The climate crisis requires every tool we've got, including carbon removal

The climate crisis requires every tool we've got, including carbon removal
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Wake up people. Have you read the United Nations latest climate report? I hope alarm bells are going off. With climate-fueled floods on the East Coast and fires on the West Coast, humanity is in trouble. The younger generations and unborn are at risk. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report warns that the climate impacts we’re already facing today will continue to intensify unless we tackle the climate crisis. Unsurvivable storm surges and heatwaves, intense and amplified hurricanes and raging wildfires that are only going to occur more and faster.

Fortunately, we have the tools to change course. We just need to ensure they’re used responsibly, like any tool. 

Given the sobering realities about how much work lies ahead in securing a safe climate, the new report from the IPCC makes it clear that we need to deploy every tool available to reduce emissions, starting with climate solutions like solar panels and electric vehicles that will replace the fossil fuels changing the climate. But even as we stop making the problem worse, we’ll still need to clean up the mess made so far. Environmentally just carbon removal is a potentially powerful tool that can help stop the worst impacts of climate change by removing legacy emissions from the atmosphere. 

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Many net-zero goals set by governments and companies rely on carbon removal to counterbalance energy-intensive activities like international flights. Investing in the development of carbon removal is important in the near-term because this particular solution requires time to scale up and for costs to fall. Carbon removal can never be a replacement for the important work of reducing fossil fuel use, but it can have an important role to play in meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. 

Carbon removal can be costly — the best path would be to stop emitting any more carbon tomorrow. One technological option is direct air capture, a process that uses large industrial vacuums to remove climate pollution and then safely stores it deep underground. The price is steep: Removing a ton of carbon dioxide with direct air capture costs between $250 to $600. Some estimates place the cost of global direct air capture deployment at $10 trillion, although we know the cost of climate inaction is higher. A longstanding technology is just planting trees, but we’ll need multiple paths to remove legacy carbon pollution.

In scrubbing legacy emissions from the atmosphere, carbon removal provides a pathway for a safer adult life for younger generations. We must ensure environmental justice for youth and the unborn who will inherit a planet shaped by the climate choices we make today.

My roots of environmental justice stem back to Hurricane Katrina ravaging the shores of Louisiana in 2005, which exacerbated every existing stressor and inequality. It is critically important to combine the socio-cultural perspective, science and compassion to advocate for climate justice.

Inclusivity makes for stronger climate policies and ensures that all voices are heard. Young people are completely engaged in the climate justice movement, affirming that this is an all-hands-on-deck, intersectional crisis. 

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There are several open and legitimate environmental justice questions regarding if and how to deploy carbon removal responsibly. A recent research paper co-authored by nine women in the Electricity Journal lays out some of the important environmental justice questions to ask as part of community-based listening. The paper examines climate justice across communities: local, international and intergenerational. Locally, what are the environmental and public health impacts of carbon removal? Internationally, who is most responsible for cleaning up atmospheric carbon? Intergenerationally, how will the decisions we make about carbon removal today impact future generations? 

Answering these questions and all of the open environmental justice questions around carbon removal matters because as the IPCC report highlights, the world is already facing the impacts of climate change and these impacts will continue to worsen until we simultaneously stop polluting and remove the excess CO2 from the atmosphere. Answering these open questions correctly — and urgently — is also important because carbon removal is already happening with government and private sector pledges and demonstration projects. 

As carbon removal takes place, we must ensure that youth and environmental justice groups have a seat at the table to discuss responsible deployment and ensure that it’s not used by corporations as a pretense to continue polluting. The same communities that have been on the frontlines of the climate crisis also experienced both redlining and bluelining are oppressed due to the societal inequities that have been in place since this land was colonized. We can’t risk perpetuating injustice by moving a climate solution forward that leaves important voices and perspectives out of the conversation. 

Carbon removal projects can be responsibly developed if the project managers (both public and private sectors) start with community-based listening sessions to ensure that communities are part of the decision-making process, have enough time and resources to engage, and are given all of the information about potential impacts. 

There are no simple answers to these important environmental justice questions around carbon removal. But one start is making sure that we ask these questions to the impacted communities that have already been most affected by the climate crisis so that the solutions we advance can foster climate justice. For everyone who shares this planet today and for the unborn — we can’t afford not to look at every tool in our toolbox and this includes how to responsibly deploy carbon removal.

Jasmine Sanders is a climate scientist, strategist and the first black female executive director of Our Climate, a youth-led climate advocacy organization.