Can CDR do harm? Is it particularly harmful to disadvantaged communities? Let’s find out what is fact and what is not.
The bottom line
Environmental justice is a real concern that needs to be carefully considered when implementing CDR. Those who suffer any negative effects from CDR should not be the same people who have suffered the negative effects of fossil fuel use for generations or those who have contributed almost nothing to the problem, e.g. the global South.
That said, we need to weigh the potential harms of CDR not against present conditions, but against the harm the most vulnerable and disadvantaged will suffer under runaway global warming if we do nothing. (Read more on the cost of doing nothing in the chapter “CDR can create economic and ecological co-benefits.”)
Let’s look at some of the most frequent arguments and challenges of CDR and decarbonization (yes, that has huge potential for negative effects on disadvantaged communities, too).
CDR prolongs fossil fuel use, which causes harm**
This argument relies on a well-known logical fallacy, the red herring argument. Opponents equate CDR with CCS and then attack it with the same arguments that are used (with much more reason) to argue against CCS.
What’s true : continued fossil fuel use does indeed harm people and the environment. This harm comes via global warming due to greenhouse gasses but is also caused by byproducts of combustion, such as fine particular matter, and noxious gasses, e.g. benzenes, associated with oil spills or drilling. Disadvantaged communities are often most affected and have worse health outcomes.
Here is a John Oliver episode on environmental racism that is well worth watching: Environmental Racism: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO) - YouTube
What’s false: the claim that CDR is essentially just a version of CCS and therefore a ruse by big oil and coal to greenwash their continued fossil fuel use. As we often repeat, CCS and CDR are different approaches. CCS - which takes place at the smokestack and therefore requires a smokestack - is indeed likely to lock us deeper into fossil fuel use, while CDR, which is decoupled from the source of the emissions, does not prolong fossil fuel use as long as the right legal and regulatory frameworks are put in place.
The bridge between CCS and CDR is generally built via the wrong claim that all CDR is DAC, and therefore constitutes a dangerous “technical-chemical” solution.
What makes this argument tough to deal with: we’re not really arguing about the same thing, since critics are attacking CCS, not CDR, whether they see the distinction or not.
There is a but: we know that the fossil fuel companies are not honest players. They have known for decades that CO2 causes immeasurable harm to our planet and have spent many millions of dollars to hide it. The fact that something can be abused by them for their benefit means that they likely will try and abuse it.
However, this argues for caution and regulatory frameworks that absolutely prohibit any possibilities of “pollute now, remove later” behavior. Just because something can be abused doesn’t mean we can never do it, it means we need to put safeguards in place to prevent that abuse.
That means enacting laws that (like CDRLA)
Prohibit any CDR applications that are used to extract fossil fuels, e.g. enhanced oil recovery (EOR);
Select projects based on full energy and emissions life cycle performance, therefore selecting for the most efficient, clean energy supplied solutions that deliver negative emissions; and
Establish a program funding source that is not tied to credits or offsets that permit polluters to continue to pollute.
CDR is risky, that risk will disproportionally affect already disadvantaged communities
The risks of CDR - as we know them - are discussed in the backgrounder “The Risks of CDR”.
What’s true: most CDR approaches come with some risks. The risk of planting trees is a dangerous reduction of land for food production or planting or monocultures of fast-growing trees that threaten biodiversity and pose a wildfire risk. CDR solutions that require pipelines to transport CO2 and injection wells to sequester it underground have risks associated with these processes. The risks, as well as possible co-benefits of other CDR methods, like enhanced weathering and ocean fertilization, are still being researched.
It is also true that the risks societies consider acceptable, e.g. oil or chemical spills, pesticide contaminations or polluted water, air and soil, are not equitably spread. In the US, communities of color are more likely to suffer from environmental hazards and the resulting diseases, e.g. cancers (for a more detailed discussion, check out this article).
Globally, those who have contributed the least to global warming suffer the most, e.g. from heat waves, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and increased natural disasters.
What’s false: while CDR approaches are not risk-free, opponents often portray all CDR methods, other than planting trees, as ticking time bombs ready to blow up any minute. As the claim about the risks of CO2 depletion shows, they also do not shy away from exaggerating risks in an effort to scare.
What makes this argument difficult to deal with: we clearly have spectacularly failed (and are still failing) to protect vulnerable communities from the consequences of our addiction to fossil fuels. In fact, we have actively and consciously burdened them with the vast majority of the harmful consequences. Just saying “we promise not to do this again” is simply not enough.
However, we do not have to repeat the mistakes of the past! There is a much higher degree of awareness of environmental justice issues now than even a few years ago and so we have a historic chance to actually get it right this time, to involve all communities that will be touched by whatever CDR method from the start.
Getting it right means for example working closely with disadvantaged communities, integrating their concerns into the planning process, making sure that economic (e.g. jobs) and other benefits are enjoyed by them, addressing their concerns pro-actively and seeking community input from the start, rather than taking a heavy-handed top-down approach. For an example of how indigenous communities can be integrated in the planning process for off-shore DAC, listen to this episode of “This Is CDR”)
Here is a quote from Peter Psarras, research assistant professor in chemical and biomolecular engineering (CBE) at the Clean Energy Conversions Lab at U Penn.
“Our work is constantly weighing harms against each other because there is no solution that will have zero negative impact,” says Psarras. “And this is the reason we cannot have knee-jerk reactions to any solutions offered to reach these goals. Our goal as a lab is to inform through science-based dialog, and we’re beginning to understand the importance of doing that beyond a purely academic audience.”
What’s missing: there is a very important argument that CDR-opponents often ignore: the effects of doing nothing. While we do not understand the full extent of climate change in the decades to come, we do know that it will be devastating. We also know that the people who will suffer most from climate inaction are the most vulnerable communities. Doing nothing, or too little too late, will disproportionally harm exactly those people who opponents mean to protect.
Now, opponents generally don’t say that we shouldn’t do anything. They focus on decarbonization combined with large-scale tree planting. The problem with that approach is that we know this will not achieve the reduction in CO2 we need. This approach falls into the “too little, too late” category.
In addition, both components of this approach - decarbonization and tree planting - come with their own risks that disproportionally affect disadvantaged communities.
Decarbonization, while absolutely critical, has to be done in a managed way in order to avoid energy shortages which will affect those, who cannot afford to buy solar panels or EVs, the most.
Tree planting, which absolutely needs to be a part of the CDR portfolio, uses up land required for food production and therefore existentially threatens the poorest.
Here is a paper on the topic of “Environmental and climate justice and technological carbon removal”