CEE Research Study Finds Racial Gap in Air Quality May Persist Under Biden Program

Featured Faculty: Joshua Apte, Cesunica Ivey

A Biden administration program designed to address environmental inequalities, including reducing the air quality gap between white communities and communities of color, may not succeed. A new study co-authored by CEE postdoctoral researcher and lead author Yuzhou Wang and professors Joshua Apte & Sunni Ivey finds that the program may not succeed due to the administration's decision not to include racial demographics as part of their Justice40 Initiative, which uses the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool (CEJST). 

Across the U.S., disadvantaged communities — including low-income communities and communities of color — experience higher levels of air pollution than wealthier and predominantly white communities. These inequities are primarily rooted in decades of discriminatory land use decision-making and housing practices, including redlining. To reduce these disparities, the Biden administration has committed to ensuring that 40% of the benefits from its climate change and energy investments accrue to disadvantaged communities in its Justice40 initiative.

The CEJST aims to target disadvantaged communities' proposed regulations or policies and prioritize them for government programs and funding. While CEJST considers various burdens on communities — including poor health, climate change risk, and low-income levels — it does not explicitly factor in race or ethnicity. The modeling showed that while these deeper reductions in disadvantaged communities identified by CEJST could improve overall air quality, they will not significantly reduce racial and ethnic air pollution disparities.

New air pollution simulation tools — including those developed by Apte and Julian Marshall, a CEE professor at the University of Washington, Seattle — could help regulators understand the future impacts of new regulations.

Apte commented, "It's really possible now for the federal government to evaluate prospectively whether their policies are going to make a difference on racial and ethnic inequalities in air pollution exposure because we have modern air pollution simulation tools that can do that," Apte said. "The government absolutely should be using these tools to assess the environmental equity implications of current and proposed regulations."

This study was a collaborative effort among researchers at UC Berkeley; the University of Washington, Seattle; the University of Minnesota; WE-ACT for Environmental Justice; Front and Centered; the University of California, Los Angeles; Carnegie Mellon University; and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. 

This research study received coverage from several news outlets, including The New York Times and The Washington Post. Check out the WE-ACT for Environmental Justice press release and the Berkeley News release for more information about the study findings.