Upliftca.org makes the best of a bad thing – pollution

Dianne Anderson
By Dianne Anderson
For business

Pollution is never a good thing, but there is some good coming out of it – namely billions of dollars to help some of the hardest hit Californians suffering the brunt of dirty air.

Emi Wang said her organization’s upgraded searchable database points the way toward environmental justice, thanks to California Greenhouse Gas Reduction Funds legislation.

“That’s what’s needed. We created this statewide tool. We need local communities to know about it, to hear about it, and ultimately plug in,” said Wang, environmental equity manager at The Greenlining Institute, an Oakland-based Multi-Ethnic Public Policy, Research and Advocacy Institute.

It stems from a 2006 fight to push legislation for big polluters to trade carbon emission credits, called Cap and Trade, with revenues recycled back in the form of pollution reduction programs. In 2012, SB 535, (de León) expanded those resources, designating one-fourth or more of California’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund for disadvantaged communities.

The results of the legislation

The money keeps rolling in. According to the recent California Air Resources Board data, Legislature has appropriated $6.1 billion to 17 State agencies since 2014, with agencies having awarded over 80 percent of funds appropriated before September 2017. CARB also reports the “administering” agencies distributed $2 billion to ongoing or completed projects, of which 51%, over $1 billion, has benefited disadvantaged communities.

“The investment of Cap-and-Trade proceeds is an important part of the state’s overall climate efforts, reducing climate-changing gases and improving quality of life especially in the state’s most vulnerable communities,” said CARB Chair Mary D. Nichols. “California communities across the state are reaping the fruit of these investments in better air and improved transit. Governments around the world are looking to California as a model for how protecting the environment can strengthen their economies.”

Wang said with Cap and Trade extended by Gov. Brown last summer, more players are now competing for the money. Projections are that the program will generate about $8 billion more in the next decade.

“A lot of people are saying, ‘Wow. Every year, reliably about $1 billion goes out, this is a lot of money,’” she said. “Our task is to make sure that California continues its clear focus on equity and investing in the most disadvantaged and low-income communities.”

With something for everyone, Upliftca.org’s online database hosts about 40 climate investment opportunities. Residents can save on their energy bill, or the collective community can access bigger grant opportunities.

More than 20 different programs in the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund offer consumer incentives.

Residents can buy electric vehicles, and home solar panel installations. Community groups can apply for tree planting and parks, or small and large municipalities, even transit agencies can access bigger capital projects.

“I’d say all those entities are applying for, and receiving the money — individuals, homeowners, community-based organizations, local and regional agencies,” Wang said.

Other efforts to help

Another funding stream from legislation co-sponsored by Greenlining, Transformative Climate Communities (TCC), is connecting communities with bundled sustainable projects through a single grant proposal. The holistic approach helps communities throughout a five-mile area.

To access that award, Wang said the most inclusive applicants will score the best. Greenlining and the California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA) co-sponsored the TCC legislation, AB 2722, which includes strict guidelines for anti-displacement protection, economic benefits and guarantees residents a seat at the table.

“Municipalities [may be] listed as the formal applicant, and you will only score well if you can show that you’re including community and faith-based leaders, and the residents themselves,” she said.

In its first year, TCC received $140 million, divided into three projects, one in Fresno, one in Los Angeles and Ontario. However, she is concerned for the future, as Gov. Brown’s proposed 2018-2019 budget intends to cut TCC to $25 million.

“We really think that’s not adequate, that would be only enough for one grant,” she said.

Instead, she wants to see it expanded to the success that Fresno is seeing. There, about 600 residents came together in 11 community meetings to decide how to spend $70 million. With direct voting power, local residents voted on 25 different projects, from mixed-income housing to new parks, solar and street trees, among many others.

Veronica Garibay-Gonzalez, a statewide advocate with the Fresno-based Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, said that access to TCC funding is a huge win for her city, and for impacted communities of color.

How Fresno made the program work

According to CalEnviroScreen, Fresno is one of the hardest hit in the state by multiple sources of pollution.

The community also flexed its power, creating a first of its kind “force fitted” participation plan for city officials and local leaders that required residents to vote on how the money would be spent.

As a result, Fresno is starting to move on plans for a community college satellite center in West Fresno, a ride-sharing program using zero-emission vehicles, and increased public transit frequencies connecting the neighborhood to the rest of the city.

“There is huge potential here. The $70 million was leveraged to just about $195 million when other local and private dollars are added to the mix of the total cost of the entire project area,” she said.

She is excited that the city is providing discretionary dollars to make projects happen. She said the community college is putting up the additional $40 million to build out a future facility in the neighborhood.

Everyone is working together. They are on the clock, but she’s not nervous. The TCC allocation must be spent by 2020 due to statutory requirements. To her, it just means that big infrastructure projects will get off the ground more quickly.

“It really provided an opportunity to the community that had already been engaged in developing their own vision for the neighborhood. So we had a plan, and here comes the money to bring some of those components to life. It worked out really well,” she said.

Dianne Anderson covers education, health, and city government stories with an eye on legislative impacts to diverse communities. She has received awards from the American Cancer Society – Inland Empire, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Over the years, she has reported for the Long Beach Leader and the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin and been a contributor to the Pasadena Weekly.