Driving Community-led Climate Projects: What Are Environmental and Climate Justice Block Grants
The climate crisis is a crisis of environmental justice; low-income communities and communities of color that have faced decades of redlining, disinvestment, and discrimination are often on the frontlines of the worst climate impacts. Repair means giving those communities the direct tools and financial and political power to steer toward a better future.
The Environmental and Climate Justice Block Grants (ECJ) Program within the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act is a step forward in repairing some of these harms by building power and resilience in disadvantaged communities and investing in their transition to clean energy.
This first-of-its-kind $3 billion federal program aims to empower disadvantaged communities to determine and design their own visions of pollution reduction and clean energy investment. It does so by providing highly flexible funding that goes directly to nonprofit organizations serving disadvantaged communities—meaning projects are designed by and for communities to address their unique needs and build resilience and political capacity.
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 a benefit 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.
One of the most exciting aspects of the ECJ program is its emphasis on funding for community-led planning and capacity building that informs neighborhood implementation. If successful, this approach will ensure that these investments don’t result in just one-off projects that are disconnected from community needs, and risk causing unintended consequences such as displacement due to higher prices and gentrification. ECJ presents an unprecedented opportunity for grassroots organizations and frontline communities across the country to develop a pipeline of projects and secure the funding, technical assistance, and partnerships necessary to truly transform their neighborhoods.
Those interested in applying for ECJ can look to California’s TCC grantees for inspiration and examples of the kinds of community planning, projects, and measurable outcomes they should consider when developing their application. We know this first hand. In 2017, Greenlining and community partners invited the City of Stockton to join them in applying for a TCC Planning Grant. One year later, the group was awarded $170,000 and used these funds to form an even broader coalition known as Rise Stockton that then engaged over 2,000 residents to develop a Sustainable Neighborhood Plan. Building on the success of the Planning Grant, Rise Stockton partnered with the City to apply for and ultimately receive a $10.8 million grant in 2020. Now these funds are being used to invest in a suite of projects including energy and water efficiency upgrades, solar power systems, locally grown food, active transportation infrastructure, and job training opportunities, all at no cost to the residents of Stockton, California. Today, the Rise Stockton Coalition continues to advance environmental justice through urban greening projects, and ECJ can support many other grassroots organizations along a similar journey.
How to apply for the ECJ program
There has already been one round of funding through the ECJ program, focused primarily on project planning and partnership development grants. ECJ funds will only be available until 2026, and some of the ECJ’s planning and partnership-focused grants include:
- Environmental justice government to government program
- Environmental justice collaborative problem-solving cooperative agreement program
- Environmental justice thriving communities grantmaking program
The first round of requests for applications is now closed for each of these programs. Even though applications are closed for now, EPA is expected to continue to make small and large grants available through these and the Change Grants to nonprofits over the next three years.
In order to prepare to apply for upcoming grant opportunities under the ECJ program, interested community-based nonprofits should explore these opportunities and create accounts on both Sam.gov and Grants.gov. The verification process to set up an account on either of these sites can take up to a month. For new applicants, it may be necessary to undergo a financial audit process, which could further delay the ability to apply. Interested applicants should begin the process early, so they can apply as soon as the next request for applications becomes available.
Other ways to start preparing for ECJ now
While no official date has been shared yet, the ECJ Change Grants Program Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) is anticipated to be released by the end of this summer or early fall at the latest. The vast majority of the ECJ funding will go to these implementation grants. While it’s unclear exactly what will be required in the application guidelines, other similar federal programs such as the Environmental Justice Small Grants Program require applicants to develop a detailed work plan, indicating that applicants will need to be project-ready by the time they submit their application. Project readiness will depend on the specific project, but may include things like community engagement to identify local climate priorities, and pre-development tasks such as architectural and engineering work, market assessments, and economic feasibility studies. In addition, governmental buy-in will be required for successful applications, organizations should proactively reach out to their local, state, and Tribal governments sooner rather than later so that when the application portal opens, they have a head start in preparing the information necessary to submit a successful application.
Toward reparative climate funding
The ECJ grants are part of a larger story in which the IRA’s best provisions, implemented well, can center public, democratic, and community power as we build our clean energy future. From EPA’s “green bank” programs providing broad funding access to the public, to USDA’s transformative funding for rural electricity coops, to the Treasury’s assurance that public entities can access IRA tax credits, there is a path for a more equitable future in which the public controls the levers of clean energy finance. The ECJ grants can be a lynchpin for success, as they center the very communities that can lead a deeply equitable transition.
Isa Gaillard is a Senior Program Manager at the Greenlining Institute. Follow him on LinkedIn.
Rachel Patterson is a Deputy Policy Director at Evergreen Action. Follow her on LinkedIn.