Direct air capture funding has raised environmental justice concerns — but there’s more to the story

The passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) was nothing short of historic for climate change action in the United States. Yet, perspectives from environmental justice groups on what was included, such as support for direct air capture, are now front and center.

For one, many environmental justice advocates — who work to secure healthy living environments, community involvement and equal protections for all — were alarmed to see funding for provisions that may drive further investment into coal, oil and gas development. For another, many also feel that they were not given the opportunity to meaningfully shape the outcome of the new law, something clearly at odds with fairness in decision-making. 

And then there’s direct air capture (DAC), a carbon removal technology that draws down carbon dioxide from ambient air and supported by a newly reformed tax credit known as 45Q, thanks to the IRA. DAC is a point of tension within the environmental justice community. It’s sometimes perceived by environmental justice organizations as a “false solution” or a distraction from decarbonization yet to meet the needs of communities. I get it: There’s a lot of work to be done to ensure DAC can demonstrate not only the usual promised benefits of jobs and climate mitigation, but tangible advantages within disadvantaged communities like long-term wealth creation. Building a direct air capture project in any given community will inevitably intersect with other priorities like air and water quality and renewable energy deployment. The question is: How?  

Moreover, there are fears among many of us in the environmental justice movement that climate technologies could be co-opted or conflated by fossil fuel companies to avoid meaningful action — a tried and true greenwashing scheme by an industry with a long history of human rights and environmental violations. Industry heavyweights have been increasingly loud about investments into carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), for example. Carbon capture prevents point source emissions before being released into the atmosphere, thus “zeroing out” a company’s emissions and potentially sustaining their business model.

Direct air capture, however, is different but often muddled, in part due to the shared verbiage of these technologies. As a carbon removal technology, DAC can clean up legacy CO2 already emitted into the atmosphere that drives climate impacts and injustice.

The world today is already uninhabitable for many, including my family who had thrived on our homeland for generations. My family is from Somalia, a nation whose economy is rooted in agriculture. Tracking weather patterns and preparing for shifts was — and still is —an essential pillar of life. In the 2010s, Somalia experienced two consecutive years of severe drought, the worst in a generation. The resulting famine claimed the lives of over 250,000 people, including some of my family members. There are countless communities across the globe being pummeled by what should be “once-in-a-generation” climate events, except now they happen every few years. Somalia is again facing deadly drought and as many as 8 million people there could reportedly go hungry by April.

That’s why we need carbon removal, including DAC. To stop the worst effects of climate change, we’ll need to remove hundreds of billions of tons of CO2 that has been emitted over hundreds of years. It’s the reason I’ve dedicated my career to figuring out how to do carbon removal — the right way. And it hasn’t been an easy task. I’ve navigated pushback and skepticism from carbon removal advocates and environmental justice leaders that I deeply admire. But it feels too important to give up on: the UN’s flagship climate report deemed the need for carbon removal “unavoidable.” For now, DAC is a promising part of the portfolio and trying to figure out how it can work equitably and at scale feels critical. 

But let me be clear: carbon removal cannot be an excuse for the world’s largest emitters to continue business as usual. Nor should it slow efforts to rapidly decarbonize. Carbon removal is at an impressionable stage of maturity as more players come to the table and now is the time to shape it in a way that can be a tool for climate justice, not for continued fossil fuel reliance.

I see a real opportunity for the U.S. government to work with local leadership, environmental justice advocates, labor groups, project developers and community-based organizations to both build a strong regulatory and oversight framework as well as empower community oversight boards to put protections in place. One way to achieve this is through meaningful public engagement — creating a space where groups feel listened to and their input directly impacts the outcomes of a project. Equally important is shifting our paradigm to go beyond preventing harms. Environmental justice asks us to actively make lives better by more equitably distributing resources and building community benefits into each project.

None of this is to say there isn’t a lot to like about the IRA. Several studies and analyses point to this not only being the single greatest investment in climate ever, but also a legislative package that can help the U.S. slash current emissions to 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Even so, two centuries of human activity have put us in a position where both drawing down legacy carbon and reducing emissions is essential. Carbon removal is no longer a question of “do we need it?” but “how and where?” Just, durable climate policy can reroute power to the most disenfranchised and create a more equitable and prosperous society — just with a lot less carbon in the atmosphere.

Ugbaad Kosar is the director of environmental justice at Carbon180, a climate-focused nonprofit working to fundamentally rethink carbon. 

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