The opportunity to root carbon removal
in equity and justice

Guest post by Ugbaad Kosar, Deputy Director of Policy at Carbon180 / 3 March 2020

[The views of guest post authors are their own. C2G does not necessarily endorse the opinions stated in guest posts. We do, however, encourage a constructive conversation involving multiple viewpoints and voices.]

Interest and investment in carbon removal technologies and practices has increased steadily over the last few years.

In the US, the government is establishing the first federal carbon removal program, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into research and development of negative emissions technologies, and funding programs that support efforts to store carbon in soils and forests.

There has also been significant interest and action from the private sector, with carbon removal commitments from Microsoft and Stripe, and a USD 100 million carbon removal prize recently announced by Elon Musk.

These actions are encouraging—investment from government and business alike are necessary to achieve gigaton-scale carbon removal. But technology readiness and funding are not the only limiting factors to wide-scale deployment—there are a number of justice and political considerations yet to be addressed.

As we progress down carbon removal pathways, it is critical to better understand how these solutions not only address emissions but a myriad of social, environmental, and economic outcomes as well.

Why social equity must be prioritised for carbon removal

Given the nascency of carbon removal, there is a major opportunity to research, develop, and deploy these solutions in a way that prioritises creating a more regenerative and equitable society.

But doing so requires a new way of thinking—one that connects actions made at the local level to impacts felt at the global scale. One that promotes transparency and a participatory approach to strategy. And one that recognises that carbon removal policy, like all climate policy, is inherently political.

The default structures we have in place now—insufficient regulatory frameworks, unjust funding mechanisms, opaque and exclusive decision-making processes, colonial North-South dynamics—all work to further harm the most oppressed communities.

Centring the well-being and self-determination of these communities in decisions about carbon removal is incredibly important. A critical step to this process is to assess key considerations associated with the scale up of carbon removal. These include:

  • Resource Demands: Large-scale carbon removal may require a lot of land, energy, and water; this can have significant impacts on people’s livelihoods and well-being. A global economy and global supply chains mean actions taken in one part of the world will be felt elsewhere. Pursuing carbon removal scale-up at the gigaton level will undoubtedly require governance frameworks that can address these global implications. If we use land dedicated for agriculture to meet bioenergy demands, how will global food security and prices be impacted? If direct air capture plants are energy intensive, how does the scale up impact access to affordable, low-carbon energy? If we opt for large-scale afforestation projects, whose lands will be used and how will their livelihoods be impacted?
  • Health Impacts: There is a long, well-documented history of the disproportionate burden of pollution and harms borne by frontline, Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour (BIPOC), and economically disadvantaged communities. What are the human health impacts of different carbon removal options? Can deployment strategies be shaped to improve air quality, protect access to clean water, or improve social cohesion?
  • Economic Outcomes: There are significant job creation opportunities for carbon removal given the massive need for infrastructure buildout, technical assistance, and operating and maintaining solutions. How do job opportunities align with the needs of fossil fuel workers and the communities that depend on them? Are these jobs safe, unionised, and providing workers with dignity? How does carbon removal impact the economic development of Global South countries? And who owns the technologies being deployed?
Principles for scaling up the just use of carbon removal

So, how to start approaching carbon removal not only as a climate mitigation tool but as a set of pathways that can unlock opportunities for economic, social, and racial justice?

To start, there is a need for a fundamental structural change in how to think about climate action and justice to shift away from the systems in place that are failing to deliver for the most vulnerable. The carbon removal field needs diverse and inclusive voices that bring lived experiences and innovative thinking to policy and decision-making spaces. Carbon removal actors, particularly frontline communities, should work to collectively articulate a progressive vision for the role of extractive industries in scale up of technologies within their communities. Without addressing these major gaps, carbon removal risks being deployed and adopted under inequitable, business-as-usual circumstances. In the US, coalitions with shared leadership structures have been able to successfully pass community-developed climate legislation that centres the most vulnerable.

Incremental change is not enough—there’s a need for change to be bold, transformational, and immediate. The north star for climate action should be solidifying equity and justice as the defining force that both shapes our definition of a problem and identifies the solutions to be sought out.

A few guiding principles to keep in mind while thinking about scaling carbon removal:

  • Benefits of carbon removal must be equitably distributed.
    Projects should reflect local concerns and contexts—including racial disparities and the historical exclusion of vulnerable communities from benefits and opportunities—in all research and deployment strategies. Project goals and outcomes should be shaped and informed by communities to ensure that concerns and contexts are being accurately represented.
  • Community-developed safeguards are needed to ensure adverse impacts are not borne by vulnerable communities.
    Carbon removal solutions should not only avoid creating new adverse impacts but aim to redress the harms, pollution, and burdens already placed on frontline communities.
  • Public engagement must be thorough, comprehensive, and influence project outcomes.
    Communities must be well equipped with accessible and transparent information and tools, as well as the power to take ownership of decision-making in deployment strategies.

​These are just a few of the many ideas around using carbon removal as a tool to promote equity and justice. Carbon removal is gaining momentum— it’s gaining political interest and growing in public and private investment.

It’s still early enough for civil society and communities to shape what the field will look like, dictating demands from carbon removal technologies and practices and how to get there.

However, the carbon removal field is still relatively inaccessible (and therefore undesirable) for many groups, as a result of confusing nomenclature, the early involvement of extractive industries, and concerns about the impacts to emissions reduction efforts.

A stronger, more coordinated communications effort is needed to clearly define carbon removal technologies and practices and their potential merits.

Carbon180 is a climate-focused NGO partnering with policymakers, scientists, and businesses around the globe to build a world that removes more carbon than it emits. Ugbaad Kosar drives Carbon180’s federal policy work, leading the organisation’s environmental justice initiative and broader forestry efforts. Ugbaad holds a dual Master of Science in forest sciences and renewable resource management. She is based in Washington, DC, USA.
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