Net Zero Cities: Social justice, climate fights go hand-in-hand

As cities strive to improve their environmental sustainability, so too are they grappling with the nation’s shortfalls in the arena of social justice and racial equity.

Often these issues are linked in the sense that communities of color and lower-income communities tend to live in areas most impacted by climate change, Urban Sustainability Directors Network program director Rich Freeh said Wednesday during a panel discussion at BizWest’s Net Zero Cities event. 

Sustainability and equity were too often ignored by the federal government under the Donald Trump administration, he said, leaving “cities to lead on climate in the absence of federal leadership.”

That’s starting to change with President Joe Biden’s administration, but there are still “really important challenges for communities” to address, Freeh said. 

In Larimer County, county leaders have developed the Climate Smart Larimer County program, the framework of which was adopted by the Larimer County Board of Commissioners this year. 

The program offers a “triple bottom line approach,” in which economic, social and environmental factors are considered as part of the decision-making matrix, Commissioner John Kefalas said. 

The county is in the process of soliciting input prior to the execution of the program this year. 

Kefalas said it’s critical that all segments of society are involved in the sustainability effort.

“This issue can be polarizing,” he said, but it’s important to focus on common goals and values like clean air, water and land.

Fort Collins sustainability specialist Maritza Arizaga said community leaders “can’t treat climate change like a math problem” and ignore the human elements of the issue.

“The more diversity there is, the more sustainable our future can become,” she said. 

It’s not just governments that have a role to play in sustainability but also companies. 

“I did see a lot of hiccups where [the energy industry] wasn’t supporting” lower-income and communities of color, Dream Energy Solutions CEO Danielle Henderson said.

Her company created an educational program to teach kids about climate change and renewable energy, along with an internship program to help bring more diversity to the industry. 

Xcel Energy Inc. (Nasdaq: EXL) is committed to “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people,” state affairs director Hollie Velazquez-Horvath said.

As an example, she pointed to low-income community solar gardens the utility has built in  partnership with Denver, Boulder and Energy Outreach Colorado.

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As cities strive to improve their environmental sustainability, so too are they grappling with the nation’s shortfalls in the arena of social justice and racial equity.

Often these issues are linked in the sense that communities of color and lower-income communities tend to live in areas most impacted by climate change, Urban Sustainability Directors Network program director Rich Freeh said Wednesday during a panel discussion at BizWest’s Net Zero Cities event. 

Sustainability and equity were too often ignored by the federal government under the Donald Trump administration, he said, leaving “cities to lead on climate in the absence of federal leadership.”

That’s starting to change with President Joe Biden’s administration, but there are still “really important challenges for communities” to address, Freeh said. 

In Larimer County, county leaders have developed the Climate Smart Larimer County program, the framework of which was adopted by the Larimer County Board of Commissioners this year. 

The program offers a “triple bottom line approach,” in which economic, social and environmental factors are considered as part of the decision-making matrix, Commissioner John Kefalas said. 

The county is in the process of soliciting input prior to the execution of the program this year. 

Kefalas said it’s critical that all segments of society are involved in the sustainability effort.

“This issue can be polarizing,” he said, but it’s important to focus on common goals and values like clean air, water and land.

Fort Collins sustainability specialist Maritza Arizaga said community leaders “can’t treat climate change like a math problem” and ignore the human elements of the issue.

“The…