The future of carbon removal is built on reimagined public engagement

Communities must actively co-design which carbon removal solutions we pursue, in what ways, and to which extents

by Vanessa Suarez, senior policy advisor

My love for the vibrant people and unique geography of Fresno, California, my hometown, has largely shaped my climate journey. Fresno is many things — an agricultural powerhouse, helping feed over a quarter of the country; a gateway to the Sierra Nevadas, home to Yosemite National Park and giant sequoias; a melting pot of cultures, including Mexican, Hmong, Japanese, and Armenian communities; and California’s biggest little city. Life can be difficult in Fresno, but Fresnans are resilient and proud of where we’re from, creating a sense of community no matter where we go. But despite our strengths, like many other marginalized communities, we have borne disproportionate environmental impacts while often left out of community development decision-making processes. Injustices we face, like high air pollution from agricultural production and racial and economic segregation from city planning, persist in tandem with insufficient and insincere public engagement. There clearly exists a disconnect between what communities need, value, and prioritize and the decisions made that impact their social, economic, and political livelihoods.

The harsh reality in Fresno and across underserved communities is that those in positions of power often understand harms are occurring yet ignore the voices of communities or construct processes that suppress them. Robust public engagement can support the prosperity of marginalized communities — and not only should we conduct outreach, but communities should actively co-design the futures they want to see. Carbon removal will undoubtedly impact the energy, food, and public and environmental health futures of communities, but whether these impacts are positive or negative will largely be determined through reimagined public engagement processes that incorporate community co-creation. Federal policy can be a powerful lever to ensure robust and equitable public engagement mechanisms across agencies, programs, and solutions, establishing stringent requirements, promoting equitable practices, building community capacity, and integrating justice.

Frameworks for co-designing carbon removal deployment with communities

Carbon removal’s nascency provides a window to ensure deployment is equitable and just, causing no new harms for marginalized communities and not exacerbating existing ones while also redressing historic injustices. To establish such a progressive platform, public engagement must be reframed to enable communities to co-design the development and deployment of carbon removal.

Integrating these justice interventions across public engagement processes at the federal level alongside community capacity building means that communities will have the opportunity to shape which solutions are developed, in what ways, and in which contexts.

Robust engagement and co-creation processes can be a means for implementing carbon removal in a way that addresses the needs, priorities, and values of frontline communities. Building off of recent momentum in the Biden administration and the 117th Congress to purposefully promote environmental justice with a whole-of-government approach, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Energy (DOE), and US Department of Agriculture (USDA) can take specific action to advance equitable and just public engagement for carbon removal and climate solutions at large.

Policy recommendations for public engagement

Federal investment in community capacity building has been insufficient to date, but is important to foster more effective public engagement and enable communities to develop long-term capability to solve and manage challenging social and environmental issues and overcome long-standing differences and misunderstandings.

To support and empower communities, EPA should:

  • Provide $15 million in funding for the Environmental Justice (EJ) Small Grants Program, the Collaborative Problem-Solving Cooperative Agreement Program, and the Community Action for a Renewed Environment Grant Program for technical assistance for frontline communities, including community-based organizations and tribal organizations.
  • Improve the EJScreen tool through collaboration with EJ groups and communities to better identify vulnerable communities and the burdens to which they’re exposed. Federal agencies should use EJScreen as an “equity screen” decision-making tool. Updates should include nationally consistent data, environmental pollution data, demographic data (including race, ethnicity, and income), and capacity to produce maps and reports by geography.
  • Bolster the Environmental Education program, prioritizing EJ topics, including climate, energy, and food justice. Outreach, participation, grant distribution, and related efforts with underserved communities, particularly ones already facing environmental injustices, should be prioritized.

DOE and EPA have provided best practice guides for public engagement applicable to technology-based carbon removal, but they typically aren’t comprehensive, don’t have robust requirements, and vary across programs.

To promote robust public engagement of technology-based carbon removal deployment, DOE and EPA should:

  • Update and standardize minimum public engagement requirements across programs, such as the Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnerships and the Underground Injection Control programs, to require regular meetings with local communities from project inception through closure. Meetings should be honest and transparent (a place where communities can co-design projects), held according to community needs (e.g. transportation, language, childcare, etc.), and ensure representation from marginalized groups.
  • Require co-creation of Community Benefit Agreements (CBAs), or other community compensation arrangements, to legalize carbon removal project benefits to local communities and empower communities to hold agencies and developers accountable. Communities should dictate the benefits they want to receive and their distribution.

There is currently little to no public engagement between landowners and surrounding communities in land-based carbon removal. Yet, a moral responsibility exists for landowners to engage communities and co-design land management practice implementation, as adopted practices impact not just landowner operations but the livelihoods of surrounding communities.

To create opportunities for public engagement in land-based carbon removal, USDA should:

  • Launch a pilot program to co-design land management practice implementation between landowners and local communities. The different scales of operations in land management, including small- to large-scale, should be included, as should community concerns including pollution, public health, siting, resources, and others. The pilot should target communities already experiencing public health impacts from current agriculture or forestry operations. The Office of Partnerships and Public Engagement or the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program could be viable options to lead this effort.
  • Create a register of existing agriculture and forestry operations that currently implement climate-smart practices or are looking to transition their operations. Local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) offices can use this register to bring together relevant landowners and community stakeholders to facilitate public engagement, increase understanding of land management decisions and potential co-effects in their geographic areas, and promote community cohesion. Following this public engagement, the NRCS can provide technical assistance to farmers to help implement community-driven practices.
  • Explore a public engagement requirement for landowners receiving USDA funding related to land management practice implementation, including for cooperative extension programs, agriculture and forestry companies, land grant universities, and individual operations.

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