Carbon Pricing will Improve the Health of New York’s Most Vulnerable Citizens – Black Americans

By Rev. Kirsten John Foy | July 21, 2020

We have long known of the disproportionate burden of preventable disease, death and disabilities borne by members of minority communities across this state and nation, as well as the difficulties they face in accessing quality medical care.

The novel coronavirus has again laid bare this reality, along with our ongoing failure to adequately address it. All U.S. residents have been impacted in some way by the pandemic but none more so than low-income and minority communities. Black Americans make up an inordinate share of COVID-19 fatalities as the number of deaths continues to climb nationwide.

As of early June, nearly 23 percent of the reported coronavirus deaths were African Americans, despite this demographic constituting roughly 13 percent of the entire U.S. population. Against the backdrop of these statistics, it’s more critical than ever that we recognize the underlying public health challenges faced by minority communities and use every tool at our disposal to address them.

Atop our to-do list should be cleaning up the polluted air that befouls far too many inner-city skies. Decades of segregation and housing discrimination have put Black Americans at greater risk of living near chemical plants, factories, and dirty fossil-fueled power plants, known as “peaker” plants, exposing them to higher levels of air pollutants.

New York is rightly moving to phase out these plants as it aims to reach Governor Andrew Cuomo’s ambitious goal of bringing New York to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2040. But given what we now know about the increased vulnerability the communities around the peakers face, coupled with the possibility of a second coronavirus wave, it is imperative that we speed up the process by further incentivizing the energy industry to invest in renewables by placing a social price on carbon.

A study by Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health suggests that long-term exposure to air pollution increases vulnerability to experiencing the most severe COVID-19 outcomes, threatening the health of thousands living in New York’s environmental justice communities. Additionally, a 2017 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that African Americans are three times more likely to die from exposure to small particle air pollution than the general population.

For proof of the damage peaker plants can do, we need look no further than the South Bronx where fossil-fuel plants spew emissions into the air each time energy demand in the state rises above normal levels.

As a result, the South Bronx is one of New York City’s two most asthma-ridden neighborhoods, along with East New York, according to statistics compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overall, New York state has consistently seen higher-than-average asthma rates for many years.

With COVID-19 taking an undue toll on low-income minority communities, the same communities forced to navigate these unusually high rates of air pollution, it is imperative that policy makers give serious considerations to solutions like carbon pricing that incentivize investment in renewables and will, over time, help reduce air pollution in urban communities.

Here’s how carbon pricing works:

  1. New York State sets a social cost of carbon as a price per ton of emitted CO2 based on the impact to the environment.
  2. Power plants pay for the CO2 they release into the atmosphere.
  3. Energy producers recognize there is an economic incentive to investing in low-carbon or carbon-free resources like wind, solar and hydropower.
  4. Over time, New Yorkers across the state – but especially in environmental justice communities located near dirty fossil-fueled plants – benefit from lower emissions.

The NYISO’s carbon pricing plan is a sensible and achievable model for closing or retrofitting high polluting plants. It also will assist the state in keeping on track to implementing the governor’s blueprint for addressing climate change: The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA).

The bottom line is that the racial disparities of the pandemic can’t be separated from the racial disparities that residents of minority communities both in New York and across the nation face in their daily lives. With COVID-19 exposing an unsettling reality for Black Americans, New York cannot wait to act and should look to innovative programs like carbon pricing.

The Rev. Kirsten John Foy is the president and founder of the Arc of Justice Foundation, which focuses on advancing social, economic and environmental justice.