Climate justice rally.
Credit: Vincent M.A. Janssen / Creative Commons

The following commentary was written by Courtney Hanson, deputy director of people for community recovery; Yessenia Balcazar, senior resilient community planning manager; and Gina Ramirez, Midwest outreach manager for the Natural Resources Defense Council. See our commentary guidelines for more information.

Communities with the biggest energy burden — the percentage of income spent on energy bills — have ideas about how we switch away from fossil fuels in our homes. 

Grassroots environmental justice groups in Chicago have been at the forefront of advocating for the transition to clean, healthy, affordable homes. We have pushed for strong, community-led decarbonization policies as Chicago works to meet its ambitious climate goals. 

As part of Chicago’s 2022 Climate Action Plan, the city has committed to reducing emissions by 62% by 2040. Part of those cuts will come from our buildings. 

As the third-most populous city in the country, our buildings are responsible for a significant portion of carbon pollution and on top of the impacts on our climate, burning fossil fuels is very costly and poses serious health risks including asthma and heart disease. 

Chicago buildings produce almost 70% of the city’s current emissions, and large buildings (more than 50,000 square feet) are responsible for approximately 20% of these emissions.

It’s not enough to have an informal process to listen to communities most impacted by the costs and health risks of relying on fossil fuels; Chicago needs to create a space for community leaders and advocates with the authority to approve standards, help determine funding, and assist in implementation rules of any ordinance aiming to decarbonize the city’s existing buildings.

Chicago’s latest update to its building energy code includes energy efficiency standards for new construction that will cut emissions and bring costs down. While this is a good start, the city needs to go further to eliminate the use of fossil fuels in all new buildings and existing buildings. 

As part of a building performance standards (BPS) coalition of cities across the country, Chicago recognizes the benefits of creating a BPS that works to reduce emissions and energy burden. But in order to ensure those benefits are seen by those that stand to benefit the most from housing improvements — residents of affordable housing, and multi-family buildings located in environmental justice and low-to-moderate income communities — funding and technical support needs to be made available. 

That is part of our vision for a Community Accountability Board that grassroots organizations are pushing for in Chicago.

Boston has instituted a board made up of community members and advocates that have the authority to approve standards, help determine funding, and assist in implementation. We envision a similar board that can review the impact on disinvested communities and have the authority to recommend programs, practices, and rule changes.

Above all, low-income households and communities of color, who suffer disproportionately from the climate crisis, must be prioritized in the policies that will direct the millions of local, state, and federal dollars dedicated to improving buildings.

Addressing the public health and climate crisis in Chicago will involve addressing the emissions that come from our buildings.

Our communities want policies that will improve public health, promote new workforce and job opportunities, and reduce household energy burden.

Environmental justice communities are already doing the challenging work of connecting residents with climate-friendly programs, often with little support and few resources to do the work.

Environmental justice groups are leading reform in Chicago and pushing this important climate action to be equitable by keeping in mind the ways that communities of color are being disproportionately hurt by fossil fuels, that includes our health and being able to afford our utilities. 

Every day, Chicago residents are struggling to pay their gas bills and continue to be at risk for health effects in their homes due to unhealthy indoor air quality created by the burning of fossil fuels. We will continue to lead the fight and push the city to take immediate action until we have a permanent seat at the table.