UCSD Study Finds Environmental Policies Preferentially Protect White People

The study was limited to California, but the researchers believe that the disparity in air quality between ethnicities most likely applies to other states


Even as California takes environmental action to help slow climate change, those actions preferentially protect white people over people of color, a study published Thursday by UC San Diego's School of Global Policy and Strategy found.

According to the study, published Thursday in the journal Nature Sustainability, Asian and Hispanic communities experience significantly more air pollution from economic activity compared to predominantly white neighborhoods across the state of California. Its findings suggest California's environmental regulations as a whole preferentially protect white, non-Hispanic people within the state from exposure to air pollution.

The UCSD researchers focused on the year 2020 when the state issued shelter-in-place orders in response to COVID-19. They compared patterns of air pollution both before and during the shutdown, using data from publicly and privately owned air monitor networks, along with satellite measurements of the pollutant gas nitrogen dioxide.

After considering various factors -- even how many communities were sheltering-in-place -- the researchers found that during the period when the "in-person" economy was shut down, neighborhoods with high Asian and Hispanic populations experienced disproportionately large declines in air pollution. That means the inverse is true when it's business as usual, the researchers wrote. Unhealthy air is linked to higher rates of mortality as well as respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses.

The paper also found that low-income communities are consistently exposed to more pollution when the economy is fully functioning and that these neighborhoods also saw disproportionately cleaner air during the shutdown. However, when the researchers accounted for income in their analysis, it didn't explain the findings of higher air pollution exposures for Asian and Hispanic communities throughout the state.

"Income only explains about 15% of the disproportionate decrease in air pollution experienced by Asian and Hispanic communities during the shutdown," said Jennifer Burney, chair of global climate policy and research at the School of Global Policy and Strategy. "This may be surprising to many because people tend to conflate income and race, both because systemic discrimination is a hard thing to face and because we have accepted that we live in a world where individuals can `buy' cleaner air through higher housing prices in less-polluted areas."

Additionally, Black communities didn't see a similar disproportionate benefit in air quality during the shutdown. Black California residents were exposed to higher levels of pollution compared to whites during the shutdowns when only essential businesses were operating. The same was true after COVID-19 restrictions were lifted. This suggests power plants, electricity generators, and other emission sources that were not curtailed during the shelter-in-place orders are regularly exposing these populations to dirtier air.

Burney and the research team said they take this as evidence of an environmental policy failure.

"One would think that in a state with strong environmental policies, where we track what is being emitted were, that our regulatory system might do a good job of protecting everyone equally," Burney said. "But this is really strong evidence of systemic bias.

"Pollution sources from everything that was shut down -- transportation, businesses, restaurants, etc. -- all add up during business-as-usual conditions," she said. "Thus, the total system is tipped, exposing racial and ethnic minorities to more pollution."

The study was limited to California, but the researchers believe that the disparity in air quality between ethnicities most likely applies to other states.

The paper includes various policy recommendations. For example, the researchers write, the largest pollution source affected by the pandemic's slowdown was transportation, so policies that affect transportation emissions could have important impacts on California's underrepresented communities.

Additionally, given that air pollution disparities experienced by racial and ethnic minorities are not entirely explained by income, it means environmental strategies based on income alone could not be expected to achieve strong racial and ethnic equity. This suggests that different metrics should be incorporated when evaluating environmental regulations to meet average environmental standards and promote equity.

The authors also suggest including communities in the planning process when there are proposed changes to their surrounding environment that could impact air quality.

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