We’re bringing environmental justice to the forefront of our work

Fundamentally rethinking carbon — and our approach to carbon removal

by Ugbaad Kosar, senior policy advisor

The inequity of the climate crisis

We are in a climate emergency and those that have contributed the least will be impacted the most. I distinctly remember the moment this concept of climate injustice hit home for me: in 2011, I watched a painful, multi-year drought unfold in the Horn of Africa while receiving almost daily updates about how my family — stewards of the Sub-Saharan lands — was facing unprecedented crop failures, pest outbreaks, and livestock die-off. Their lack of access to resources, expertise, or government support worsened the situation.

The climate emergency is here. And it is devastating.

The reality is, we don’t have to travel to remote communities in East Africa to see that adverse impacts of a warming climate are not felt equitably — there are plenty of examples right here in the US. Environmental justice (EJ) — a demand for a healthy and safe planet where people can live, work, play, and pray — has always been important but is now gaining mainstream recognition as a foundational component of all climate action. The EJ movement was borne out of a response to environmental racism and the disproportionate impacts of pollution on low-income and BIPOC communities. In 1991, the National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit established 17 principles of environmental justice. Over the last three decades, EJ has become a global movement for civil rights, environmental health, occupational health and safety, indigenous land rights, and other social and economic justice rights.

The nascency of the carbon removal field creates an opportunity to shape policy decisions around carbon removal and its deployment in a manner that addresses inequities instead of contributing to them.

EJ is a foundational part of climate action

In recent years there has been a palpable shift in conversations surrounding climate action. There’s growing recognition of the need to develop policy through an equity and justice lens and a participatory approach rooted in the on-the-ground realities of communities. A well-known example is the Green New Deal (GND), a federal legislative effort that has been able to bring long-standing grassroots and distributive justice concepts to the Hill. And the GND is popular for good reason: it approaches the climate crisis as an opportunity to build a just and equitable society. The GND recognizes that it’s not enough to focus solely on mitigating greenhouse gas emissions — doing so would allow climate shocks to continue to impact the most vulnerable the hardest and fastest. Instead, it ensures we do not ignore the priorities of frontline communities, including cumulative and legacy pollution and non-climate impacts. The nascency of the carbon removal field creates an opportunity to shape policy decisions around carbon removal and its deployment in a manner that addresses inequities instead of contributing to them.

We know that carbon removal is necessary to meet climate goals, both to address hard-to-decarbonize sectors and to draw down legacy emissions. But we must acknowledge that carbon removal could follow a similar path as previous climate action and maintain the status quo of social and economic inequities in vulnerable communities. Ensuring this doesn’t happen requires confronting and disrupting power dynamics in climate policy efforts. These existing power imbalances impact how policies are shaped and implemented, and how different communities access funding, information, and technical and legal expertise.

One major barrier to equity and justice that the carbon removal field must address is its ties to extractive industries. The involvement of oil companies in carbon removal technologies is a major point of tension for climate and justice advocates. While they have the resources and expertise to scale technological carbon removal, the oil and gas industry has not only significantly contributed to climate change, but has also driven racial, economic, and social disparities in marginalized communities — something we’ve grappled with at Carbon180 for a while. Should we scale technologies without oil companies? Should we use carbon removal to hold them financially responsible for their role in creating climate change? Which of them are even interested in meaningfully investing in carbon removal? Working with climate and justice advocates to answer these (and other) questions on the role of extractive industries is crucial to both the success of scaling carbon removal and ensuring that it redresses inequities rather than exacerbates them.

Another major barrier is the need for multilevel governance. We’re discussing carbon removal deployment at the gigaton level, which will undoubtedly have major local and global implications. We need governance frameworks that span from the international to the local level — developed and implemented through participatory and justice-oriented processes — to address considerations like potential environmental impacts of large-scale carbon removal, responsibility and oversight needs, and logistics around financing.

EJ isn’t just a “nice-to-have” but a critical piece of the deployment puzzle. Without it, we risk further harming communities and failing to get projects off the ground in time (if at all).

With this in mind, there are two frameworks foundational to building equitable policies: distributive justice and procedural justice.

Carbon removal has enormous potential to both address legacy pollution and create non-climate benefits, in line with these frameworks. It covers a diverse set of technologies and practices, across geographies and scales, that can impact environmental, economic, and social outcomes. It is also a growing field, with opportunities to decide how, where, and which solutions will be widely deployed. By applying an equity and justice lens to develop and deploy carbon removal solutions, we can ensure scale-up is sustainable, timely, and durable. Remember: EJ isn’t just a “nice-to-have” but a critical piece of the deployment puzzle. Without it, we risk further harming communities and failing to get projects off the ground in time (if at all).

So, what does this mean for Carbon180?

As a climate-focused organization that champions carbon removal, we want to see these solutions deployed widely and at the gigaton scale to reach our mid-century goals. But we’re also reconciling how these solutions will be scaled up and what our role is in advocating for equitable, sustainable, and transparent processes. It’s one thing to say we agree that environmental justice is important, but what does that look like in practice?

This is certainly not an easy undertaking, nor one that can be sorted overnight. However, it is critical to successfully implementing our mission to responsibly scale carbon removal, and will shape the future of Carbon180’s policy and advocacy work. This is why we are launching our Environmental Justice Initiative. As an organization, and as individuals, we’re deeply committed to better integrating justice and equity in everything we do. To start, we have been having conversations with environmental justice organizations and leaders across the country to better understand their priorities, their perspectives on both carbon removal and the climate crisis, and the barriers they face in their day to day work. These leaders have been talking about environmental injustices for a long time, and have shared guidelines for organizations interested in supporting their efforts. We’re finding ways to create space for shared learning, provide educational resources on carbon removal, and to advance the broader priorities of EJ groups. We’re also launching an Environmental Justice Advisory Group in 2021 that will help us navigate this space and inform our approach to policy development and advocacy.

This is a long-term commitment that we hope will transform our organization and others we work with, provide opportunities to exchange ideas and resources, and broaden the groups we engage with in our collective efforts to combat climate change. We also think it will improve the chances of scaling carbon removal to meet climate goals and the chances that the carbon removal industries of the future will be a lever for a healthy and safe planet where people can live, work, play, and pray.

We’re approaching this work with a mindset open to continuous learning and growth, recognizing that our understanding of environmental justice and its many social, environmental, and political intersections will never be complete. As we embark on this new chapter, we’ll be sharing what we learn — and unlearn — along the way.

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