The Aspen Institute Energy and Environment Program (EEP) and the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice (CREEJ), led by Catherine Coleman Flowers, one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of the Year for 2023, are embarking on a new partnership to drive community engagement around carbon dioxide removal* (CDR) technology development and infrastructure deployment.
Often, proponents and developers of CDR are entering the host communities of prospective projects with different backgrounds and perspectives than those of the communities’ members. Without the necessary community engagement, many of those communities are consequently resistant to and skeptical of those CDR projects, especially given that technological interventions and environmental injustices have been intricately entangled. This partnership with CREEJ was developed to address not only the challenge that this skepticism presents, but also the opportunity that community engagement might offer, if historically marginalized community voices are given a critical role in conversations about the deployment of carbon removal infrastructure.
It has become clear that the earth’s natural carbon removal cycles cannot keep up with the pace of human-generated emissions. As the global economy still depends on some level of continued emissions in the short term, increasing CDR efforts is a critical avenue to explore. A recent International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report underscored that, in addition to rapid carbon dioxide emissions reductions, gigatons per year of natural and technological carbon removal will be necessary to achieve net zero globally by 2050. To help visualize the scale of this problem, the Department of Energy illustrates that “one gigaton of CO2 is equivalent to approximately one-fifth of the United States’ annual CO2 emissions in 2022.”
Needless to say, an influx of CDR companies are rising to meet this challenge and through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Biden administration has allocated more than 12 billion dollars for carbon management research and development,including CDR, over the next five years. A surge in funding has also allowed the Department of Energy to put out a call for innovation and research to identify CDR pathways that capture and store carbon dioxide at gigaton scales for less than $100/net metric ton of carbon dioxide equivalent. This federal government call to action is matched by private organizations, like XPRIZE, which are also working to spur innovation through incentive competitions.
While this innovation is important, it is imperative that CDR research and technology development evolve alongside a framework that guides responsible deployment and also sets in place essential community engagement and education standards. This collaborative approach is key to ensuring communities (especially marginalized communities) are consulted, respected, and included in the implementation of CDR strategies.
Catherine Flowers and CREEJ have long worked to address health, economic, and environmental disparities in low-income and rural communities (which you can learn more about through her book Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret). And the Aspen Institute Energy and Environment Program has a long-history of convening dialogue across complicated issues with a variety of stakeholders, most recently in developing Guidance for Ocean-based Carbon Dioxide Removal Projects: A Pathway to a Code of Conduct. Together, having collaborated on a variety of topics over the years, EEP and CREEJ are well-equipped to convene, facilitate, and advance this increasingly important conversation.
At a Summit in Huntsville, Alabama to be held in October 2023, and at future convenings, our two organizations will bring together environmental justice advocates (specifically within rural and marginalized communities), CDR companies, policymakers, community groups, NGOs, and others to build trust and collaboratively determine an equitable and informed path forward for establishing when and where CDR projects should emerge.
Last month, Flowers spoke at Aspen Ideas: Climate, where she shared the beginnings of this partnership with a call to action: “We are all in this together, and we are going to need to figure out how to reduce carbon emissions, the legacy emissions, as well as what’s happening now.” While this is a complex issue and collaboration on this scale will not be simple, Catherine shared that “These are the things that give me hope.”
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*The Department of Energy defines CDR as processes that remove excess carbon from the atmosphere or ocean to durably store it in geological, biobased, ocean reservoirs or value-added products.