Climate change is one of the most significant public health threats of our time. The health impacts of climate change are well known, and include heat-related illness, increased respiratory disease, vector-borne illness, zoonotic disease, and water-borne disease.
In addition, climate change will increase the frequency and intensity of natural disasters that pose multiple threats to public health, including physical harm from flooding and fire, respiratory illness from wildfire smoke and mold, food insecurity, lack of access to clean water, displacement, disruptions to needed medical care, and depression and anxiety. These impacts inequitably affect low-income communities and communities of color.
While this can seem like an overwhelming list of potential health threats, laws and policies that do double duty both mitigating climate change and helping communities prepare for natural disasters can help alleviate these health hazards.
Sun: The Benefits of Solar Energy Go Beyond Climate Change Mitigation
Air pollution from fine particulate matter emitted from the burning of fossil fuels and automobile exhaust accounts for approximately 100,000 deaths each year in the United States. It disproportionately impacts communities of color and low-income communities that have higher rates of exposure to pollution and are more affected by climate change.
Laws and policies that increase the production of solar energy can mitigate climate change and help eliminate the sources of air pollution that contribute to asthma, chronic lung disease, and heart conditions that lead to serious complications from novel zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19.
Benefit: Solar programs for multi-tenant and affordable housing help offset hefty energy cost burdens and improve community resilience.
Laws that prioritize the development and adoption of solar energy sources serving affordable housing, environmental justice communities, and multifamily housing units can ensure that all communities obtain a reliable source of solar energy, pay less for energy, and are more resilient to natural disasters and other energy interruptions. Input from front-line communities to guide program development is key to the success of these programs.
State renewable energy laws and policies that include multifamily and affordable housing requirements help jump-start programs, identify funding sources, and create goals for solar programs designed to benefit affordable and multifamily housing units.
To achieve even greater public health outcomes, low-income solar strategies should also include mechanisms that ensure savings are passed on to the tenants and renters, who are bearing the greatest energy cost burdens, and solar development programs that include training opportunities and job requirements for individuals in lower-income communities. Examples of these program include:
The Illinois Solar for All program, designed with input from heavily impacted communities, will reduce or eliminate upfront installation costs, require energy cost savings to be passed on to tenants. It includes a community-driven grassroots education component, as well as workforce training and employment requirements to promote community job opportunities.
The District of Columbia’s Solar for All Program, which provides solar benefits to 100,000 low-income residents, who will see a 50% reduction in energy bills by 2032.
Several states are utilizing virtual net metering to allocate solar credits and ensure tenants in multifamily units reap the benefits of a shared solar array.In California, virtual net metering allocates the benefits of a single system to both common areas and tenants by feeding the electricity produced by the system back into the grid and then allocating credits for that energy back to the building owner and tenants.
Benefit: Development of solar arrays in rural areas can help support cropland and food production.
In rural areas, solar arrays on marginal cropland allow farmers to diversify income.
County ordinances can promote the development of solar energy and create performance standards for sediment and erosion control, pollinator friendly ground cover, and setbacks. For example, a Stearns County, Minnesota, ordinance requires all new solar arrays that are not directly connected to the property’s energy needs to comply with Minnesota’s Pollinator Friendly Solar Act practices that reduce stormwater erosion and runoff, and include native perennial vegetation that benefits birds and pollinators.
Pollinator-friendly solar projects provide multiple benefits to pollinators, crop yields, and water quality, by helping to:
Benefit: Solar plus storage provides economic benefits, emergency resilience, and sustainability planning.
Solar energy storage systems, often called “solar plus storage,” can:
provide power during power outages and emergencies;
reduce stress on the electric grid during peak usage hours; and
reduce energy costs even more than solar energy systems alone.
Often power outages connected to natural disasters have serious consequences for people who cannot relocate, who rely on electrical medical devices and mobility equipment, or need electricity to provide heat or cooling capacity.
Solar plus storage can help reduce stress on the grid during extreme weather events, and can reliably provide power and help keep emergency shelters running during an outage caused by a natural disaster, even if backup generators fail, as they did after Hurricane Sandy.
Several state laws promote solar plus storage by increasing solar tariffs for solar projects that include storage or reduce on-site customer peak demand, and by using net metering policies to incentivize storage or credit stored solar energy that reenters the grid.
Local governments across the nation are also incorporating solar plus storage into resilience and sustainability planning, like the system in Sterling, Massachusetts, that can provide 12 days of power to first responders during a grid outage.
Local or state energy storage goals that include a set aside for customer-sited storage and affordable housing projects can advance health equity and solar plus storage.
Shade: The Benefits of Promoting Equitable Tree Cover
Tree cover provides significant cooling benefits to offset dangerous temperatures during extreme heat events, on the rise in urban areas as a result of climate change.
But the benefits of increased tree cover do not end there: trees can take carbon dioxide out of the air, reduce air pollutants that contribute to asthma, lower electricity and fossil fuel usage, and reduce energy bills for those most heavily burdened by electricity costs.
Heat-related illness accounts for more than 65,000 emergency room visits each summer, and extreme heat kills more people per year in the U.S. than any other weather-related event. Extreme heat events can also negatively affect mental health and aggravate underlying health conditions such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and diabetes.
Tree canopy provides shade that can mitigate heat-related illness during summer heat events by helping to lower surface and air temperatures, by providing shade, and by evapotranspiration: during peak heat events surface shaded by trees may be 20°F to 45°F cooler than unshaded areas.
Trees can alsomitigate the potential threat of flooding in urban areas, where flood potential can be higher due to the greater percentage of impervious surfaces, and provide a variety of other health benefits including lower levels of stress, improved mental health, and increased social cohesion.
The highest rates of heat related deaths are found in American Indian and Black communities, both in large urban centers with significant heat island impacts and rural areas that may lack air conditioning and access to healthcare.
The inequitable distribution of trees seen in many cities contributes to current health inequities. Areas with a high percentage of impervious surface and limited tree cover leave many low-income communities and communities of color more susceptible to extreme heat and flooding: historically redlined neighborhoods are on average 5 degrees hotter, and in some cases more than 10 degrees hotter, than the neighborhoods with higher percentages of white residents.
To improve public health, cities and counties are using a variety of laws and policies to increase urban tree canopy and more equitably distribute trees, including approaches that incentivize tree planting, mandate urban tree canopy, or prioritize the use of government funds to more equitably distribute street trees and other trees planted on government properties. Some examples include:
County landscape ordinances, like those enacted in Miami-Dade County, can establish minimum tree standards, require the planting of trees in energy conservation zones, and require any non-roof air conditioners to be shaded by trees or shrubs.
Houston’s ordinances require new or expanded parking lots include one tree for every ten parking spaces.
MillionTreesNY prioritized the planting of street trees in six neighborhoods with low tree coverage and high asthma rates.
The mayor of Seattle issued an executive order requiring the city to plant two new trees for every tree removed from city property.
Increasing urban tree cover, particularly in formerly redlined neighborhoods, areas with high asthma rates, and near schools in low-income communities can promote health equity while simultaneously providing climate adaptation and climate mitigation benefits.
Conclusion: Policies Urgently Needed
Climate change adaptation policies are urgently needed to protect public health. Pairing these policies with strategies to mitigate climate change can also prevent future public health disasters. Maximizing the energy of the sun and the cooling benefits of trees can mitigate climate change, improve air quality, increase community resilience during emergencies, and promote health equity.
This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Environmental Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Environmental Law Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.