The Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) industry is still in its infancy but its potential for positive climate impact is becoming clearer. With an influx of startups and scaleups entering competitions and receiving funding from public and private capital, there are clear indications of its growing potential. Two organizations think now is the best time to start talking about environmental justice and have created a set of recommendations for it.
But what is environmental justice? The Department of Energy defines it as: “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”
This hasn’t always been the case in the past, not only when it comes to heavy industry but also when greener initiatives have been involved.
The XPRIZE Carbon Removal competition, perhaps the most popular carbon removal contest, identified this challenge and realized it is in a strong position to have a positive impact on how startups and early stage companies in the industry think about their business models.
Nikki Batchelor, director of XPRIZE Carbon Removal says: “From the very beginning we’ve had this requirement that teams also have environmental justice lenses on all of their work and sustainable scalability criteria built into the price.”
This made them reach out to Carbon180, an NGO that works with policymakers, entrepreneurs, and peer organizations throughout the US to design policies that can grow carbon removal solutions to a gigaton scale.
They worked together on developing a questionnaire (found here in appendix B) that could establish a baseline of understanding about environmental justice among participants in the XPRIZE competition. Questions were centered around the impact of the projects in terms of the environment, health, ecosystems and community benefits.
One of the most interesting findings was that founders thought of job creation as the main contribution their projects could have in terms of environmental justice. This was followed by engaging local communities and the fair distribution of benefits, while purely environmental factors were a priority for approximately a quarter of respondents.
The next phase was to create something actionable from the many findings from the questionnaire.
First, the organizers formed an expert review panel that could provide an accurate assessment and the best possible feedback.
Alayna Chuney from Carbon180 describes that process: “We hired four environmental justice experts who came from various backgrounds – academics, some at the community, frontline level, and then others that are in the legal realm. We had them evaluate the top 60 applicant responses and from there they created their recommendations on how to best incorporate environmental justice, not only in the individuals projects, but in the greater CDR field.”
The second offshoot from the questionnaire was the report that provides recommendations for carbon removal companies to ensure climate change solutions address past harms and create equitable future benefits.
One of its most important characterstics is that it’s not necessarily focused only on what startups should do. The recommendations are applicable for carbon removal companies at all stages of their Technological Readiness Level (TRL).
Nikki Batchelor adds: “Our hope and vision is for this topic to be embedded meaningfully into all reviews of future CDR projects going forward, whether that be from Department of Energy, investors or buyers. We would hope that there is some kind of environmental justice lens applied to reviewing projects and advancing and funding those that scale up.”
Requiring an environmental justice criteria can be seen as making something difficult – like removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – even harder. But going ahead without this in mind risks repeating mistakes of the past and creating new social and enviornmental debts, instead of realizing the full 360′ potential of the carbon removal industry.