By Alicja Mazurkiewicz

Climate change is so advanced already that mitigating carbon emissions may no longer be enough to address its negative effects. The scientific community is now realizing that the countries that emit the largest amounts of carbon must find ways to remove carbon pollution that is already in the atmosphere, and they must do it quickly. The need to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to curb climate change, when done in a way that prioritizes frontline communities, seems like something many climate advocates can agree on. The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act both include provisions to spur carbon capture technologies, so we may see many more of these projects popping up. But, are these technologies addressing the most urgent environmental and climate concerns?

Several forms of carbon storage are being developed and implemented: Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage (CCUS), Direct Air Capture (DAC), Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), as well as nature-based solutions. That’s a lot of acronyms! This blog will discuss these approaches, and how carbon storage projects must follow environmental justice principles.

Carbon Capture and Storage technologies – referred to as CCS here on out – capture CO2 emissions directly from fossil fuel powered energy and industrial facilities, wherein liquified CO2 is pumped into saline aquifers, oil or gas reservoirs, or beneath the ocean for long-term storage. Given that CCS has only been rolled out on a relatively small scale, for now, it is uncertain exactly how feasible, secure, and long-term this form of storage really is. There is the possibility that the stored CO2 could leak out to end up in the atmosphere due to system design flaws or unexpected occurrences like earthquakes. 

Furthermore, it is important to be aware of the motivations for expanding CCS. Eleven of the twelve CCS facilities in the United States are tied to Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR). EOR involves oil companies pumping liquified CO2 into nearly depleted oil reservoirs to obtain more oil. Accumulating more oil, of course, means more CO2 emissions, and studies have shown that the emissions from the extracted oil by CCS are much greater than the CO2 stored in the reservoirs to obtain that oil. So, if funding continues to be directed towards CCS technologies used for EOR, fossil fuel extraction will continue to be enabled, and the real climate change solution of limiting the use of fossil fuels will not be addressed to the extent necessary. Moreover, the continued usage of fossil fuels through CCS, under the impression that it is a climate solution, will continue to wreck the health and well-being of communities already disproportionately impacted by the burning of fossil fuels. 

Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage (CCUS) utilizes emitted CO2 as an input for manufacturing chemicals, synthetic rubber, and certain types of plastic. So, CO2 ends up being stored in these goods instead of in an underground reservoir. However, these products do not last forever, which means that the CO2 is only temporarily stored within them and released at the end of their lifecycle. And, of course, the production of these goods emits CO2 if fossil fuels power the facility. In the end, while this approach may sound enticing initially, it does not yield meaningful climate benefits.

Direct Air Capture (DAC) uses large spinning fans to filter ambient CO2 through a chemical adsorbent to essentially suck CO2 out of the air for underground storage. While DAC is effective at initial carbon removal, it requires large amounts of energy and would likely be powered by fossil fuels. Further, given the large scale of the devices needed for effectiveness, DAC would use a lot of energy. DAC is also water intensive. Environmental justice concerns surrounding DAC include the location of where large numbers of these devices are placed and the health impacts on local populations due to the toxic chemicals used in the filters. 

Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) seeks to combine energy from burning biomass like wood or agricultural products with underground CO2 storage. BECCS could be carbon negative, meaning that it removes more CO2 than it emits, as the organic material had absorbed CO2 to grow in the first place. Along with the already discussed issues with underground CO2 storage, on a large scale BECCS is unfeasible. Cropland for biomass feedstock would have to be significantly expanded, most likely into protected areas or the land of marginalized communities. Also, using edible crops for bioenergy could increase food prices and insecurity, affecting the most vulnerable. 

Finally, a hot topic of discussion is nature-based carbon removal solutions. Nature-based carbon removal solutions can be beneficial for communities and the climate. Still, it is critical to distinguish between approaches that truly encourage sustainable practices versus those that mask pollution. Climate-positive nature-based solutions involve conserving, restoring, or more efficiently  managing ecosystems to facilitate natural processes that remove existing or prevent new CO2 emissions, that is, sequestration in plants and soil, while yielding other benefits such as greater ecosystem biodiversity and cleaner air and water. 

Carbon offsets, on the other hand, are a product of the carbon market, through which companies can pay to sequester their emissions through natural processes indirectly, which often involves very ineffective and deceptive measures (which could be a topic of a whole other blog post) that enable companies to think of nature as an infinite carbon sink, without taking steps to reduce their fossil fuel emissions. Furthermore, the practice of carbon offsetting ignores traditional community-based approaches and food production and disproportionately harms frontline communities. Unfortunately, carbon offsetting has become the more common nature-based approach with the trend of companies’ net-zero pledges.

Current CO2 storage approaches can enable pollution and other practices that negatively impact frontline communities. Additionally, while the most impactful step to combat climate change is reducing reliance on fossil fuels, removal of carbon that is already in the atmosphere is still essential. So, what can be done to realize this crucial goal while advancing environmental justice? The most important step that can be taken is investing in efforts to involve communities in the decision-making and project overseeing processes and to increase transparency about projects’ potential local environmental and health impacts. These steps could help ensure that projects align with the values of individual communities ensuring that they will not be harmed as a result of the project. 

The current administration realizes the environmental justice impacts of carbon removal projects, with the chair of the White House Council for Environmental Quality stating: “With industries moving quickly to adopt and deploy carbon capture technologies, Federal agencies can play a key role in ensuring that projects are done right and in a way that reflects the needs and inputs of local communities.” So, hopefully, the carbon removal or storage projects supported by federal funding will be guided by environmental justice principles. On a broader scale, carbon removal must consider local as well as global and intergenerational perspectives. Questions like what entities should be responsible for carbon removal and how decisions surrounding carbon removal projects will affect future generations must be considered to ensure that carbon removal can be sustainable and equitable.

Alicja is a high school junior from Maryland. She became interested in climate justice after learning about and discussing the implication of climate change with members of various communities, including members of frontline communities, as a delegate at a national climate conference (LCOY USA). At Our Climate, she is excited to expand her knowledge and become an advocate in this area. She is also interested in the intersection of emerging technologies and the environment and climate, as well as the concept of the circular economy, which incorporates sustainability into science, policy, business, and individual actions.

Resources:

Batres, Maya, et al. “Environmental and climate justice and technological carbon removal.” The Electricity Journal, vol. 34, no. 7, Aug.-Sept. 2021, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tej.2021.107002.

“CEQ Issues New Guidance to Responsibly Develop Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Sequestration.” The White House, 15 Feb. 2022, www.whitehouse.gov/ceq/news-updates/2022/02/15/ceq-issues-new-guidance-to-responsibly-develop-carbon-capture-utilization-and-sequestration/.

Earthjustice. “Carbon Capture: The Fossil Fuel Industry’s False Climate Solution.” Earthjustice, 9 Sept. 2022, earthjustice.org/from-the-experts/2022-september/carbon-capture-the-fossil-fuel-industrys-false-climate-solution.

“Fact Sheet: Nature-Based Solutions to Climate Change.” American University, 2020, www.american.edu/sis/centers/carbon-removal/fact-sheet-nature-based-solutions-to-climate-change.cfm.

“Geoengineering 101 Carbon Capture and Storage.” Climate Justice Alliance, 2020, climatejusticealliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Carbon-Capture-v4.pdf.