Illinois Provides a Model for Equitable Climate Policy in Historic Legislation

Last week, the climate justice movement in Illinois took a big leap forward to address climate change and support a clean energy transition rooted in racial and economic justice when Governor J.B. Pritzker signed the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act into law, surrounded by members of the Clean Jobs Coalition. The law marks one of the nation’s greatest advancements in climate justice and workforce transition. The new law commits to: 

  • Putting Illinois on a path to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 by significantly increasing the state’s renewable energy targets;

  • Prioritizing clean energy investments, job training, hiring, ownership, and new business creation for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), low-income, environmental justice communities, formerly incarcerated people, and displaced fossil fuel workers. 

  • Eliminating fossil fuels in Illinois’ energy sector by 2045 and prioritizing retirement of highly polluting coal and gas plants in environmental justice communities.   

  • Creating transition programs for communities and workers affected by power plant and coal mine closures, including $40 million per year in community transition grants; a Displaced Energy Worker Bill of Rights to support workers’ job training and placement needs;  and scholarship funds for displaced workers and their children. 

  • Beginning to transition Illinois’ heavily polluting transportation sector off of fossil fuels by expanding access to electric vehicles, public transit, and electric medium-duty and heavy-duty vehicles with the objective of 40 percent of the benefits going to environmental justice and economically disadvantaged communities. 

  • Installing rigorous new ethics standards for utilities’ financial and lobbying activities. 

Sierra Club Illinois Director Jack Darin reminds us of the significance of this moment for Illinois. “As the largest polluter in the Midwest, and historically a major coal-producing state, Illinois is now on course to show what a just transition to a clean energy future can look like, lifting up workers and communities while achieving our climate goals. We have shown not only that jobs, justice, and climate are inextricably linked, but also that there are tangible policy solutions here that could be a useful model for lawmakers in Washington, DC and across the country.”  

Illinois’ shift from a fossil-fuel dominated state to one that passed nation-leading clean energy policies rooted in equity and justice is a story of movement building a decade in the making. It was brought about by  an unprecedented statewide coalition, whose frontline leadership was able to shift power away from polluters to the people. At the height of the coal rush in the mid-to-late 2000s, Illinois faced 24 new proposed coal plants, second only to Texas. The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign was born out of these fights in Illinois, where we, along with our partners, successfully stopped all but two of those proposed plants, the municipally owned Prairie State Energy Campus and a fourth unit at the City of Springfield’s Dallman coal plant. Illinois also had a daunting fleet of existing coal plants -- 27 in total -- that lobbied for the continuation of the status quo.

In the past, energy legislation in Illinois was driven by lobbying from electric utilities, and those with a vested interest in keeping aging power plants open. Passage of the 2017 Future Energy Jobs Act secured some important clean energy and workforce wins, but the legislation was driven by large utilities and power generation companies, and it did not reduce pollution from the state’s fossil-fuel fired power plants. To win a different kind of energy policy, advocates had to change the way we designed policy, and build more power with frontline communities across Illinois to overcome those powerful entrenched interests.  

The Clean Jobs Coalition, composed of the Sierra Club and more than 50 other organizations, began this shift in 2018 by conducting a listening tour across 50 different Illinois communities called “Listen, Lead, Share.”  A set of policy priorities, many of which are now enshrined in the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, was born out of dialogue, community-directed ideas, and a coalition-wide participatory decision-making process. In the years that followed, the coalition hosted five lobby days and delivered more than 20,000 petitions to Governor Pritzker’s office. In 2021 alone, Sierra Club and Clean Power Lake County volunteers called more than 40,000 constituents across Illinois to urge them to contact their legislators in support of a climate and equity bill.

The most important policy wins in the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act are focused on the intersecting crises of climate change, systemic racism, and economic disinvestment.  Black and brown communities in Illinois face disproportionate pollution and utility bill burdens, while also facing significant barriers to accessing clean energy and the economic opportunities that the clean energy economy promises.  

As Delmar Gillus, the Chief Operating Officer for Elevate Energy, outlined in his remarks at the signing ceremony for the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, this win is for the people on the front lines of environmental injustice.  

"It means that Cheryl Johnson, from People for Community Recovery has access to seed capital money to build solar in her community,” said Gillus. “It means the Reverend Tony Pierce in Peoria has access to the PRIME Contractor Program that will provide Black solar and clean energy contractors the resources they need to become lead contractors that create jobs in their communities. It means that Mike Atty, who has been a fearless champion for jobs in Metro East, has a workforce hub in his community that provides job training and support services such as tools, work clothes, and even childcare. It means that Chris Williams, an African-American third-generation electrician, can train the next generation of solar technicians in his community. It means that Juliana Pino of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization  and Naomi Davis of Blacks in Green have the reporting, accountability, and transparency built into the bill to ensure the provisions reach those that it intends to help. These community leaders were critical to creating this nation-leading legislation. These are the people that I fought for in Springfield and this is why the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act is the most equitable clean energy bill in the nation."

There is work ahead to implement the policies in the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act. The Sierra Club will continue to engage communities and ensure robust implementation of this groundbreaking piece of legislation, and will bring the lessons learned to states across the country that are poised to make an equitable transition from fossil fuels to clean energy.