Assuming you’ve been paying attention to the carbon removal space, you know that direct air capture (DAC) has been getting a fair amount of attention as a way to help remove legacy emissions from our atmosphere. Thanks in part to the Inflation Reduction Act and the infrastructure deal passed by Congress, there are now billions of dollars dedicated to researching, developing, and scaling DAC. In fact, the US has more private DAC companies than any other country and is positioned to play a defining role in the future of DAC.

With that momentum comes a responsibility for the US to deploy these technologies not only quickly but responsibly, alongside aggressive emissions reductions. Reducing emissions is vital but alone does nothing to address the more than two trillion tons of carbon already released into our atmosphere — of which the US has had an outsized role in contributing to.

Not everyone agrees. Even as someone who has dedicated their career to figuring out how to do carbon removal “right,” I can understand why. There’s work to be done to ensure DAC can demonstrate not only jobs and climate mitigation, but tangible benefits within disadvantaged communities — like long-term wealth creation, safe and dignified working conditions, and reduced energy burdens. A DAC project in any given town or region will inevitably intersect with other priorities like environmental and public health and renewable energy deployment. In other words, we can’t assume DAC will uphold environmental justice principles simply by existing as a climate technology.

That’s the work: governments can secure a community-driven future for DAC by working with local leadership, environmental justice advocates, labor groups, project developers, and community-based organizations. Meaningful public engagement is created when groups feel listened to and their input directly impacts the outcomes of a project. Equally important is going beyond preventing harms: environmental justice demands us to actively make lives better by more equitably distributing resources and building community benefits into climate solutions.

I’ve gotten pushback and skepticism on this notion from carbon removal advocates and environmental justice leaders alike, all of whom I deeply admire. Still, it’s too important to give up on: the United Nation’s flagship climate report deemed the need for carbon removal ‘unavoidable.’ For now, DAC is a promising part of the portfolio and trying to figure out how it can work equitably and at scale feels critical.

DAC has global implications that are personal for me, too. My family is from Somalia, a nation whose economy is rooted in agriculture. Tracking weather patterns and preparing for shifts was–and still is–an essential pillar of life. For the past decade, Somalia has experienced unprecedented drought conditions. The resulting famine has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, including some of my family members. They are part of countless communities across the globe being pummeled by what should be “once-in-a-generation” climate events, except now they happen every few years.

Carbon removal can be a powerful tool to promote climate justice because it addresses the root harm of climate change: legacy emissions. Deploying technology like DAC in the US could address its historical responsibility and help clean up the emissions disproportionately impacting vulnerable communities around the globe.

Then there’s the matter of self-determination and decolonization. Can countries like the US ensure Global South countries like Somalia benefit from and are included in funding, research, and learnings on DAC? Can there be a true technology and knowledge transfer? Currently, there is no model for sharing responsibility for the climate crisis, but it is a key strategy proposed by the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change. However, efforts like Mission Innovation at the Department of Energy can help ensure climate technology like DAC is readily available and financially accessible for countries that are still grappling with the legacy of colonialism. We have to find ways to support developing countries looking to grow their economy and increase their quality of life under the crushing threat of climate change.

After this pandemic, we’re no stranger to this idea of global coordination — public health experts pushed for intellectual property rights waivers to facilitate global partnerships and distribute COVID-19 vaccines, while boosting technological capabilities and economic growth in the Global South. This is analogous to the opportunity with DAC, which won’t be successful if access and benefits are concentrated within those that already hold power.

Both globally and at home, there are real fears that DAC could be co-opted by fossil fuel companies looking to avoid meaningful action — a tried and true greenwashing scheme by an industry with a long history of human rights and environmental violations. DAC, for example, is often conflated with carbon capture and sequestration, a technology that might share verbiage but has different climate impacts.

Carbon capture prevents emissions from being released into the atmosphere, thus “zeroing out” a company’s emissions tally but potentially sustaining their business model, while carbon removal is distinguished by the removal of emissions causing climate change and injustice, a fact occasionally lost in the discourse.

This much is true: carbon removal cannot be an excuse for the world’s largest emitters to continue business-as-usual. Nor should it slow efforts to rapidly decarbonize. Because carbon removal is at an impressionable stage of maturity, now is the time to shape it as a tool for global climate justice, not for fossil fuel reliance.

Two centuries of human activity have put us in a position where carbon removal is no longer a question of ‘do we need it?’ but ‘how and where?’ I believe in the ways just, durable climate policy can reroute power to the most disenfranchised and create a more equitable and prosperous society — just with a lot less carbon in the atmosphere.

Edited by Ana Little-Saña. Cover image by Mike Erskine