Redefining Earth Day for All Socio-Economic Groups

Earth Day doesn’t resonate with low-income residents. But here’s how it can| Opinion

Originally publised on Detroit Free Press, April 22, 2019

The recognition of April 22nd as “Earth Day” does not resonate with the vast majority of metro Detroiters. That’s because it seems like a day dedicated to suburban recycle bins and counterculture energy activists, neither of which reflect the everyday struggles of low-income families across the region. Earth Day is not usually a priority for a small businessperson who is focused on increasing revenues and reducing expenses to ensure they make payroll. Instead, Earth Day tends to conjure up images of those with the luxury of spare time and disposable income to replant trees near the local private school or attach solar panels to their roof.

Earth Day should remind us that we all deserve to live in a clean, healthy and economically sustainable environment, especially our black and brown city residents whose health and economic well-being are often most adversely affected by environmental injustice. The proliferation of heavy industry near residential neighborhoods in Detroit, like the incinerator, refineries, steel mills, power plants and manufacturing plants, have created environmental health hazards that we cannot ignore. We all must be invested in the environment; it is the just and morally right thing to do – and it is the financially smart thing to do.

Earth Day reminds us that we must bend the arc toward environmental justice, which includes health, sustainability, and economic stability. According to Elevate Energy, a firm that helps individuals and businesses save water and energy, a home is “energy burdened” when energy costs are more than 6% of household income. Unfortunately, Michigan’s low-income residents are spending 250% of that amount — 15% of their income — on energy bills. Reducing energy waste in these energy burdened low-income homes is critical for our most vulnerable community members who are suffering the most.  Weatherizing these homes will serve the dual benefits of decreasing their energy burden and lowering their carbon footprint, something the Detroit City Council is currently debating in an ordinance introduced by Councilman Scott Benson.  It is a win-win scenario.

Earth Day also reminds us that energy/water waste reduction is the smart thing to do.  All businesses, from high-end restaurants to small corner stores, stand to realize substantial operational savings by incorporating principles of sustainability.  These businesses should be maximizing energy efficiency as well as incorporating renewable energy sources such as wind and solar to produce cheaper and cleaner energy.  They should also be installing green roofs and water recapture systems so they can decrease their stormwater runoff bills.  Energy and water efficiency pays for itself, especially if property owners utilize PACE financing.

PACE financing, enabled by Michigan’s Property Assessed Clean Energy Act of 2010, allows property owners to obtain 100% financing for energy efficiency, water conservation, and renewable energy upgrades to commercial and industrial properties. PACE has helped property owners in Detroit, such as The Whitney Restaurant, finance energy and water efficiency projects.

Furthermore, we are seeing that Michigan is leading the charge on clean energy job growth in the Midwest.  According to a study by Clean Jobs Midwest, Michigan has more clean energy jobs (126,081) than any other state in the midwest and ranks fifth in the nation. The study further shows that in 2018, there was a 4% increase in the number of clean energy jobs and in 2019, we are expecting to see an additional 9% increase. Green-collar jobs are the new blue-collar jobs. Focusing on sustainability will help create jobs and increase prosperity in and around Detroit. 

We all have a stake in Earth Day and we all have a stake in Detroit. Earth Day is a day to recognize that we must all aspire toward a Detroit where everyone has clean air, clean and affordable water, and energy efficient places to live and work.  We must work hard to propel the green economy and reduce energy and water waste because it makes sense from a financial and environmental justice perspective.  For Earth Day 2019, we should renew our commitment to saving money and creating jobs for Detroiters by harnessing the economic and social power of energy efficiency.