Carbon removal can and must be part of the climate justice agenda

Carbon removal can and must be part of the climate justice agenda
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The White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council released a set of recommendations earlier this month on how the federal government can best advance environmental justice. While the proposals are aimed at supporting communities on the frontlines of climate change while tackling the climate crisis, they exclude an essential climate opportunity –– carbon removal. 

The science is clear: To avoid catastrophic climate disasters and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the world will likely need to remove billions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere over the course of this century. Carbon removal refers to the range of engineered technologies, like direct air capture (DAC), and land management practices, like reforestation, that draw down carbon from the atmosphere to be stored away long-term in underground rock formations, soils, plants and commercial goods. 

The scale of implementation we’ll need for carbon removal understandably raises concerns around the potential health and environmental impacts. For example, irresponsible forestry or direct air capture projects could compete with other land use priorities, like growing food. But if deployed thoughtfully, these solutions can not only help us meet our climate goals, they can provide a myriad of social, environmental and economic benefits to frontline communities while promoting justice.  

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DAC — technologies that remove carbon directly from the air using huge fans and chemical processes — is projected to create 300,000 jobs in the U.S. over the next 30 years. Many of these jobs in construction, maintenance and transportation could support fossil fuel workers and their communities in the clean energy transition. Moreover, because of the large amount of energy required for DAC projects, renewable energy sources can be leveraged to meet the energy demands of these facilities and ensure they are net negative, creating opportunity for the scale-up of DAC to be in support of widespread scale-up of renewable energy. 

Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) — a hybrid carbon removal solution that involves capturing carbon through plants and converting it into power, heat, or fuel — can also provide benefits, if deployed thoughtfully. A recently announced project in Mendota, California plans to take agricultural waste, like almond trees, convert it into electricity and safely store the carbon produced. This project is expected to create local jobs, improve local air quality, remove hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon from the atmosphere per year and contribute to the city’s tax revenue base. 

While these opportunities exist, carbon removal has received valid criticism from environmental justice advocates for various reasons. First, carbon removal’s association with carbon capture and storage in power generation — technologies that advocates have largely opposed because of concerns that they will lock out transitions to renewable energy and continue air and water pollution from extraction and combustion activities.

Moreover, the role of powerful and extractive industries, like oil and gas and large-scale agriculture, in developing and deploying carbon removal solutions raises major flags for advocates, as these industries are the same ones that have contributed many of the environmental, racial and socioeconomic disparities frontline communities face today. Advocates are also concerned that carbon removal will be used as an excuse to delay or avoid reducing carbon emissions — also known as moral hazard — which should be the No. 1 priority in climate mitigation work. Gaps in scientific knowledge for various solutions and failures in monitoring and reporting on stored carbon likewise make it difficult for advocates to sign-on. 

We can ensure carbon removal doesn’t only avoid contributing or exacerbating the harms frontline communities currently face, but that it helps radically transform our systems of today. We can do this by incorporating different components of justice and equity long-promoted by the environmental and climate justice movements, like:

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  • fair decision-making processes (procedural)
  • fair allocation of benefits (distributive)
  • amends of previous harms (reparative)
  • changes in our social systems (transformative)

Carbon removal projects with procedural and distributive justice components can allow frontline communities to have a direct hand in shaping how projects will be deployed (if at all), what benefits they will provide and how those benefits will be distributed. Through incorporation of reparative justice, carbon removal could provide windows for industries to redress their historic harms by providing community-driven reparations through concrete opportunities and benefits.

Carbon removal can also promote transformative justice by helping advance major shifts in our food and energy systems, like supporting conversion of industrial scale agricultural systems to regenerative and soil health practices and supporting advancement of renewable energy sources concurrently with expansion of net-negative direct air capture technologies. 

The apprehensions around carbon removal are valid, and to genuinely address them the justice types above need to be thoroughly integrated, along with strong regulatory safeguards. To equitably tackle climate change, carbon removal must be designed in a participatory process, but so far solutions are being omitted by climate justice leaders and policymakers. 

Similar to the interim recommendations from the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, the Green New Deal for Cities Act of 2021 — introduced at the end of April — also condemns DAC and BECCS by prohibiting the use of funds for such projects. These proposals attempt to address the concerns of environmental justice advocates, but ultimately cut communities short of the opportunity to decide whether or not to pursue carbon removal projects that could provide them tangible benefits. They also cut the country short of addressing our historical carbon debt and global responsibility to lead in mitigating climate change. 

Carbon removal in and of itself is not the answer; solutions must be concurrent with drastic emissions reductions efforts. A just carbon removal platform can ensure we meet our climate goals while transforming the systems we live in for the better and placing our frontline communities first. 

Vanessa Suarez is a senior policy adviser with Carbon180, and a public voices fellow with the Op Ed Project and Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.