Institutionalizing environmental justice

To advance environmental justice in Canada, the Green Budget Coalition recommends:

  • Funding the establishment of a permanent, high-level Office of Environmental Justice; and
  • Making a permanent, whole-of-government commitment to directing an appropriate proportion of the overall benefits from federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities, mirroring the U.S. Justice 40 initiative.

Racialized and disadvantaged communities bear a disproportionate burden from the effects of climate change and preventable environmental health hazards, such as pollution, toxic substances in consumer products, and environmental degradation. According to PHAC, significant health inequities exist among Canadians living on low incomes, Indigenous people, racial and sexual minorities, immigrants, and people living with physical or mental impairments. While climate change will affect everyone, federal government reports repeatedly confirm that it will exacerbate these existing inequities. Climate adaptation efforts must similarly account for the deeply unfair impacts of the climate crisis.

Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies. Fair treatment means no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, governmental and commercial operations or policies.

Source: U.S. EPA Office of Environmental Justice

Government programs, policies and regulations that address environmental health hazards rarely account for population-level inequities. Canada currently lacks coordinated capacity to ensure racialized and disadvantaged communities have the opportunity to enjoy the same level of environmental protection from environmental health hazards and access to environmental health benefits as other Canadians.

This could soon change. Bill S-5 would recognize for the first time in federal law the human right to a healthy environment and require consideration of “vulnerable populations” under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. Bill C-266 would require the environment minister to develop a national strategy to assess, prevent and address environmental racism and to advance environmental justice. Both bills appear to be on track to pass into law.

A finalized federal National Adaptation Strategy is an opportunity to tackle the equity and fairness crises caused by climate change and to ensure that a high percentage of adaptation funding benefits racialized and disadvantaged communities.

To bolster and support implementation of environmental justice requirements, the Government of Canada needs to invest in institutional capacity, as well as research and policy development, to ensure that all people in Canada benefit from environmental protection.

A model has existed in the United States since the early 1990s in the Office of Environmental Justice, mandated to protect and promote environmental and public health in minority, low-income, tribal, and other vulnerable communities. A complementary Executive Order issued in 1994 established a high-level Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice and required every federal agency to make achieving environmental justice part of its mission.

Under the Biden administration, a January 2021 Executive Order on “Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis,” directs government agencies to prioritize and advance environmental justice in multiple areas. The recent United States Inflation Reduction Act spending on climate action combined with the Justice40 initiative will mean that 40% of climate and clean investment spending in the upcoming years in the United States will benefit disadvantaged communities.

A Canadian Office of Environmental Justice should draw from the experience in the U.S. and provide the institutional capacity needed to:

  • Improve understanding of the burden of preventable environmental health hazards faced by racialized and/or disadvantaged communities;
  • Assess possible interventions;
  • Develop and coordinate implementation of a national strategy on environmental racism and environmental justice (as required by Bill C-266);
  • Champion efforts to integrate environmental health equity in all relevant government programs, policies, and activities, and coordinate a whole-of-government approach; and
  • Identify where and what climate impacts will affect low-income communities and target adaptation efforts to those communities.

Benefits will manifest as reduced health inequities and a healthier population overall, health care savings and increased productivity.

Justice40 for Canada

It is the experience of Green Budget Coalition members working on environmental justice that low-income and vulnerable people do not benefit from general program funding on climate action. Targeted programs that address the real circumstances of people living in poverty and disproportionately impacted by environmental health hazards are needed. The Green Budget Coalition recommends the Government of Canada make a permanent, whole-of-government commitment to direct an appropriate proportion of the overall benefits from federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities, mirroring the U.S. Justice40 initiative.

As a first step, and beginning in 2023, the Green Budget Coalition recommends that the new Office of Environmental Justice undertake an analysis to determine the appropriate target level of funding. Concurrently, all federal departments must work to identify the levels of benefits from relevant programs currently directed to disadvantaged communities, develop methods to calculate and report on enhancing benefits, and develop plans to engage with communities.

Recommended Investments [ECCC]:

  • $25 million over two years in start-up funds for a new Office of Environmental Justice, including the development of a national strategy on environmental racism and environmental justice, and then $15 million per year, ongoing, in annual operating funding; and
  • $7 million per year, ongoing, (starting in 2023-24) to expand the Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators to support the data collection needed to enable environmental justice analysis for these indicators and an equity lens within the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy.

See also Chemicals Management Plan top-up, later in this document, regarding additional recommended investments to enable assessment of cumulative effects and risks to people in vulnerable situations.