With carbon emissions expected to rebound this year, 2021 presents another opportunity for companies to invest in climate-saving initiatives that move the corporate world closer to a net-zero future, especially carbon removal projects.
While some companies already have started investing in these solutions on a larger scale, questions remain about how to conduct the process equitably. In other words, what environmental justice considerations should companies evaluate when investing in these opportunities?
There’s a good reason to ask. Historically, carbon removal projects have a legacy of potentially reifying inequality; projects in the Global South become responsible for hosting said projects and their associated consequences while countries (and companies) in the Global North use these initiatives to meet their carbon reduction targets.
Examples of this dynamic include projects such as a hydroelectric plant in Guatemala (later linked to egregious human rights abuse) and forest preservation projects in Brazil; both offered Western companies opportunities to gain carbon offset credits, but the reality of their impact from a human rights standpoint was less understood.
Ugbaad Kosar, senior policy advisor at Carbon180, discussed these disparities and the power imbalance associated with carbon removal measures. "There’s a long history of Global South countries inheriting the burden of hosting projects that have benefited wealthier countries in reaching their climate targets," Kosar said. "These projects can lead to inadequate payments, loss of local control over natural resources, loss of ability to use their land for other livelihood purposes."
A number of safeguards developed by NGOs can aid companies deciding whose carbon removal projects to invest in, Kosar said.
Carbon removal is still relatively nascent, which gives us a unique opportunity to shape how, where and which solutions will be deployed.
For example, in 2005, the "Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and enhancement of carbon stocks" (REDD+) system was created as a social and biodiversity safeguard to make sure carbon removal efforts didn’t harm biodiversity and that its benefits were given to local communities. Elsewhere, the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance, a partnership spanning several international environmental NGOs, created "Climate, Community and Biodiversity" standards to ensure land-based projects respected community stakeholders and their cultures, and nurtured biodiversity, among other goals.
However, as argued by Holly Buck, assistant professor of environment and sustainability at the University at Buffalo, these safeguards have not been carried out without issues. REDD+ social safeguards have had mixed results; the impact of the safeguards sometimes have been difficult to monitor and interventions made based on the safeguards had mixed results, she noted.
Looking forward, that means companies have an opportunity to be even more progressive in establishing their own standards for equity considerations related to carbon removal, according to Kosar and Buck.
"Companies are even poised to play a role in having even more ambitious standards because some of those safeguards haven’t always been working out as well as intended ... [companies can make] sure that theoretical co-benefits are actually delivered upon and [pay] more attention to who reaps the benefits from these projects," Buck said.
Where to start? Before analyzing equity considerations related to their external carbon removal work, companies should first ensure they cultivate a workplace culture of justice within their organizations, Buck and Kosar said.
This type of internal work is not only critical to unseeding racism in general (demonstrated as more carbon capture companies focus on making meaningful contributions to environmental justice). Among other things, the Clean Air Task Force also is following projects in California and Texas to determine how carbon capture technology might play a role in reducing local air pollution, with a view to releasing its research after this year to front-line communities. It’s an important first step for companies hoping to address oppression in their environmental work.
"It is so important for companies to start by looking internally and meaningfully begin anti-oppression work and diversification of the workforce. Doing so allows for opportunities to refute and rethink contextual perspectives and to understand the drivers of inequity and injustice," Kosar said.
It is so important for companies to start by looking internally and meaningfully begin anti-oppression work and diversification of the workforce ...
In addition to creating equity within the workplace, companies investing in carbon removal projects must be committed to transparency about the process itself, all associated data, community involvement and an equitable distribution of resources. Carbon removal projects can be an opaque process, shrouded in litigation and inaccessible information; community members where carbon removal projects are located should be made aware of the process and included in the discussion of the project’s effects.
"With industrial removal, some of the questions at the project site are: Are people happy with the industrial facility? Is it impacting them? … Are they seeing any benefit from it or just having to live next to a waste disposal site?" Buck said.
Most important, benefits need to be equitably distributed, ideally problem-solving for legacy effects of climate change that often occur in marginalized communities. For instance, a strategy of planting trees not only could address removing emissions but also help cool neighborhoods, reduce pollution, provide shade and have other benefits, an example Kosar provided.
Buck also cited the importance of government involvement to help ensure benefits are given equally. She noted how the California government helps redistribute funds from the state’s cap-and-trade program to vulnerable communities.
Overall, while the increase in companies investing in carbon removal programs signals a positive shift in more climate-friendly thinking, it’s critical to participate in these solutions in a way that centers and benefits oppressed communities, Buck and Kosar advised.
"Carbon removal is still relatively nascent, which gives us a unique opportunity to shape how, where and which solutions will be deployed. As the industry emerges and scales, key players need to prioritize transparency and accountability, ensuring they do not ignore legacy pollution that harms marginalized communities," Kosar said.