Here at OpenAir, we talk a lot about carbon removal technology, exploring all kinds of evolving efforts to get carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and restore a stabler, more human-friendly climate. It’s a young field, but a lot of really interesting people are working on a lot of really interesting ideas.
Given the much-discussed, civilization-threatening effects of atmospheric CO2, you’d think removing it would be widely agreed upon as a good thing–especially among the ecologically minded. But in fact, there’s an interesting argument in climate-awareness circles against carbon removal.
It goes like this: carbon removal is at best distracting from and at worst actively undermining the real solution to climate change, which is ending human carbon emissions immediately. By providing a hypothetical “fix,” it gives us cover–wiggle room–to continue spewing CO2 into the atmosphere, on the grounds that we can just remove it later. Unlike ending emissions, it allows all the exploitative and destructive aspects of global capitalism to continue unchanged, then applies an equally technocratic, disruptive “solution” to a problem that wouldn’t have existed in the first place without corporate greed.
And you know what? Even though I’m writing this for the blog of a volunteer-driven organization specifically focused on carbon removal… I don’t think the argument is totally invalid! When you read about how Exxon knew about climate change as early as 1982 and denied it for years, or how BP invented the idea of the “carbon footprint” to make you blame yourself for climate change instead of (correctly) blaming them, and then you see something like this, it is easy to feel skeptical or even angry about the use of carbon offsets as a band-aid over decades of lying and exploitation: destroy the future, that’s fine, just be sure to plant a tree!
However! Whatever your feelings about oil-company PR and its utter shamelessness, whatever your anger about the situation we’re now stuck in, the fact remains that we are stuck in it. And when we look at it closely, we can see that ending emissions – as huge a task as that is itself – is not a total fix in itself.
First of all, there’s an equity component to cutting emissions that progressives should be quick to recognize: now that the industrial world has burned fossil fuels for decades and amassed great wealth in the process, it would be true arrogance to turn to developing countries (who are already suffering the most from the negative effects of industrialization) and say, “Hey, all that stuff we got rich by burning? You can’t burn it now.” Any approach to cutting emissions has to take fairness into account.
But beyond the equity question, there’s a larger practical issue. As Dr. Evvan Morton pointed out in our very first episode of This Is CDR, even if we cut carbon emissions to a global zero tomorrow, the carbon we’ve already released into the atmosphere would take thousands of years to dissipate. And as we can already see from recent years of rampant wildfires and coastal floods, that existing atmospheric carbon is already having devastating effects on human beings. At minimum, we owe it to future generations to clean up our mess.
Moreover, given the realities of political gridlock, societal inertia, and corporate power, we’re not going to cut carbon emissions to a global zero tomorrow. Which is a shame! At OpenAir, we absolutely seek massive reduction of human carbon output, and support any political or technological effort to cut emissions. And we should absolutely be skeptical about the “plant a tree, burn a forest” approach to greenwashing PR. But at this point, carbon removal will be a necessity for the restoration of a stable climate, and any long-term climate plan needs to include it.