What Is the Justice40 Initiative?

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Tackling climate change will require an ambitious policy and billions in federal funding that, if done right, will create a wealth of benefits—like cleaner air, quality jobs, economic growth, stronger public health safeguards, and modernized infrastructure that better serves future generations. But in order to be successful, these benefits need to reach everyone, particularly the frontline communities who’ve long borne the brunt of environmental and climate harms. The Justice40 Initiative, the Biden administration’s historic whole-of-government approach, is a critical step to ensuring this happens. 

Passed as part of Executive Order 14008, just days after President Biden took office, Justice40 requires that at least 40 percent of the overall benefits from federal climate and infrastructure investments go toward disinvested and overburdened communities. Here’s what you should know about the initiative and its ongoing implementation, nearly three years after it was signed. 

Why was the Justice40 Initiative necessary in the first place? 

Across the country, low-income communities and communities of color experience the greatest environmental and climate impacts, ranging from more polluted air to higher safety risks during extreme storms. And yet these same communities are often overlooked by decision makers when they are considering where to make on-the-ground investments. 

This is not an accident: Discriminatory policy decisions have routinely prioritized wealthier and whiter communities at the expense of the health and well-being of underserved communities. This pattern is what led to the birth of the environmental justice movement and continues to motivate the work of tireless advocates across the country. The Justice40 Initiative recognizes the need for an intentional, comprehensive approach to ensuring that no community gets left behind as we build a clean energy future. “Justice40 starts to right these historical wrongs,” says Mikyla Reta, an NRDC community solutions advisor. “It’s an ambitious goal, and at the same time, it’s not enough.” Beyond the need for much more funding of programs aimed at benefiting communities facing multiple barriers, a deeper push for equity must be coupled with stronger regulations specifically targeting climate and environmental injustices.

What falls under the Justice40 Initiative?

Justice40 applies to any federal investment (including programs, grants, and loans) that fits within one of these seven categories:

  • Climate change 
  • Clean energy and energy efficiency
  • Clean transit 
  • Affordable and sustainable housing
  • Remediation and reduction of legacy pollution 
  • Critical clean water and wastewater infrastructure 
  • Training and workforce development related to these investment areas 

This wide net means that more than 400 new and existing federal programs—including many created by the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law—across two dozen federal agencies now fall under the Justice40 umbrella. And all must take steps to meet the required 40 percent benchmark. 

What benefits will the Justice40 Initiative bring? 

The benefits from Justice40 will be diverse, wide-reaching, and ideally in alignment with what communities themselves report that they need most, which will require ongoing, meaningful consultation with residents. Climate and infrastructure investment targets include: improved public transportation, electric vehicle (EV) charging networks, drinking water safety, extreme heat response plans, and clean energy job training programs. 

This intentionality in considering environmental and racial equity is particularly important as the country transforms entire sectors, like power and transportation, in order to tackle climate change. “Many of these new technologies have not been implemented to scale,” says Batoul Al-Sadi, an NRDC equity advocate. For example, currently, most of the nation’s public EV chargers remain clustered in areas where wealthy, predominantly white, early adopters live. “We have to make it a priority for frontline communities to not only be informed of projects but actually brought into the planning process,” Al-Sadi says, “while also ensuring that the negative impacts of a project don’t disproportionately harm environmental justice communities, as they have historically.” 

How is implementation going?

In addition to the rollout of the screening tool and the designation of the relevant programs, some progress can already be seen. Justice40 policies have spurred the electrification of tribal government buildingsnew research on flood mitigation, and increased funding to address the threat of lead paint in homes

But far more work is still ahead. While the White House Office of Management and Budget provided initial implementation guidance in 2021, directing federal agencies to identify the benefits of their programs and figure out a methodology for reaching their 40 percent goal, each agency’s status has yet to be made public. The one exception is the 2023 Environmental Justice Scorecard, which presented a high-level assessment of the progress that federal agencies made in 2021 and 2022. Effective implementation will require more transparency and frequent feedback from the administration, Reta says, as well as more opportunities for ongoing stakeholder engagement. 

Because there is no single organizing body behind Justice40—officials from the CEQ, the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council, and the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council all work jointly—there is room for additional state leadership. To this end, a number of state legislatures have taken up bills that would establish local oversight committees and help direct Justice40 funds to the right communities. In states with legislatures unlikely to pass such bills, cities and counties may opt to pass their own Justice40 legislation.

“It has to be implemented from the federal government all the way down to the community to which it’s going,” Reta says, “and equity has to be ingrained in every single step of that process.” 

Originally published on NRDC.org blog.

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