Regranting for just carbon removal, one year later

The biggest takeaways and what lies ahead

6 min readOct 17, 2023
Image: Joanna Kosinska

by Alayna Chuney, Esq., deputy director of environmental justice

In order to build a just carbon removal field, we need environmental justice (EJ) groups not only at the table but driving conversations about CDR in their communities. However, funding for these organizations, especially those that are BIPOC-led, has been deeply inequitable and one of many significant barriers to gain entry into this space. To help address that, Carbon180 launched a regranting effort that aims to equip EJ groups with the resources they need to claim their place and power in the carbon removal conversation.

The first cohort of regrantees included three groups from different corners of the US, who aligned with our selection criteria: they were all EJ-centered, operating with strong buy-in from their local communities, and either skeptical of or completely new to carbon removal. We made it clear to EJ groups that any funds could go toward existing priorities, in recognition of the intersectional nature of their work. After an extensive search and many candid discussions, Air Alliance Houston, Appalachian Voices, and Black Millennials for Flint decided to embark on this journey with us.

What we’ve been up to

The first six months of the program were all about learning and asking questions. Folks from each organization participated in a 360-degree introduction to carbon removal, where our goal was to equip them with a confident grasp of what it could mean for their communities. Rather than simply discuss the merits of CDR, we wanted to ensure regrantees gained holistic knowledge of the field that they could bring back home to guide future dialogue and decisions. Regrantees heard from each of our subteams, from communications to science and innovation, on how their work is driving the field further. To cap off the curriculum, we brought everyone together at our headquarters in Washington, DC for a face-to-face summit.

As the groups’ knowledge of carbon removal deepened, some elected to share their thoughts on the field publicly — from writing about reforestation to addressing the crowd at our Carbon Removers Summit. At the same time, my own understanding of how carbon removal projects could be deployed was enriched; I had the chance to personally visit Appalachian Voices in Norton, Virginia to learn more about mine reclamation — a big climate priority in their region — and the role carbon removal can play.

Now, the curriculum has wound down and we’re supporting EJ groups in a new phase, as they explore proposals for standing up carbon removal projects in their own communities. After a year of working closely with these groups, we’re reflecting on what we’ve learned and how we’ll evolve our efforts to support community groups in the future.

What we learned

Retooling how we deliver information

An early challenge was the sheer volume of information about carbon removal we wanted to share — and how much of it was mired in technical terms or unfamiliar shorthand. Our first few curriculum sessions followed a typical lecture style, with space held for questions. We found, quickly, that this format was creating distance rather than understanding.

In order for our curriculum to be useful, we had to make things more interactive. We retired the lecture format, which cast regrantees in a passive role, for a more conversational one; this made our sessions together more free, collaborative, and ultimately, fruitful. Beyond that, we also tailored content to be specific to regrantees, raising examples for what carbon removal might look like in their own regions — and addressing potential concerns and opportunities that would result. This took carbon removal from the abstract to the readily tangible.

Addressing sticky areas of carbon removal

Carbon removal is a complex, fast-changing field — and it’s easy for conversations to get derailed by misconceptions about what it actually is. All too often, we’ve seen carbon removal conflated with the related industry of carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS). In order to advance a meaningful conversation with our regrantees, we wanted to untangle the two as early as possible.

Our team broke down the key differences — both in terms of mechanics and climate impact — verbally and with graphic illustrations throughout the year. We also explored why they’re so widely conflated: the two industries share much of the same infrastructure, and oil and gas actors have intentionally, publicly sewn them together to advance their own interests.

Rather than shying away from the gray, confusing, or misunderstood parts of carbon removal — the notion that any one pathway is superior or a silver bullet, for example — we made clarity the priority and leaned in. As a result, regrantees can now lead conversations about CDR with confidence and fluency, especially as it relates to the realities of their own communities.

Building trust and relationships

As carbon removal hits the mainstream, a lot of communities are hearing about it for the first time — and new projects will rise and fall on the basis of their trust and buy-in. One of our main goals for this effort was to forge a genuine, two-way trust with regrantees. We knew that couldn’t unfold from a one-sided conversation about what carbon removal should be, as told by Carbon180; rather, we wanted to hear from EJ groups on what they do and do not like about CDR, how it could help or hurt their communities, and what shape it could possibly take in their area.

The early days of our curriculum were met with a healthy amount of skepticism about carbon removal as a field. But as EJ groups had the chance to probe deeper into the ins and outs of CDR, raising their own critical questions and concerns, the conversation shifted from a blanket rejection of the field to, “Well, what would carbon removal look like with true community buy-in?” Our goal was not to convert EJ groups into CDR advocates; rather, we sought to provide the support they needed to lead conversations about carbon removal in their own communities and come to their own decisions about its potential role (or lack thereof).

Of course, the EJ groups in our cohort are representatives for their communities — and building wide-scale trust is a longer, more nuanced process. When regrantees bring their CDR learnings back to their communities, they’re also gauging how the people they serve feel about carbon removal happening near them. Currently, the spread of CDR information has been slow and largely through word-of-mouth — but bolstered by the deep expertise of the regrantees. Our hope is that eventually, their communities are equipped with enough CDR knowledge to fully participate in conversations about potential projects, and that any acceptance is both broad and enthusiastic.

What lies ahead

With these learnings in tow, we’re just getting started. Here’s what’s in store for Carbon180’s regranting efforts in the coming year:

  • EJ groups will advance proposals for carbon removal projects in their area — in a bid to move from “understanding” CDR to advocating for the role their communities want it to play in their lives, if any. Carbon removal could show up in abandoned mine lands in Appalachia or an urban farm in Tennessee — but only through robust evaluations, surveying, and public engagement.
  • Carbon180 will continue our field visits to the EJ groups’ home bases. We’ll be off to Memphis to learn about soil sampling and Houston for a site visit at a direct air capture (DAC) plant. Members of our team will get an upfront education on how the EJ groups conduct community engagement.
  • Carbon180 will start to assemble our second cohort of regrantees, bringing three new EJ organizations into the fold. We’ll also hire and on-board a new EJ advisor to focus on our regranting efforts full-time.
  • For this new cohort, we’re revamping the curriculum to include more DAC-specific resources and more regionally focused information. As the Regional DAC Hubs program moves forward, it’s important that EJ groups feel confident navigating what it means for a project near them to be awarded.

Edited by Tracy Yu

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