Cover image by TriggerPhoto/iStock

For decades, environmental justice scholars have documented the disproportionate health, environmental and economic impacts borne by tribal nations, low-income, rural and communities of color. These communities often bear a heavier burden when it comes to issues like flooding, heat waves, air pollution and food security. For example, Black and Latino communities experience 56% and 63% higher pollution than they generate respectively, on average, while White Americans experience 17% less pollution than they generate.

This is where the concept of environmental justice and equity comes into play. 

In a recent executive order, the White House defined environmental justice as “the just treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of income, race, color, national origin, Tribal affiliation, or disability, in agency decision-making and other Federal activities that affect human health and the environment.” It aims to incorporate these principles into federal policy so that all Americans are equally protected from environmental harms and the impacts of climate change; so that the legacies of racism and systemic barriers are adequately addressed; and to ensure “equitable access to a healthy, sustainable, and resilient environment” for all. Realizing this goal will be a critical component of implementing the United States’ climate action plan.

Below, we outline some of the key investments in the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law which will support environmental justice and equity in federal policy implementation. This is a non-exhaustive list meant for illustrative purposes only; environmental justice will be a central consideration in a broad range of federal and local investments in addition to those listed here.

Environmental Justice Investments in U.S. Climate Policy

The Biden administration has committed to addressing ongoing injustices with an inclusive clean energy and climate policy that centers environmental justice and equity in an all-of-government approach. The foundation of the administration’s environmental justice agenda is the Justice40 Initiative; this aims to direct 40% of the benefits of certain federal climate investments to communities that have been marginalized, underserved and overburdened by pollution. Agencies will use the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool (CEJST) — and in some cases, agency-specific screening tools that work in conjunction with CEJST — to help identify such communities and ensure investments flow to these areas.

There are more than 450 “covered programs” under the Justice40 Initiative. These can prioritize benefits to disadvantaged communities in seven categories of investments:

  • Climate change
  • Clean energy and energy efficiency
  • Clean transportation
  • Affordable and sustainable housing
  • Remediation and reduction of legacy pollution
  • Critical clean water and wastewater infrastructure
  • Training and workforce development related to the six investment areas above
Disadvantaged communities in the U.S.
To explore an interactive version of this map, see WRI's analysis of the CJEST mapping tool. This reveals cumulative environmental burden within disadvantaged communities by census tract, signifying where Justice40 investments might be needed most.

Justice40 is only one element of the administration’s environmental justice approach. It is also working to create a strong federal leadership structure with the establishment of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC) — which convenes leaders and scholars from the environmental justice movement to advise on development of federal policies — and expanding the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council (IAC), which includes the heads of key Federal agencies.

In addition, operational changes at the agency level will improve how agencies work in consultation with local and state governments, environmental justice scholars and community experts to deliver the goal of the Justice40 Initiative. Agencies will also be required to produce both an equity action plan and an environmental justice action plan.

Environmental justice initiatives in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law makes foundational investments in equity measures. It provides funding for efforts to clean up abandoned fossil fuel wells and mines, for clean school bus initiatives, and for resilience and adaptation projects to help communities — many of which have contributed the least to the climate crisis — protect themselves against the effects of climate change. Examples of these investments include:

  • Addressing Legacy Pollution: 70% of all Superfund sites are located within a mile of federally assisted housing, which primarily serves communities of color, the elderly and disabled people. As a result, these communities are at higher risk of adverse health effects including infant mortality, increased levels of lead in children, mental health illness and cancer. To help mitigate these issues, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes investments to clean up legacy pollution from Superfund and brownfield sites, reclaim abandoned mine land, and cap orphaned oil and gas wells.
  • Clean School Buses: Students with disabilities, those living in rural communities, those from low-income families and Black students are more likely to travel long distances on a school bus, leading to greater exposure to harmful air pollutants. The Clean School Bus Program, created under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, includes funding to accelerate the transition from diesel-powered buses to zero-emission and electric school buses, particularly in disadvantaged communities. Ninety-nine percent of the school districts funded under the first round of the Clean School Bus Program served predominately low-income, rural and/or tribal students.
  • Public Transit: Transportation corridors which were built through low-income and communities of color have exacerbated health inequities in these areas, including higher risk of pollution-related respiratory illness and heart disease. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes funding to modernize the public transit and rail systems by replacing transit vehicles, including buses, with clean, zero-emission vehicles and upgrading transit infrastructure. Under the Justice40 initiative, a portion of these investments will be allocated to disadvantaged communities to help alleviate pollution from transportation.
  • EV Charging: EV charging deserts (defined as communities without electric vehicle recharging stations) are predominately found in rural, tribal, low-income and communities of color. In addition, at-home charging may not be an option for residents who are moderate- to low-income living in apartments or affordable housing. This lack of charging access is a major barrier to EV adoption and makes it difficult for these communities to engage equally in the electric transportation transition. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes funding to build out a national charging network, with a significant portion set aside to expand EV charging infrastructure and increase access in rural and disadvantaged communities.
  • Climate Resilience: Longstanding social and economic inequities result in climate change disproportionally endangering those who are least responsible for it — specifically low-income communities, communities of color and tribal nations. Impacts such as extreme heat, devastating floods and exposure to air pollution cause more deaths and damage in these communities compared to white and wealthier neighborhoods. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes funding for climate resilience programs to help protect disadvantaged communities, such as FEMA flood mitigation assistance grants, natural infrastructure projects, and wildfire risk reduction and management programs.
  • Clean Power and Energy Efficiency:  Historic underinvestment in clean energy infrastructure, and lack of access to energy-efficient housing, have resulted in higher energy costs (proportionate to income) in low-income, indigenous communities and communities of color. Major investments were laid out in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to upgrade power infrastructure with new, resilient transmission lines to help expand renewable energy and increase access. The law also supports the weatherization assistance program, which reduces energy costs while ensuring health and safety for families struggling with energy burden.

Environmental justice initiatives in the Inflation Reduction Act

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) provides $60 billion in environmental justice-based climate investments — the largest amount in U.S. history. This includes funding to establish several new environmental justice grant programs, enhance research and incentivize investments in clean energy. Examples of these measures include:

  • Legacy Pollution: The Inflation Reduction Act helps communities in the shadows of Superfund, brownfield or other polluting industrial facilities by providing funding for activities such air quality monitoring and treating contaminated manufacturing facilities, processing plants, landfills and mining sites.
  • Climate Change: The Inflation Reduction Act created the Environmental and Climate Justice Block Grants to fund community-led activities in disadvantaged areas, such as air pollution monitoring, climate resilience and adaptation, and reducing indoor toxics and indoor air pollution. The grants also provide funding for technical assistance, from assessment and program development through the pilot and implementation phases. Other new climate and adaptation grants were established for tribal and indigenous communities; these are intended to increase the climate resilience of tribes and native Hawaiians who are threatened by rising sea levels, diminishing freshwater availability and shifting ecosystem services.
  • Vehicles, Trucks and Buses: To help address disproportionate pollution from transportation in low-income and communities of color, the Inflation Reduction Act includes a Clean Heavy-Duty Vehicles program; this will cover the incremental cost of purchasing zero-emission school buses, garbage trucks and transit buses with a specific focus on vehicles serving communities located in “nonattainment areas” (those that have failed to meet EPA air quality standards).
  • Green Schools: Children and staff may be exposed to environmental hazards at schools, including prevalence of mold, poor air quality and even contaminated playgrounds. Due to school funding inequities and improper planning in disadvantaged communities, children attending these schools are at higher risk for respiratory illness, poor performance in school, and reduced levels of physical activity. The Inflation Reduction Act includes funding to address some of these risks, including grants for monitoring and reducing air pollution at public schools in low-income and disadvantaged communities, and technical assistance to develop environmental quality plans.
  • Clean Energy: Low income, rural and communities of color, as well as tribal nations, do not have equal access to finance to deploy clean energy measures which can help mitigate climate impacts and reduce consumer energy costs. The Inflation Reduction Act created the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund to mobilize financing and capital for these types of projects. The act dedicates at least 60% of this funding directly to historically marginalized communities to support projects such as rooftop and community solar installations. Funding is also allocated to a general fund that will invest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting environmental justice, exclusively in low-income and disadvantaged communities.
  • Energy Efficiency: Low income, people of color and renters in affordable housing spend a disproportionately high percentage of their household income on energy bills. The Inflation Reduction Act allocates funds for improving energy efficiency, water efficiency or climate resilience of affordable housing. This can include energy efficiency upgrades, electrification of systems and appliances, and installation of renewable energy.

Featured Experts