Electric School Buses and Environmental Justice: Ensuring a Just Transition

Highlights from the presentation and panel

Published December 5, 2023

The Canadian Electric School Bus Alliance (CESBA) recently hosted a webinar, ‘Electric School Buses and Environmental Justice: Ensuring a Just Transition‘. This session began with a presentation from World Resources Institute (WRI) and was followed by a panel discussion with experts from Indigenous Clean Energy (ICE) and the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF).

Here are some highlights from WRI’s presentation, along with a summary of a few questions that were answered during the panel discussion.

Presentation - WRI’s ESB Initiative Equity Framework | Carla Walker

The presentation introduced WRI and their Electric School Bus (ESB) Initiative, gave an overview of their equity framework and action plan, and shared key project lessons. WRI is a global research organization, with their ESB initiative aiming to electrify the United States’ (U.S.) fleet of 480,000 school buses by 2030. WRI is working to ensure that this transition is equitable by focusing on underserved communities, as inequity runs deep in the U.S. For example:

  • 60% of low income students take the bus compared to 45% of non-low-income-students
  • Fine particulate matter exposure from on-road sources can be 75% higher for Latinos, 73% higher for Asian Americans, and 61% higher for African Americans
  • Native American children are 1.5 times more likely to have asthma than non-Hispanic white children

To address these inequities and the challenges to electrification, such as upfront costs, infrastructure development, and learning new technology, WRI has utilized a multiple stakeholder model. This model involves 5 stakeholder pillars, including school districts, manufacturers, utilities, federal & state policymakers, and local communities. WRI incorporates equity into their approach in the following ways:

Through this important work, WRI has identified key equity-first project insights.

1- Develop an equity framework with a vision, goals, and strategies for the project to work towards.

2- Advance justice, equity, and inclusion through internal learning sessions, research, monitoring and evaluation, and institutionalizing the equity framework.

3- Engage early with equity and justice organizations, and engage them through strategic roundtables, communications, and marketing strategies.

4- Include sufficient resources and an organizational structure that embeds equity.

Panel - Ensuring a Just Transition in Canada | Carla Walker, Jessica Tait, Gideon Forman

The panel discussion was moderated by Sunita Gupta, EDII Project Manager at Green Communities Canada, and featured Carla Walker, Environmental Justice and Equity Director at WRI, Jessica Tait, Sustainable Transportation Lead at ICE, and Gideon Forman, Climate Change and Transportation Policy Analyst at DSF.

Gideon: It’s very exciting work and there’s a lot we can learn from WRI here in Canada. The first thing that jumps out at me is just how ambitious it is, I mean, these are folks who really want to make a big change. By 2030, less than seven years from now, they want all school buses in the U.S. to be electric and I think that’s wonderfully ambitious. The second thing is that social justice is not an afterthought, it is baked into the project from the start. I also really love the breadth of campaign partners, they are a vast and impressive group, which is marvelous for building momentum. The final thing I’d say is the hopefulness that I see in WRI’s approach. It’s a campaign about social justice, our children’s health, tackling air quality, addressing the climate crisis, and it’s a very hopeful message.

Jessica: I really like Carla’s statement “budgets are moral documents” and I think it’s such a big part of the conversation. You can have all the good intentions in the world, but if you don’t have the resources to support the work, that’s another level of inequity when you’re asking people to do it with their own labour without being compensated. Overall, incredibly inspiring to see this work centering equity, inclusion, and justice in this way.

Jessica: Many Indigenous communities are rural and remote, so they face a lot of the same challenges that other non-urban communities face, such as a lack of exposure to EVs and EV infrastructure. Many communities don’t have reliable broadband, which is necessary if groups want to receive payments for the use of charging equipment or for managing their energy output. A lot of communities might have to go quite close to the limits that their grid can support, so they have to manage those costs, while also managing the security and safety of their grid. Many communities don’t have three phase power, which means that they can’t put a Level 3 charger in their communities without expanding their project significantly beyond the charging installation itself. In addition, many groups are currently addressing other major infrastructure demands so there may be competition for capacity within communities.

To improve access, a key piece is to build awareness. The ICE Charge Up program supports the purchase and installation of charging infrastructure, but oftentimes, there is a big time lag between the point when a group reaches out to learn about the program and the point that they are able to carry out the project. A lot of learning has to happen so that groups can choose the right equipment, find appropriate locations, and partners, and in many cases they are often acting as ambassadors and educators themselves. This means that having programs with more flexibility, especially in terms of timelines, is super important.

ICE has a program called Generation Power that has support, internships, as well as mentoring. For people in the industry that are interested in supporting Indigenous inclusion, consider making yourself available for membership opportunities for Indigenous youth or community champions.

Gideon: I think the first thing we need is the notion of social benefits agreements. As we put more solar panels up, build windmills, light rail,  and electric school buses, we are going to be creating a lot of jobs. We absolutely have to make sure that marginalized folks have a carve out within these jobs so that there is a guaranteed place for them – it’s not left to chance, but built right in.

Carla: The ESB initiative is set up to address environmental justice and equity along the supply chain. Some of the global impacts our team is working on are the lifecycle of batteries and responsible supply chains, from extracting minerals to disposal.  For Tribal and Indigenous communities in the U.S., we’ve seen a large percent of lithium reserves, almost 80% if I’m not mistaken, that are within 35 miles of Tribal reservations. On the other end, batteries could end up in landfills if not recycled properly, and we know that landfills are predominantly located in communities of Colour in the U.S. and across the global South. Our team is researching approaches to safely and sustainably have battery end of life management plans and considering the viability of battery reuse programs in second life energy storage. Again, a comprehensive view of this issue is necessary, to be thinking of the butterfly effect that some of these things can have.

Jessica: I have been to a lot of spaces as a guest where presenters have not had an Indigenous audience in their minds, and the way that they speak about the transition is very different from when they speak to Indigenous audiences. For example, focusing on the great opportunities for generational wealth and the blessings that Canada has in mineral wealth, as though these resources belong to industry and government and accessing them is a foregone conclusion. It is really important that Indigenous rights and values are centered in these conversations and that we don’t just talk about free, prior, and informed consent when speaking to Indigenous people. We all know that Canada and extractive industries have a history of creating a lot of harm that impacts Indigenous people and the health of the land, water, and air. Critical minerals are needed for this transition, but we have to be accessing them in a way that reduces risks and harms. We have a lot to learn from Indigenous people, about how to be good stewards, and these values and perspectives need to be prioritized in the transition.

Gideon: I think the first thing is a commitment to centering equity and social justice in environmental work, so they aren’t an add-on or an afterthought. This kind of environmental work has to fundamentally be social justice work. That’s very much the way we see it at the DSF. When we’re doing work on renewable energy, we make sure that First Nations voices are speaking to parliamentarians so that they are centrally involved in the decisions. When we fight a highway through the Greenbelt, we’re saying that not only is it bad for the environment, but that highway, which will cost billions of dollars (upwards of eight or more billions of dollars), is money taken away from hospitals, education, daycare, and other things that people desperately need in their lives. So, we always embed a social justice lens in all of our environmental work.

We would like to extend our sincere gratitude to all our presenters and panelists who joined in this important discussion. CESBA is pleased to be pursuing research on this topic in 2024, and we look forward to sharing our findings and recommendations in the future.
Picture of Nicole Roach

Nicole Roach

Director, Sustainable Mobility
Green Communities Canada

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