The importance of local government in making carbon removal a public service
I remain an optimistic person, despite having experienced the horrors of the climate crisis in my backyard. This winter, a climate change-fueled firestorm, the most destructive fire in Colorado history, tore through our community. The scars of the Marshall Fire are still fresh and our residents’ call for government climate action has never been louder. As talks of Build Back Better and other federal climate legislation continue to sputter and stall in Washington, entire neighborhoods in Colorado and across the U.S. lie in smoldering ruins. Given the federal inaction on climate change, local governments need to step up to reduce emissions and remove legacy climate pollution from the atmosphere. In the process, cities, counties and states are uniquely positioned to help scale carbon dioxide removal (CDR) responsibly and provide a blueprint for federal action.
As Boulder County’s director of climate action, I seek ways to build coalitions because I know climate change cannot be solved at a parochial level or by one entity at a time. What we do locally is a drop in the bucket in terms of CDR deployment, but if we band together and get other local governments engaged, we can have an outsized impact. In this spirit, Boulder County teamed up with the City of Flagstaff to create the Four Corners Carbon Coalition to shape our own commitments to accelerate CDR. This coalition, representing cities and counties in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah allows us to punch above our weight and drive rapid progress on CDR. Just last week, we announced a request for proposals “that realize durable, verifiable carbon removal” solutions that integrate the carbon we remove from greenhouse gas emissions into local concrete production. We are pursuing CDR at the same time that we’re pursuing deep emissions reductions: both are essential for creating a safe climate future.
According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), eliminating our reliance on fossil fuels is essential, but is also no longer sufficient to stem the worst effects of climate change. Even if every high-impact strategy is deployed today, the IPCC confirms that we have saturated the atmosphere with far too much carbon, which hangs in our atmosphere for many lifetimes: between 300 to 1,000 years. As author Robinson Meyer brilliantly lays out “There’s no scenario in which 2050 is ‘normal.’” It is clear that CDR is critical in the fight against climate change, in tandem with reducing emissions.
What is CDR? Imagine our atmosphere as a bathtub that is overflowing with carbon. You can think of reducing emissions as turning off the valve of water going into the tub, which is critical when a bathtub is overflowing. But we also have to address all of the water in the bathtub: CDR allows us to actually drain the carbon from the bathtub that’s been pouring into it over the last century. This is achieved through a multitude of carbon absorbers ranging from kelp, soils and trees, to minerals that bind with atmospheric carbon dioxide, as well as machines that pull carbon pollution out of the air and either pump it underground for indefinite storage safely or utilize it in durable products like concrete.
The immensity of scaling up CDR, or draining the bathtub of carbon, is daunting. Currently, hundreds of tons of carbon are being removed from the atmosphere. To align with the IPCC, we need to reach gigatons — one gigaton is equivalent to roughly 200 million elephants. The scaling of a new carbon removal industry is going to have to happen more rapidly than anything we have seen in human history. Civil society organizations like the OpenAir Collective, The Foundation for Climate Restoration and Carbon180 are creating opportunities for direct public engagement, while pioneers in the private sector are putting forth billions in capital up to scale carbon removal. As governments join these efforts, we can offer a blueprint for the federal government to follow suit.
As we stretch our impact by not going at it alone, climate-forward local governments all over the U.S. can combine knowledge, ambition and assets to realize CDR capacity that would be too costly for any community to do alone. As CDR ascends, so do economic development and job creation opportunities that will benefit communities. In fact, carbon removal could be delivered like other essential local services such as wastewater treatment, recycling, trash removal and street cleaning. Moreover, as representatives of real-world communities, a more place-based approach is uniquely positioned to ensure the deployment of CDR efforts is equitable and just. Rooting CDR decisions with the community should bolster equity consideration and improve CDR outcomes with the goal to prevent more harm to disempowered communities.
I recognize that the most transformational moments often come out of the most challenging crises. I like imagining what solving the climate crisis, through ingeniously figuring out ways to put the CO2 genie back in the bottle, will entail in terms of human progress, creativity, and will. Thinking about what we might look like on the other side of that victory and working with local governments to march toward this victory, ends up making me feel unapologetically optimistic.
Susie Strife, Ph.D., is the director of Sustainability, Climate Action and Resilience at Boulder County.