Equitable Climate Investments in California: Is it Working?

California has long been a leader in launching groundbreaking initiatives to combat the climate crisis. But the climate crisis is also a crisis of inequity, hitting communities of color and low-income communities first and worst and exacerbating health and wealth inequities. Effectively slowing the devastating impacts of climate change and building resilience in communities on the frontlines means equity must be at the center of our solutions. 

In the last decade, California has implemented the California Climate Investments. Prioritizing equity, the goals of CCI include "reducing greenhouse gas emissions, strengthening the economy, improving public health and the environment, and providing meaningful benefits to the most disadvantaged communities, low-income communities, and low-income households."

The initiative is funded by proceeds from the state's quarterly Cap‑and‑Trade auctions. The project encompasses over 70 California Climate Investments programs across the state, administered by over 20 state agencies. It represents a major pillar of the state's transition to a low‑carbon and more equitable future.

Ten years after CCI's inception, and with nearly $10 billion invested, The Greenlining Institute and the Equity Research Institute at the University of Southern California undertook a comprehensive review of CCI.

The study examined the following questions:

  • Where have CCI funding dollars gone, and who did they serve?

  • Has CCI centered marginalized communities— particularly low-income communities and communities of color—in its goals, processes, and outcomes?

  • What are strengths of the initiative that should be replicated and scaled? And what are shortcomings that should be addressed and avoided in the future? 

In a new report, titled "A Call to Invest in Community Power: Lessons from 10 Years of California Climate Investments for the State and the Nation," researchers offer a unique, in-depth equity analysis, lessons for future investments, and recommendations for various stakeholders..

Driving Equity: Progress and Areas for Improvement

The study’s findings are encouraging. The majority of implemented CCI dollars--73% of the $9.2 billion implemented as of November 2022--are landing in and providing some benefit to, what the State calls “Priority Populations”—populations that are highly pollution-burdened, low-income communities, and low-income households—by being located within these places and meeting the state’s “benefits” checklist. And while a small number of programs have received pushback from communities, the majority of investment types within the CCI portfolio–transportation, transit-oriented affordable housing, urban greening, solar, weatherization, air quality improvement, water infrastructure–are those that were identified as being desired and helpful by the environmental justice and community-based organizations interviewed for the report.

Additional key findings from the study include: 

  • The “felt impact” of investments—the visibility and perceived usefulness and impact of investments to local people—appears strongest when projects are community-driven and well-coordinated (e.g., programs such as Transformative Climate Communities, Community Solar, and Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities).

  • Communications challenges must be taken into account: many statewide environmental advocates and leaders interviewed were not aware of the suite of programs supported by CCI, nor were members of community-based organizations who did not know about CCI-funded projects in existence in their neighborhoods.

  • California's climate justice ecosystem, comprising advocacy groups, alliances, policy research groups, and values-aligned funders, has significantly contributed to increased equity in the design and outcomes of climate investments. By advocating continuously for state funding, monitoring program design and outcomes, pushing for improvements, directing resources to communities in need, and implementing projects aligned with community visions, these entities have played a crucial role in making climate investments more equitable over time.

Implications for Policy and Practice

Drawing from California's experience, policymakers and funders nationwide can glean valuable insights for equitable climate investments. Based on the results of the research in California, as funding for climate investments are made available at the federal level and in other states, public agencies and philanthropic funders should focus on:

  1. supporting community-driven projects;

  2. making investment outcomes known and visible; and

  3. supporting local power-building organizations and those in local environmental justice ecosystems to ensure the capacity engendered by the program can be sustained for the long-term. 

California's journey with CCI offers both inspiration and guidance for equitable climate action. While progress has been made, there's still work to be done to ensure that climate investments truly benefit those most affected by environmental injustice. By centering community needs, desires, voices, and agency, and investing in community power for the long haul, we can drive meaningful change and build a more just future for all.

Find the full list of recommendations from the study here.


This research was supported by the Urban Institute’s Policies for Action (P4A), a project funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). P4A research focuses on identifying policies, laws, and other public and private sector levers that can support RWJF’s vision of building a Culture of Health and helping achieve health and racial equity.

Related Projects