Addressing the climate crisis requires a robust multi-sector response, acknowledging past and present impacts of climate change, and recognizing that those who have contributed least to climate change and emissions are often impacted the most.
In his role as head of climate and environmental justice at Carbon Direct, Dr. Christian Braneon works alongside a multidisciplinary team of scientists and market experts working together to equitably address the climate crisis through science-based, data-driven climate action and meaningful community engagement.
Jon Goldberg, CEO of Carbon Direct, recently sat down with Christian for a fireside chat. The following is a synopsis of their discussion, edited for brevity.
Mr. Goldberg: How did your career in climate and environmental justice lead you to Carbon Direct?
Dr. Braneon: Several local experiences during my undergraduate studies at Morehouse College initially sparked my interest in climate and environmental justice. For example, Atlanta experienced flooding in the community that destroyed several homes, primarily due to the city’s antiquated combined sewer system. Students like myself and community members challenged the city to buy out those homes that were flooded and address their negligence around upgrading the sewer system in that community. Throughout the next few years, I conducted research on hydraulic fracturing, worked with faculty at Morehouse College on thermoelectric materials, and traveled to Tokyo, Japan, to research piezoelectric materials.
My fascination with the disproportionate impacts of climate change on low-income countries and communities continued to grow. By the early 2000s, it was already clear that climate change would have, not only environmental effects, but major social and economic impacts. I worked hard to center equity and environmental justice in all my work, including at NASA, but found that I wanted to go deeper.
Carbon Direct Inc.’s Head of Climate Justice role is a perfect fit, combining my technical background with my deep understanding of climate and environmental justice. While interviewing, I quickly made two realizations: 1) for the carbon management industry to scale, climate and environmental justice considerations must be meaningfully addressed; and 2) staff at all levels of the company have a real interest in advancing environmental justice. This position gives me the opportunity to work with others on creating a more equitable society as we address the climate crisis.
Mr. Goldberg: For those less familiar with theories of justice, how do you define “environmental justice” and “climate justice”? Can they be used interchangeably? What distinguishes the two?
Dr. Braneon: Environmental justice addresses the equitable distribution of environmental benefits and harms (the ways we benefit and the ways we are harmed by our environment). It also addresses the meaningful involvement of all stakeholders in environmental decision-making at local, national, and international levels.
One of the clearest examples of environmental injustice in the U.S. is related to the siting of landfills in my hometown of Houston, Texas. By analyzing the location of landfills and the sociodemographic characteristics of the communities associated with the landfills, it was shown that predominantly Black neighborhoods were taking on a disproportionate number of landfills. Yet, looking at all of the available data, if Houston had sited landfills based on transportation infrastructure or even the relative affluence of the neighborhoods (for example if you simply targeted the poorest neighborhoods) the landfills would not have been overwhelmingly sited in Black neighborhoods the way they were.
This example illustrates how data can show the disproportionate impacts of things like pollution on communities, particularly historically marginalized communities.
Climate justice, on the other hand, responds to the disproportionate impacts of climate change on low-income and marginalized communities around the world, the people and places least responsible for climate change.
It's important to remember that anthropogenic climate change—climate change caused by humans—is a direct result of the Industrial Revolution. And there is no Industrial Revolution without resource extraction from colonized regions around the world, the extraction and enslavement of humans, or the land dispossession that occurred in the Americas and other places. So when we think about the climate crisis it's important to remember that the root causes are closely linked with the exploitation of indigenous people, colonization, and really a collection of supporting racist ideas and policies. At the same time, the impacts of climate change are disproportionately impacting these peoples and regions.
Mr. Goldberg: The Justice40 initiative set a precedent for the United States by setting a goal that 40% of the overall benefits of certain federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution. How is this initiative influencing carbon dioxide removal and carbon capture and storage projects in the U.S.?
Dr. Braneon: This initiative is really important in a few key respects for both climate mitigation and environmental justice. Because carbon dioxide removal and carbon capture and storage projects are one of the investment areas under the Justice40 initiative, these projects are required to engage with local communities on a deeper and more tangible level. To receive federal funding, developers have to meaningfully demonstrate and explain why communities benefit from these projects that receive federal funding and they have to show receipts. It’s not enough just to promise that they’re going to take actions that benefit the community at some point or in some way. This is really important for the carbon management industry as it increases transparency around these projects and builds community support for impactful and necessary climate mitigation activity.
Mr. Goldberg: There is not yet consensus among climate and environmental justice advocates about the role of carbon dioxide removal and carbon capture and storage. Is there a climate justice imperative for carbon dioxide removal and carbon capture and storage?
Dr. Braneon: The science is clear. In order to avert the worst, most irreversible impacts of climate change, we need to not only dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we also need to remove billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. We also need to capture and store carbon dioxide from ongoing, hard-to-abate emissions. This is actually critical from a climate justice perspective. Globally, communities that are likely to experience the worst effects of climate change are previously colonized and historically marginalized. Failure to deliver carbon dioxide removal at scale disproportionately harms these communities not only environmentally, but socially and economically as well.
Mr. Goldberg: What is the key to ensuring that these projects are implemented equitably?
Dr. Braneon: At a minimum, communities near carbon dioxide removal and carbon capture and storage projects need to be informed that the projects are happening. Ideally, the project developer would actually align project design and implementation with community needs and priorities, but that alignment isn’t possible without intentional and meaningful community engagement. Calling potential project benefits “community benefits” without this engagement assumes that you know better than the community itself what they need.
When project developers do a good job with community engagement, they can explicitly tell you how and why the project was designed and implemented differently based on feedback and engagement with local communities.
For example, some Indigenous communities in North America may be looking to own a portion of the project or receive a portion of the revenue generated from projects and, in their minds, that would make the distribution of benefits from the project equitable. For other Indigenous communities getting access to land they were dispossessed from might be a meaningful community benefit of interest to them.
For other communities investing in education programs and workforce development initiatives may be their priority, and the key outcome they are seeking is for folks in their community to get good paying jobs (not just to receive training that doesn't lead to actual employment or good paying jobs).
Every community is different, and through meaningful community engagement that starts early and happens often, project developers can create a shared vision of their projects with local communities so that project design and implementation aligns with community priorities and needs
Mr. Goldberg: How does climate and environmental justice impact investments in growth-stage technology companies? What does Carbon Direct do as part of its climate and environmental justice-focused due diligence?
Dr. Braneon: Most carbon removal projects rely on a variety of supporting technologies to enable everything from capture and storage to monitoring, reporting, and verification. For organizations like Carbon Direct Capital, which invests in climate technologies that support carbon dioxide removal, it’s important to understand not only the viability and scalability of the technology itself, but also viability of the projects associated with the technology. While the technology itself is unlikely to have direct climate or environmental justice implications, the projects associated with the technology very likely will.
Carbon Direct’s methodology for evaluating the climate and environmental justice implications of projects associated with investments builds on other parts of our broader diligence process (like the life cycle assessments of relevant projects) that we undertake, as well as our due diligence efforts to understand the viability of the business strategy associated with the investments.
Just as we evaluate projects for things like viability (does it rely on feedstocks or other inputs that may not actually be available?) and impact (is it actually carbon negative?), we also comprehensively characterize all the social environmental harms and benefits that may be associated with the investment and its related projects. If there is any air pollution associated with a project, what chemical compounds are emitted, and how much? If there are jobs that will be created, how many jobs and what do those jobs pay? Would these jobs be considered good-paying jobs in that area? Is it realistic for local community members to get the jobs that are created? If not, are there workforce development opportunities or training initiatives that can be explored?
We also assess the level of community engagement that's taking place. Are local communities aware that this project is taking place? Is there a two-way exchange of information between community stakeholders and project developers? How can the project design and implementation align with the needs and priorities that local communities have expressed? And notably, if there hasn't been significant community engagement, what are the implications in terms of any permits that may be needed to move the project forward?
Mr. Goldberg: Can you provide any examples of material risk to companies, assets, and/or communities related to environmental and climate justice?
Dr. Braneon: One example is that there can be significant political exposure (and sometimes community resistance) associated with siting infrastructure or building facilities that may be critical to the success of an investment. Meaningful community engagement is well worth the resources it requires when construction permit delays (or no permit at all) could be the alternative. Further, it is vitally important to fully understand any safety concerns expressed by local communities because they are the experts on their communities and may be aware of risks that are not obvious to folks less familiar with local politics, weather, ecosystems and community dynamics.
Another example relates to the risk of social or environmental harm. Project developers sometimes face financial responsibility requirements around any necessary corrective action and site closure activities as well as emergency and remedial response activities to ensure that these activities will be conducted without the cost being borne by the public.
Mr. Goldberg: How can investors increase the magnitude of their impact as it relates to climate justice?
Dr. Braneon: Well for one thing investors can engage the portfolio companies associated with their investments and encourage the leadership at those companies to look for ways to advance climate Justice through their procurement practices and supply chains.
I also think there's a real opportunity to partner with Indigenous communities as a way to advance climate justice. For example, many Indigenous communities in North America want to support humanity's transition away from fossil fuels but often struggle to get the financing they need for project development. Investors can be deliberate about making investments that meaningfully benefit disinvested communities in partnership with Indigenous communities that have been dispossessed from their land in the past in order to increase the magnitude of their impact.