Interest in carbon dioxide removal has exploded in recent years. Money from Big Tech and venture capitalists is funding a growing number of startups, with more than $1.4 billion pouring into the climate tech space in the last quarter. But there are potential ethical issues that should be resolved before the industry’s gold rush goes too far.
“Truly uncharted territory is what CDR means for environmental and social justice, and that’s where I see a lack of understanding,” said Lauren Gifford, postdoctoral research associate at the University of Arizona, who has studied carbon governance for over a decade. She and other scientists are concerned that emerging technologies such as direct air capture are being deployed without sufficient oversight or foresight about potential unintended negative consequences.
The problems that the CDR will have to face are multiple. From noise pollution from direct air capture installations to the ecological impacts of land-based and ocean-based carbon removal techniques, industry has a lot to consider as CDR is increasingly tested and deployed at large scale.
The scientific community and industry strive to create an ethical framework around carbon removal. Although, to be clear, nothing published so far has had any real binding force.
In May, researchers published an article in Frontiers in Marine Science that called for a scientific code of conduct for ocean-based carbon removal, an area that has already come under scrutiny to go too far. far too quickly, without sufficiently taking into account the ecological risks. what startups are trying to do. This includes a 2012 rogue experiment to seed the ocean with iron, encouraging a plankton bloom that would suck up carbon dioxide. The proposed code of conduct includes provisions for public or stakeholder engagement, minimization of potential harm, and rules on funding.
The CDR community itself is also beginning to do self-examination. The Carbon Business Council, a nonprofit coalition of about 40 carbon management startups, has created a “Pledge to Restore the Earth.” Members must sign the document, which includes a pledge that, among other things, they will be “aware of the implications my work may have for the biosphere as a whole.”
Ben Rubin, the council’s executive director, said the group was inspired by similar oaths taken by members of the medical and legal professions. “By arranging these tenants for responsible growth, I think we really have an opportunity as we scale out the gigatons to do it right and ensure that communities will benefit from the location of the projects,” he said. .
A carbon removal start-up, Planetary, goes one step further and writes its own code of conduct. The company, which has developed a process that purifies and stores mining waste in the ocean, plans to deposit its substance in approved ocean outfalls like sewage treatment plants and power plants.
Pete Chargin, head of strategy and security at Planetary, said the startup’s management team has always been focused on security and scientific rigor. At the same time, “on the other side of the ledger, what drives us to go faster is the fact that the ocean may be heading towards a tipping point where it’s impossible to recover” , did he declare.
When Planetary first started thinking about adopting a code of conduct, Chargin assumed one already existed, but was surprised to find there really wasn’t anything he could beg, borrow, or steal. “And frankly, the things that were being released were, in my opinion, not action-oriented,” he said.
He has started working with “a few ocean-based NGOs and businesses to start bouncing our ideas off them,” and said Planetary hopes to release an early draft for public comment by the end of the quarter.
Codes of conduct like the Carbon Business Council’s Ethical Oath and Planetary’s efforts “could go either way,” according to Gifford. In his opinion, they are good only insofar as they are applied. Otherwise, they might end up doing more for corporate greenwashing than making sure that for-profit carbon removal entities don’t harm the continued levy.
Like companies’ net zero commitments, these codes of conduct have no teeth; nothing holds promise takers and oath takers accountable for their promises. In the worst case, the rampant growth of the carbon removal industry could cause irreversible damage to local people and ecosystems serving major polluters willing to pay for removal services.
However, the publication of a public commitment can encourage companies to behave responsibly. “There’s a lot of social pressure going on,” as well as reputational risk, said Simon Nicholson, an associate professor of international relations at American University whose work focuses on global environmental governance.
Public commitments can also be reinforced by customer pressure. “You can have a lot of good intentions, but you can also have really poor quality products,” Nicholson said. That’s why he thinks it’s critical that big corporate buyers of carbon offset credits, companies like Microsoft and Stripe, hire teams of researchers to assess applications from carbon offset startups. (Although it’s worth noting that even discerning customers like Stripe have invested in carbon-free projects that have subsequently come under intense scrutiny.)
“You can have a lot of good intentions, but you can also have really poor quality products.”
Climate researchers point to lessons learned from the carbon offset market as a harbinger of what could happen with carbon removal if care is not taken to put guardrails around a free market for all. Forest carbon offset programs in places like Indonesia, Peru and the Central African Republic have displaced local communities from lands “that they have used for generations for their subsistence, livelihood and cultural reasons”, Gifford said. These communities also tend to be already the most affected by climate change, while contributing the least to it. There is even compelling evidence that some of these forest conservation offset projects are doing more harm than good.
Although young, the field of carbon removal is already beginning to see shadows of the same problems. Land-based forest restoration often takes place on rich and high-demand agricultural lands in the Global South. A study found that land-intensive CDR could lead to a fivefold increase in food prices, which would be extremely devastating for local communities.
In any carbon removal project, it is essential that frontline communities are consulted and included. That means both people living near project sites as well as workers making the move, said Andrew Bergman, who holds a Ph.D. student in applied physics at Harvard studying CDR and collective governance of infrastructures. Groups such as local fishing communities could be significantly impacted by ocean-based CDR projects, for example, and deserve a say in how they are implemented, if at all.
“You can’t put carbon removal projects ahead of people’s well-being.”
He recommended that companies include in their codes of conduct an allowance for community and worker seats on their boards. These communities are then able to ask questions about where carbon is stored and what effects it may have on ecosystems or the built environment.
According to Bergman, “like so many technocratic interventions,” carbon removal has become an end in itself, as opposed to a means to an end. “You can’t put carbon removal projects ahead of people’s well-being,” he said.
Beyond the impact on the community, the other risk of removing carbon is that its existence allows companies, including the fossil fuel companies that support these projects, to continue polluting the atmosphere.
This means that the most critical part of a good carbon removal framework is recognizing that work must be accompanied by a good faith effort to reduce emissions so that there is less carbon to remove from the atmosphere first.