$2.8 billion will be allocated to nonprofits serving disadvantaged communities for spending across five broad categories.
The vast majority of the ECJ funding will go to implementation grants, or as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) refers to them “Change Grants.” So, how can communities take advantage of this funding? Applications for Change Grants will be available later this summer or fall, so communities interested in taking advantage of this funding opportunity should start preparing now.
While many IRA programs allow nonprofit organizations to apply or partner to receive funds, ECJ focuses on community-level project design and implementation. This means that rather than a utility, business, state, or local government making the decisions on which projects matter most, disadvantaged community members get to be the decision-makers.
Since many traditional decision-makers have, over time, exacerbated the racist and classist planning patterns that have rendered communities at risk, centering power and funds in the communities, themselves, is a critically important reparative step. Communities need to be firmly in the driver’s seat. Unlike other IRA programs that have a goal of providing 40 percent of program benefits to disadvantaged communities, every ECJ dollar and project is intended to provide benefits directly to disadvantaged communities across the nation.
Despite the fact that many disadvantaged communities are already suffering most acutely from the impacts of climate change, they have received fewer federal funds to combat existing pollution, continue to need to spend energy to fend off polluting industry expansion, and are less well-positioned to capture clean energy resources to prevent future pollution. The ECJ program aims to change this pattern by empowering and resourcing communities to implement their own plans for pollution mitigation and renewable energy investment.
But first, how does the program define and identify disadvantaged communities to ensure these historic funds are targeted toward communities that stand to benefit the most?
Eligibility: What are disadvantaged communities?
The ECJ program defines disadvantaged communities as those that are overburdened by pollution while also being underserved in resources and infrastructure. The White House Council on Environmental Quality developed a tool to identify disadvantaged communities nationally, which takes into account factors like the impacts of climate change, energy burden, health impacts, existing and legacy pollution, transportation systems and access, income level, and more. Notably, the tool does not explicitly include race in its criteria despite race being the prevailing indicator of pollution burden.
Pollution burdens, negative health impacts, and failed transportation and energy systems overwhelmingly impact Black and Brown communities. This is due to America’s racist planning, polluting, and investment history. We have often called for tools that identify environmental justice communities to include race, given the reality of the pollution burden in this country. Though the ECJ program is not rooted in race-based considerations, we will continue our call for reconstructive climate work on race, as well as on other metrics. And the ECJ program can do very important work for communities in the context of this larger history.
To ensure grants fund community-led projects directly, ECJ requires primary applicants to be community-based nonprofit organizations.
Community-based nonprofits can apply for ECJ funding in partnership with other community-based nonprofits and in partnership with a Tribal government, a local government, or a higher education institution.
While the projects developed through the ECJ program will be designed by disadvantaged communities, project success, and sustainment will require support from state, local, and Tribal governments. This is because communities may propose projects that require permitting, engagement, approval from city officials or community boards, or workforce engagement.
In order to ensure the projects funded by the ECJ program truly make an impact in disadvantaged communities, governments should provide technical assistance to applicants when possible, and work to incorporate community-led solutions into ongoing pollution reduction efforts.
What projects will ECJ fund?
The $3 billion available through the ECJ program is broken into two categories: $2.8 billion allocated for program grants and the remaining $200 million allocated for technical assistance.
Program grants can be spent on five broad categories of projects including:
Community-led pollution monitoring, prevention, and remediation activities—this can include investment in zero-emission technology and infrastructure, and workforce development activities that will reduce air pollution
Projects focused on mitigating climate and health risks from urban heat islands, extreme heat, wood heater emissions, and wildfire events
Projects related to climate resilience and adaptation
Activities that reduce indoor toxics and indoor air pollution
Activities that improve engagement and access of disadvantaged communities in state and federal advisory groups, workshops, rulemakings, and public processes
The wide-ranging nature of these project categories is intentional. It gives applicants flexibility to tailor projects to the needs of their communities. Some communities may be battling legacy pollution from industrial sites, while others may suffer from transportation pollution or extreme heat. The ECJ program allows communities to identify areas of highest need and address them.
The technical assistance funding will be used to support grant recipients with the implementation of their projects. And EPA continues to create technical assistance opportunities for disadvantaged communities to gain support for applications and implementation, such as through the Environmental Justice Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Centers.
What might success look like?
California’s Transformative Climate Communities (TCC) Program, which launched in 2017 and is on its fifth round of funding, provides a good model for what success might look like for the ECJ program at its best. TCC funds the development and implementation of neighborhood-level transformative plans that include multiple projects to reduce greenhouse gas pollution and empower disadvantaged communities to achieve their local economic, environmental, and health goals. As of May 2023, TCC has awarded 11 implementation grants (ranging from $9.1 million to $66.5 million per site) and as of June 2022, TCC partners have started construction on or built more than 237 affordable housing units, installed 157 solar systems for low-income households, planted 3,885 trees, and provided paid training for over 200 community members.
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