The EPA reports that in the U.S. the most severe impacts of climate change fall disproportionately on low-income and Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities. This climate burden is part of an ongoing legacy of inequity as well as biases, such as redlining and the disenfranchisement of Indigenous peoples, that have excluded these communities from financial and natural resources over generations. As a result, disinvested and underserved communities are experiencing cumulative effects on their health and livelihoods that may be exacerbated by climate change.
In addition, climate mitigation and adaptation efforts such as solar panel adoption, electric vehicle adoption, urban forest cover, and FEMA buy-outs do not always meaningfully benefit marginalized populations. Climate change mitigation solutions like carbon dioxide removal are gaining traction, and have added social, economic, and/ or ecological benefits—but, if communities are excluded from the decision-making processes around these solutions, they cannot realize those benefits. This doesn’t have to be the case: Technologies like carbon dioxide removal that are at an early enough stage in development can implement strategies that center community needs and facilitate the equitable distribution of benefits to communities—before historical inequities are institutionalized.
Environmental justice explained
Environmental justice promotes the equitable distribution of environmental harms and benefits through the meaningful involvement of community members as stakeholders—where their decisions are recognized and acted on. As a practice, environmental justice can encompass anything from promoting equal access to safe, clean drinking water, to encouraging equitable design and development of climate mitigation efforts, including carbon removal projects. Additionally, environmental justice can promote resiliency for disinvested communities in a changing climate through inclusive, equitable, and ongoing participation in environmental decision-making.
History of Environmental Justice in the United States
The U.S. environmental justice movement emerged as a response to environmental racism—a term coined in the 1960s to describe the prevalence of pollution and waste facilities in disinvested communities, coinciding with the civil rights movement. From a sanitation strike in Memphis investigated by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s, to protests in the early 1980s against landfills and toxic waste sites, it became evident that low-income and/or BIPOC communities experienced outsized environmental hazards. Dr. Robert Bullard, a pioneer in environmental justice scholarship, observed that “By conscious design or institutional neglect, communities of color in urban ghettos, in rural ‘poverty pockets,’ or on economically impoverished Native-American Reservations face some of the worst environmental devastation in the nation.”
Over the last few decades and as the result of rigorous community organizing from Black leaders primarily in the South, environmental justice committees and organizations—like the U.S. National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC)—have been formed to improve the environment and public health in communities disproportionately burdened by environmental harms and risks. Most recently, the Justice40 Initiative has committed to addressing systemic disinvestment by allocating 40% of select federal investments to flow to communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution. These investments span a number of sectors, including: climate change, clean energy and energy efficiency, and clean transit, to name a few.
Principles of Environmental Justice
Initiatives such as the Justice40 Initiative draw from the original Principles of Environmental Justice established by the Delegates to the First National People of Color Leadership Summit in 1991. The Justice40 Initiative outlines exactly how the U.S. federal government plans to ensure that investments do not create or exacerbate harm in low-income communities and BIPOC communities. The U.S. Department of Energy seeks to address in particular concerns that environmental justice stakeholders have raised around carbon management and hydrogen, and plan to incorporate four types of energy and environmental justice in project design. These include distributive justice, procedural justice, recognitional justice, and restorative justice.
Distributive justice addresses the equitable distribution of burdens and benefits across geographies and populations. Distributive justice is concerned with factors such as distribution of income, wealth, jobs, opportunities, utilities, food security, and water and air quality. This type of justice also refers to the perceived fairness of the distribution of burdens and benefits or how it is that people evaluate what they receive relative to social and historical contexts.
Procedural justice addresses the meaningful involvement of affected communities as stakeholders in environmental decision-making processes. Procedural justice contributes to distributive justice by informing the policies and procedures that determine how environmental harms and benefits are distributed to individuals, nations, and generations.
Recognitional justice accounts for the social, historical, and cultural contexts of a geography or population, and how those contexts have determined the geography’s or population’s relationship to power. Recognition justice aims to facilitate the recognition of all community members as actors, affirming their intrinsic value and equal moral standing.
Restorative justice directly responds to historical harm, and through equitable decision-making and participation, facilitates opportunities to improve health, safety, and environmental conditions. Restorative justice promotes resolution and remediation, in consideration of distributive, procedural, and recognition justices.
Environmental justice and carbon dioxide removal
From climate resilience to carbon dioxide removal, it is imperative that climate action strategies center environmental justice to deliver both meaningful and equitable outcomes. And with the rapidly increasing investment in carbon dioxide removal, now is the time to take action so that environmental justice is embedded in every stage of carbon project development from the start.
For communities, doing so can unlock socioeconomic and ecological benefits—from job creation to ecosystem services. For project developers as well as buyers of carbon dioxide removal, incorporating environmental justice helps to ensure the long-term viability of projects by delivering higher quality credits that not only have community support but also mitigate risks that could halt project development.
How to center environmental justice in carbon dioxide removal
By incorporating equitable practices for environmental decision-making, carbon dioxide removal can equitably distribute environmental burdens and benefits, support meaningful community engagement, and remediate past harms.
Equitable distribution of burdens and benefits
In carbon dioxide removal, distributive justice addresses the equitable distribution of environmental burdens and benefits across a geography or population as it relates to a carbon dioxide removal project. Beyond minimizing environmental burdens, carbon dioxide projects can also maximize benefits for local communities. Environmental burdens and benefits vary by carbon dioxide removal pathway—and therefore should be assessed on a project-by-project basis—but broadly include the following themes categories:
Health & Safety: Historical and potential pollutants, contaminants, and other safety considerations, and their impacts on public health
Ecosystems & Biodiversity: Impacts on surrounding ecosystems and associated resources, like soil health, biodiversity, and water
Sustainable Livelihoods: Viability of sustainable livelihoods through job creation, and fair and transparent compensation, and project ownership
Meaningful community engagement
In carbon dioxide removal, procedural justice represents the meaningful involvement of local communities so that they are present and future stakeholders in carbon project development. This should include direct engagement and community benefits plans that incorporate community needs and priorities. For community members to be involved, project developers must show how they directly, transparently, and periodically engage with local communities throughout the project's lifetime.
Additionally, project developers may actively involve community members in project development, implementation, and subsequent monitoring. Doing so can help to reconfigure those community members’ relationships to power, and affirm their role as actors in environmental decision-making.
Remediating past harms
For carbon dioxide removal to advance restorative justice, projects must also consider how to address and resolve prior harms. This includes remediating the historic burdens of pollution and greenhouse gasses on health and wellbeing; advancing land and water rights for communities who have been stewards of forests, lands, and coastal environments since time immemorial; and promoting opportunities for inclusive economic growth.
The future of environmental justice in carbon dioxide removal
Without addressing community concerns, meaningfully engaging local stakeholders, or properly assessing the project impacts, the rapid development of carbon dioxide removal solutions could be halted prematurely. It is imperative that stakeholders across the carbon removal landscape—from policymakers to project developers—integrate equitable decision-making processes to not only promote the principles of environmental justice today but also to prevent the escalation of social injustices in a 2°C world.
Similar to the physical science of climate change, environmental justice must also be a data-driven practice. This means that to effectively implement environmental justice frameworks in carbon dioxide removal, they must be quantified by consistent, accurate, and repeatable processes against verifiable benchmarks. To keep pace with the constantly evolving field that is climate change mitigation, these benchmarks must also evolve to incorporate the most recent environmental justice data available and best practices.