Change seems to be one of the only constants in carbon removal, but throughout it all, our efforts at Carbon180 have remained in service of the same vision — one where legacy emissions are removed and we can all thrive. In 2020, we kicked off our environmental justice (EJ) initiative to dedicate more time and resources towards the work of creating that equitable future, and now, the initiative has evolved even further: Carbon180 is home to a dedicated EJ team.

Looking back at Carbon180’s EJ initiative

When Carbon180 first launched in 2015, carbon removal was largely unknown, unproven, and unfunded. Online information about carbon removal was scant, and resources about its intersection with EJ were nearly non-existent. At the time, the field was focused on proving the technical feasibility of carbon removal; in conversations about development and deployment, environmental justice was often left in the margins as an afterthought.

As Carbon180 (and carbon removal at large) matured, we became more and more aware of how this limited focus was not sustainable nor aligned with our vision for carbon removal. As a team, we saw CDR’s true value as a public good that redresses the past harms of over pollution for those most impacted by the climate crisis. And if Carbon180 truly wanted to be in partnership with overburdened communities and center their input in CDR projects and policy, we needed to rethink our approach.

Enter: our EJ initiative. Initially, the initiative existed within our policy work, and our goal was to create a new direction for the field by studying the longstanding advocacy and scholarship around EJ in the US and adapt those learnings to CDR. With Removing Forward, we published a founding set of principles for just carbon removal, aligned with the 17 EJ principles developed by the National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit.

We believe EJ isn’t just one aspect of carbon removal but a driving force that governs why and how we do it, who needs to be shaping decisions, and where it should take place.

We wanted the values we committed to on paper to truly take root in this fast-changing field — to shape carbon removal by the needs and wants of the people most impacted by climate change. As the initiative continued, we built more fruitful relationships — based in trust and co-learning — with EJ groups and community organizations, elevated the role of EJ in fieldwide dialogues, and set higher standards for how EJ is integrated into policy, research, and deployment. (You might remember Alayna Chuney’s white paper with XPRIZE on how early-stage startups can center EJ in their work.) We also launched a regranting effort to reroute resources to EJ organizations who wanted to learn about carbon removal, and ultimately make decisions about what role, if any, it could play in their communities.

An initiative becomes a team

Eventually, as our ambitions for EJ in CDR grew, we noticed our work had outgrown its container. We believe EJ isn’t just one aspect of carbon removal but a driving force that governs why and how we do it, who needs to be shaping decisions, and where it should take place. To that end, we created a standalone environmental justice team with full autonomy to guide Carbon180’s advancement of EJ in carbon removal, independent of our priorities for the Hill or the latest industry happenings.

There’s no replacement for the role of EJ groups as conveners and advocates for their communities, and none of Carbon180’s work exists without the frameworks and knowledge they set before us. We see a unique, unfilled role in our fast-growing field for a champion for equitable and just carbon removal that isn’t an EJ organization, but operates in support of them. With our grasp on the nuances of carbon removal — national vs local concerns, the intersection of labor, a vision for a just transition — we see a natural path forward for us as educators and connectors.

What’s ahead

This evolution for our team comes at a critical inflection point for the industry, as federal funding for carbon removal exceeds $154 million in FY23 and the Department of Energy advances its Regional Direct Air Capture Hubs program, with two projects already announced. Looking forward, we want to equip local organizations with the knowledge and resources they need to directly engage with project developers.

As a newly minted team, we’ve developed a few north stars: To start, we want to make sure carbon removal only happens where, at the scale of, and under the conditions that are acceptable for community stakeholders. Next, communities must be able to benefit from any projects environmentally and economically. Finally, we want to support EJ groups in building a self-sustaining community of grassroots organizations working to ensure that CDR projects advance equity. In total, we believe these pillars are essential to creating a carbon-removing future where everyone can thrive.

One of our first orders of business is hiring three new members to join our growing EJ team. In the coming months, we’ll also focus on expanding our regranting efforts and our work on CALDAC, a feasibility study for a potential DAC hub in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

This work has been years in the making, and it is only just beginning.

Edited by Emily Reich. Image by Matt Duncan.