Why Environmental Justice Could Make or Break Carbon Removal

Feb 07 2023

Nikki Batchelor

XPRIZE has partnered with Carbon180 on a new report that aims to put environmental justice at the center of the carbon removal conversation and offers practical recommendations for startups and project developers. An environmentally just approach to carbon removal will not only help achieve the social license necessary to scale this industry, but can also be a vehicle for bringing about transformative positive social change. 

The climate math is clear that we need to develop and deploy carbon removal solutions. We believe that environmental justice will be an essential ingredient to doing so at scale. Disadvantaged communities have been sidelined and disproportionately impacted time and time again across industries, leaving them without a voice in key decisions regarding the siting and overall direction of a project. This disenfranchisement has often occurred in tandem with willful neglect of the environment, resulting in public health disasters and widespread environmental contamination. Without community support, full-scale carbon removal deployment may never be achieved. Carbon removal project developers are going to need to come to the table with an understanding of past harms and a plan to help avoid past mistakes. 

XPRIZE and Carbon180 believe that the time to act is now to ensure that the carbon removal industry doesn’t scale up in a vacuum, but recognizes how interconnected it will be with other industries, people, and the environment. Our joint hope is to set nascent carbon removal companies on a path toward integrating environmental justice into all aspects of their organizations. 

What is Environmental Justice?  
Environmental justice (EJ) refers to a concept, a field of research, and a social movement. Around the world, communities of color, racialized minorities, Indigenous and Tribal communities, and low-income communities have been burdened with disproportionate levels of environmental pollution. As a result, they have experienced, or are at risk of experiencing, high levels of adverse health impacts. These communities — collectively referred to as disadvantaged or EJ communities — have borne the brunt of the environmental harms of industrialization while reaping few of the benefits. The EJ movement is a response to these inequities. It calls attention to these historical and ongoing harms and advocates for policy measures that ensure access to clean, healthy environments for all.

Approach and Analysis
A key motive underpinning the XPRIZE Carbon Removal is the need to support the scale-up of carbon removal in ways that are both sustainable and equitable. The recommendations outlined in the report are in response to the Environmental Justice Questionnaire (available in Appendix B of the Report) completed for the Milestone Round of the XPRIZE Carbon Removal competition. Teams were asked about the EJ dimensions of their projects — including existing environmental and public health burdens, potential positive or negative impacts on local ecosystems, and anticipated community benefits.

From the analysis of the Milestone Questionnaire responses, it’s clear that many XPRIZE Carbon Removal teams were able to identify EJ considerations relevant to their projects. The top five frequently mentioned were: job creation, community engagement, fair distribution of project benefits, mitigating and managing potential harms, and repair of past harms. While teams were often able to identify a variety of EJ-related concerns, and in some cases provide thoughtful responses, they did not always know what practical steps to take to address the issues. Additionally, many teams shared they were not familiar with EJ as a field of study nor a social movement, and a number of teams reported, for example, that this questionnaire was their first encounter with the concept of environmental justice. 

For carbon removal to become a transformative force in society, developers will need to address three different dimensions of environmental justice. The recommendations outlined in the report are broken out along those dimensions: 1) Procedural justice, which refers to fairness in decision making; 2) Distributive justice, which refers to equitable allocation of project risks, benefits and impacts; 3) Reparative justice, which refers to acknowledging and addressing past harms. These different facets of justice are not mutually exclusive, but are all needed to get to the long-term goal of transformative social change, or transformative justice. 

These recommendations can be addressed at all stages of the project development process. Even companies just starting out can take meaningful steps to center EJ in their business plans. 

Procedural Justice Recommendations:

  1. 1. Approach community engagement as a process of co-learning. 
  2. 2. Develop strategies for reaching communities directly. 
  3. 3. Develop a community engagement strategy that includes continuous consultation throughout the lifecycle of the project.
  4. 4. Explore mechanisms for formalizing environmental justice within the company. 

Distributive Justice Recommendations:

  1. 1. Be transparent about the potential risks of a project.
  2. 2. Work with communities to co-define the kinds of benefits a project could yield.
  3. 3. Create a customized workforce development plan.
  4. 4. Put formal agreements in place to codify agreed-upon benefits. 

Reparative Justice Recommendations:

  1. 1. Understand the past injustices and harms communities have experienced. 
  2. 2. Design projects that prioritize repairing past harms.

By embedding EJ at every stage of the project, carbon removal companies can demonstrate their commitment to learning from past harms and set themselves on a path to scaling sustainably and with societal support. In the long term, this will enable carbon removal to be a vehicle for bringing about transformative social change by addressing and redressing structural power imbalances and historic harms. In other words, done right, carbon removal could become a means for counteracting — rather than entrenching — systemic environmental injustices. 

XPRIZE is committed to prioritizing environmental justice within the prize and the broader carbon removal conversation. We also encourage others to develop additional resources for project developers that build on the recommendations outlined in the report to advance this topic and share learnings going forward.

Nikki Batchelor