change can help us take more effective climate action and mitigate the worst impacts of rising temperatures on vulnerable communities — read our blog here for more information on looking beyond CO2 to promote dual climate and air quality action.

Interested in measuring air quality as we take the step towards cleaner air and a healthier climate? Get in touch with our team to learn more about our Sensing-as-a-Service solution for governments, businesses, and community organizations!