An Approach to Engage Environmental Protection and Social Equality at the Same Time

By Pianpian Wang

The Black Lives Matter movement has been the primary focus for several weeks and the current discussion has been extended to environmental injustice that many people of color are suffering due to racial inequality.

The extended discussion is unavoidable. Resources, particularly natural resources, contribute to economic development. While people of color have never truly had a say on resource ownership or distribution, they have had to endure the harmful effects of adverse environmental effects, i.e. air and water pollution and increased natural disasters as a result of climate change, posed by irresponsible environmental policies developed by those who are not people of color. To help solve this complex problem, we need to find a way to help the vulnerable gain access to social resources and opportunities for further economic development.

Believe it or not, the successful application of carbon offsets not only reduces carbon emissions, but more importantly, shows more fruitful results in achieving Sustainable Development Goals since 2005, such as eliminating poverty, ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all at all ages, ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all.

The Neglected Co-Benefits of Carbon Offset Projects

Carbon offset projects are often known for reducing carbon emissions, yet the co-benefits associated with the projects are either unknown or unadvertised. In fact, the value of carbon offset projects lies in the social and economic benefits brought by the projects.

For example, the rural areas in Sichuan Province are among the least developed in China. Households in these rural areas traditionally use either coal or firewood as cooking fuel. Not only do these practices produce CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, but also severe indoor air pollution. Furthermore, people need to walk miles to refill coal or firewood storage, which takes lots of their time and effort. Meanwhile, these households raise pigs for domestic consumption and typically store the pig manure in traditional pits below or beside the animal confinements. These open pits may be sources of disease and parasite infections (particularly in summer months), and they multiply the risk of zoonotic diseases that can be passed from animals to humans.

To reduce the indoor and outdoor pollution, a group of carbon offset project activities were established in the rural areas of Sichuan Province in 2008. The project aimed to maximize the usage of animal manure and turn it into a cleaner, more convenient, fully renewable and less costly cooking fuel. By installing a biogas digester (a closed structure that captures waste and the gas that waste emits) with an inlet pipe directly connected to the animal barns, the households can sweep the manure directly into the digester without any further contact. Both the odor of the degrading manure and the risk of infections are greatly reduced, as it is stored in the septic tank of the digester. To date, the project has prevented the conversion of almost 6 million metric tons of traditional fuels as carbon emissions.

Environmental Protection Closely Linked to Social Welfare Development

Climate change has posed challenges to natural resources that humans have relied on, which has already caused conflicts in different countries and regions. The shortage of natural resources would only get worse if we continue the business-as-usual.

In this context, it is important to understand that many outstanding issues are interconnected. Social injustice is heavily linked to environmental injustice since social status determines the power of resource control. On the contrary, addressing environmental issues would prompt the progress of resolving social inequality.

Back to the example of the carbon offset project in Sichuan, it all started with environmental pollution management, and eventually has achieved and maximized the result of 1 plus 1. According to a recent report released by Gold Standard, every dollar, Euro, pound or peso we spend offsetting creates more value for local communities and ecosystems and contributes in a measurable way to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Apply Global Experience to the US Society

The scheme of carbon offset projects has been tested and refined over the years. Currently, the standards used for measuring and verifying carbon offset projects’ social values and benefits are fairly mature, which provides a way to mobilize funding from individuals, companies and social organizations to effectively contribute to environmental protection and social welfare improvement.

In the US, the power of the business sector and other non-governmental-organizations can explore opportunities develop carbon offset projects with focuses on the vulnerable, such as minority communities’ protection, native American’s preservation, low-income neighborhood’s energy conservation, and many other subjects that can achieve win-wins between the environment and the society.