Prof awarded $8 million in federal funding to make Canada’s transition to clean energy more equitable

A photo of Patricia Romero-Lankao
Distinguished researcher Patricia Romero-Lankao has been named a Canada Excellence Research Chair in sustainable transitions (Submitted photo).

Alexa Battler

Cities across the world are embarking on plans to phase out fossil fuels, and grappling with the fact their most disadvantaged residents are already being left behind in the clean tech movement.

Los Angeles, for example, plans to power the entire city with clean electricity by 2035, and wealthier Californians are slashing their carbon footprints and energy bills by buying electric vehicles and installing solar panels. Yet the city knows new cars and even roofs are likely out of reach for the 16 per cent of the population living below the poverty line — many are spending more than half their income on rent and utilities and more than 30 per cent don’t have air conditioning in a state known for its fatal heat waves.

“I think we are now in a watershed. We are moving more from the problem to the solution space,” says Patricia Romero-Lankao, professor in the department of sociology at U of T Scarborough. “We need to focus more on who pays for what, who benefits and who bears the negative impacts so that it’s win-win.”

Romero-Lankao has spent the last year and a half leading the social and policy approaches for LA100 Equity Strategies, the city’s project to determine how its clean energy transition can address equity issues rather than exacerbate them. Their report was published on the same day Romero-Lankao was named a Canada Excellence Research Chair in sustainable transitions, a position that awards her $8 million in federal research funding over eight years to find ways clean energy transitions across Canada can similarly bolster equity.

The LA100 Equity Strategies hinged on sessions (co-designed by communities and community-based organizations) where Romero-Lankao and the team heard community members’ lived experiences, including how past policies and programs failed them. Key to much of Romero-Lankao’s work is recognition justice — the understanding that past energy projects left severe and ongoing damage to communities, such as redlining (targeting marginalized areas for high-risk loans) and disenfranchising infrastructure and investment choices. Historically, the people making the lowest incomes shoulder most of the health and socioeconomic impacts of living and working near power plants and refineries, and Romero-Lankao says equity in energy transitions means concentrating the benefits in those communities, while ensuring the inevitable burdens (such as noise from wind farms or impacted property values) don’t again fall on them.

We need to focus more on who pays for what, who benefits and who bears the negative impacts so that it’s win-win

Through analysis and ongoing community feedback, Romero-Lankao and the team designed a series of measures to expand marginalized communities’ access to clean energy, energy-efficient and climate-controlled housing, and affordable electric transit, putting the city on track to meet all their equity goals. The strategies are a case study in another of Romero-Lankao’s recent papers published in Nature Energy, which created a framework to help governments, technology developers, and other practitioners launching large-scale green energy projects hold dialogues with communities that specifically highlight and address equity issues.

“There is more to our transition than all our beautiful technological ideas; there is a decision-making that politicians and coalitions have to make differently, with communities, and this reconfiguration of power is something to catalyze,” she says.

Their framework is underpinned by a series of questions governments should ask — Who is excluded in decision-making? Are technologies designed to consider their social, cultural and environmental impacts? Who takes responsibility if something goes wrong? – and includes several recommendations and policy approaches. With subsidies, investments and policy supports, for example, community programs can bring the benefits of solar power to non-homeowners and underserved groups, meanwhile, governments can offer subsidies for other programs that may be unprofitable but benefit the historically marginalized.

Romero-Lankao has spent decades fighting to make social science an integral part of environmental work. For almost 20 years she was a social scientist for the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and she’s published a staggering 148 peer-reviewed papers. She was also the co-leading author of a working group that helped create a ground-breaking assessment report that earned a Nobel Peace Prize for the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Her work as a Canada Excellence Research Chair will include centring communities in knowledge production and mobilization as she builds a data repository and toolkits to help make Canada’s net zero carbon transitions equitable. She’s found marginalized communities in Canadian cities, who spend a larger than average share of their incomes on energy bills, are particularly concerned about the consequences of clean energy, such as the health impacts of lithium mines, and how the workforce will change. 

“I want to create a hub or a platform for us to connect our research with teaching, students, and learning from and with communities. I want to be very experimental and risk-seeking, and ensure that we are known for doing amazing work in a couple of years,” she says.