Companies are promising to remove carbon — what about frontline communities?

Companies are promising to remove carbon — what about frontline communities?
© Richard Sexton; The Historic New Orleans Collection. (Image courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection)

If corporations meet their climate pledges using carbon dioxide removal technologies, “nature-based solutions,” or other forms of carbon offsets, this may close the door on on-site emissions reductions and harm neighboring communities.

Many companies have pledged to go “carbon neutral,” often heavily relying on technologies like carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and offsets. But the question needs to be asked: Will use of these technologies result in continued harm to frontline communities, where residents suffer from health issues caused by their neighborhood’s power plant, incinerator, factory or other chronic polluter? 

If pursuing these technologies distracts at all from reducing the amount of pollution that gets emitted in the first place, they will.

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Many companies, including United Airlines, Shell and Amazon, now have carbon removal promises. Among these corporate climate proposals are nature-based solutions (usually through forest growth and protection) and CDR technology that acts as massive atmospheric scrubbers. But these actions are no replacement for real emissions reductions and will not improve the health of people disproportionately burdened with pollution-related illnesses like asthma, heart and lung diseases and even premature death.

If corporations are serious about climate change and debating whether they should pursue emissions reductions or carbon dioxide removal, they should replace the “or” with “and.” If they are also serious about addressing racial justice, and protecting the health of their neighbors, who are often Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), they should pursue on-site emissions reductions.

If airlines, like United, invest in a carbon dioxide removal and geological sequestration facility in Canada that removes all the carbon dioxide their planes emit, it will not remove air pollution from the lungs of the people who live near the airports they fly to and from.

If retailers and distributors, like Amazon, invest in forest offsets in Appalachia to offset their carbon dioxide emissions from shipping, it does nothing to repair the cardiovascular system damage in people who live near their shipping centers.

If fossil fuel companies, like Shell, invest in carbon removal technologies to offset their carbon dioxide emissions, it will not offset the higher rates of asthma experienced by communities living near refineries.

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Carbon dioxide removal is a fast-acting method that will pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store it underground, where it will not be able to continue to warm the planet. It is likely necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, since the expected carbon emissions that will come from infrastructure that is already built or currently under construction, sometimes called “committed carbon”, is already enough to push global temperatures over the goals of Paris. Unless this existing infrastructure is retired early or is cancelled, we will need another strategy to keep global temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius and CDR fills that gap.

But what about communities on the frontlines of pollution that suffer the greatest health consequences from burning fossil fuels? Air pollution from burning coal, oil, natural gas and other fuels is responsible for the deaths of 8 million people worldwide, per year. “Carbon-scrubbing” technologies, forest offsets and other carbon removal strategies do absolutely nothing to improve the health of people living downwind of polluting facilities.

If companies forgo or get distracted from reducing emissions from fossil fuel combustion because they are putting resources into carbon dioxide removal, their on-site pollution will still impact the health of nearby communities. A corporate climate pledge that is both public health and environmental justice-forward should include both on-site emissions reductions to protect the health of their neighbors, and carbon dioxide removal to pay back carbon debt.

Jonathan Buonocore is a research scientist at the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environmental at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (Harvard Chan C-CHANGE), where he studies the health and climate benefits of our energy choices and climate mitigation methods.