The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is moving the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund forward and making good on its recently renewed commitments to environmental and climate justice.
Created by the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, the Fund aims to mobilize public and private capital to reduce emissions and combat air pollution across the U.S., with a focus on low-income and historically marginalized communities.
As a first step, the Fund will host two grant competitions worth $27 billion, the EPA announced in its initial guidance last week. A $7 billion competition will award grants to 60 organizations providing clean technologies like community solar and energy storage within U.S. communities. A second will disburse $20 billion to anywhere from two to 15 nonprofit lenders, including community-based lenders and green banks that provide financial assistance for low- and zero-emission technologies in low-income communities.
"The Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund will unlock historic investments to combat the climate crisis and deliver results for the American people, especially those who have too often been left behind," said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan, the first Black man to head the agency, in a statement. “With $27 billion from President Biden’s investments in America, this program will mobilize billions more in private capital to reduce pollution and improve public health, all while lowering energy costs, increasing energy security, creating good-paying jobs and boosting economic prosperity in communities across the country.”
Those are pretty big words, but a host of environmental and climate justice advocates agree about the Fund's promise. "This is a huge step," Adam Kent, Sarah Dougherty and Douglass Sims of the Natural Resources Defense Council's People and Communities Program, wrote of the Fund in a blog. "It has the potential to not only improve lives, but ultimately transform ‘green’ investments into ‘mainstream’ investments by catalyzing far, far more than $27 billion of investments and building a more equitable clean energy future."
An estimated 1 out of every 25 premature deaths in the U.S. can be linked to air pollution — more than traffic accidents and shootings combined. People of color and low-income people are more likely to be exposed to high levels of air pollution and as such are at greater risk of premature death. These communities also face outsized impacts from climate change.
Addressing environmental and climate justice issues like these is a key focus in President Joe Biden's plan to leverage federal funds to advance racial equity. Launched during Biden's first week in office, the Justice40 Initiative looks to direct 40 percent of the overall benefits of certain federal investments to disadvantaged communities that are underserved and overburdened by pollution.
The Fund will align with Justice40 and take things a step further. "Although the law requires that just over half of Fund investments target low-income and disadvantaged communities, EPA will aim to prioritize investments in these communities throughout the entire $27 billion program," report Kent, Dougherty and Sims of the NRDC. "This decision could transform how funding flows to underserved communities, and Fund investments can support critical, life-improving projects that otherwise would not have moved forward."
The $7 billion in grants for clean technologies has the potential to scale transformative solutions like community solar and energy storage that can decarbonize underserved communities while reducing the burden of air pollution. The idea is that a cash infusion from the EPA can help recipient organizations grow and deploy even more community-based projects in pursuit of climate justice, similarly to how a $456 million federal loan helped Tesla become the world's largest electric vehicle manufacturer.
"These projects have the potential to create local benefits including savings on energy costs, reliability improvements, and improved air quality, as well as reducing climate pollution," said Heather McTeer Toney, vice president of community engagement for the Environmental Defense Fund, in a statement.
Further, the EPA's decision to diversify its portfolio of nonprofit lenders — rather than investing in a single entity — will allow funds to reach more communities through institutions with proven track records of community-based and green lending. "This is a sound decision, as NRDC and many of our environmental justice and community-based partners have pushed EPA to select multiple recipients as a critical feature of Fund implementation," Kent, Dougherty and Sims wrote.
Both grant competitions are expected to launch in early summer. Organizations will have two to three months to submit their applications, and the EPA plans to make awards by late September of next year.
The architecture of the Fund is based on input from state, local and Tribal governments, community financing institutions, environmental justice organizations, industry groups, and labor and environmental finance experts, the EPA said — and advocates are calling on the agency to keep the engagement up as it moves to start disbursing grants.
"This is a positive step toward making the just transition affordable and accessible to those most in need,” Jessica Garcia, climate finance policy analyst at Americans for Financial Reform Education Fund, said in a statement. “The EPA should continue collecting feedback from the directly impacted communities that this fund aims to serve and developing robust criteria for its applicants to achieve its dual directive of protecting communities from climate impacts and providing them financial tools to safeguard their future. ”
Image credit: KE ATLAS/Unsplash
Mary Mazzoni has reported on sustainability in business for over a decade and now serves as managing editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of brands and organizations on sustainability storytelling. Along with 3p, Mary's recent work can be found in publications like Conscious Company, Salon and Vice's Motherboard. She also works with nonprofits on media projects, including the women's entrepreneurship coaching organization Street Business School. She is an alumna of Temple University in Philadelphia and lives in the city with her partner and two spoiled dogs.