Holly Jean Buck: How to Decolonize the Atmosphere


Carbon removal discussions often start with a bunch of mind-bending numbers: Curbing warming to 1.5°C relies upon removing 100–1000 billion tons (or gigatons, Gt) from the atmosphere over the course of this century, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Current global greenhouse gas emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases like methane are about 50Gt per year. Rapidly stopping emissions is critical. But so much carbon dioxide is already above us that emissions cuts alone are no longer enough to keep warming to safe levels: the weight of past CO2 also needs to be dealt with. At the same time that we are cutting that 50 Gt of greenhouse gases to zero, we also need to be building the capacity to remove hundreds of billions of additional tons from the atmosphere.

As the Red Nation put it in The Red Deal: Indigenous Action to Save Our Earth, First World nations have colonized the atmosphere with their greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing and absorbing emissions to decolonize the atmosphere is an urgent task. Beyond the numbers, this is the right starting point for thinking about what it means to remove carbon from the atmosphere, because it begins with the recognition of who put the carbon up there, and who should be responsible for drawing it back out.

What tools can or should be used to decolonize the atmosphere? Estimates like those from the IPCC have prompted discussion of what methods could actually accomplish this transfer of carbon from the atmosphere to elsewhere. Forests, soils, oceans, and underground rock formations could all be sinks for storage. Despite the legacy of climate policy related to sink enhancement schemes like REDD+, these discussions remain generally apolitical, focused on projects’ technical feasibility or the carbon price required to justify them.

Technically, we could store more carbon in ecosystems through agroforestry, afforestation, and regenerative agriculture. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies, while previously used for point-source capture with fossil fuels, can be paired with bioenergy power plants or machines that capture carbon directly from the air (“direct air capture”). Other techniques, like speeding up the rate at which rocks weather or removing carbon directly from seawater, are under investigation.

But discussion of carbon removal approaches must not be merely technical, but explicitly political. There are two reasons for this. First, the default approach to carbon removal under existing power structures both (a) risks further harm to frontline communities and ecosystems; and (b) probably won’t remove climate-significant amounts of carbon. Second, these carbon removal techniques actually could be tools for decolonizing the atmosphere, if designed and used for that purpose. It is now technically possible for First World nations and firms to take back past emissions, and clean up the atmosphere to make the climate more stable for every being on Earth. While current politics might make this seem an unlikely prospect, the fact that it is possible to restore the atmosphere means it is worth considering what it might take to get there.

Carbon removal: enabling business as usual?

Countries and cities around the world are currently introducing net-zero targets, as are corporations from Microsoft to Barclays to ArcelorMittal to Royal Dutch Shell. But not all visions of what net-zero entails are the same. For the fossil fuel industry, the idea is to recycle and reuse carbon, so as to continue with some level of emissions for decades or centuries to come. As Saudi Aramco’s Chief Technical Officer put it, “the carbon balance is just the natural order of things”, and Aramco has initiatives in recycling, re-using, and removing carbon, generating fuels with a lower carbon intensity.

Balancing continued positive emissions — call them remaining, residual, recalcitrant — with negative emissions is at the heart of net-zero logic. Remaining emissions are supposed to come from designated hard-to-decarbonize sectors like aviation, shipping, steel, etc. Many industrial processes such as cement, steel manufacturing, and steam cracking for ethylene require high-temperature heat. Carbon capture can be applied to some of these processes, but other sectors like agriculture are also difficult to decarbonize. There are real engineering and biological challenges with decarbonizing some of these activities. On the other hand, there will be debates around what is truly biophysically difficult to decarbonize versus what is financially difficult to decarbonize for companies whose profits require using the atmosphere as a free waste dump. Without a very clear vision and program of action, this “difficult to decarbonize” idea can get muddled.

Because of this ambiguity, and the flagrant potential for using carbon removal as a way to maintain the legitimacy of the fossil fuel sector, it seems logical to argue that we should cut emissions first, and then figure out carbon removal. That sequencing approach would clearly keep things focused on mitigation, and disallow disingenuous “we’re still emitting but we promise we are going to be removing” pledges.

One concern with this “decarbonize first, then worry about removal” approach, however, is the mismatched timelines of climate action and climate change. Climate-significant carbon removal infrastructure will take decades to construct, because it takes time to develop the technology, prove it, regulate it, finance it, build it. If we want the infrastructure in place for removing carbon in the latter part of this century, it needs to be in the R&D stage now, with significant public funding.

But climate impacts are mounting rapidly, right now. It would prolong and exacerbate suffering to delay removing carbon from the atmosphere until the end of the century, when decarbonization is presumably well underway. It would be better to have the capacity for large-scale carbon removal sooner — and in fact, these net-zero targets for mid-century assume it will be available sooner. (Many scenarios also imply an “overshoot” of temperature targets, in which warming exceeds 1.5°C and is then brought down again by the end of the century when carbon removal infrastructure comes on line, but it is obviously in our interest to minimize or eliminate this overshoot, since we don’t really know what happens when the world warms to 2°C and then cools off again).

Currently, it is clear that dreams of large-scale, climate-significant carbon removal will easily be stolen and warped to justify continued extraction. Consider, for example, the fact that at present, the main financially viable route to scaling up direct air capture technology leads through a process called “enhanced oil recovery” (EOR) — which, just like it sounds, involves injecting CO2 into depleted oil wells to recover more oil. This is framed as a “bridge” to financing direct air capture in the absence of any real climate policy.

The risks of providing the fossil fuel sector with social legitimacy aren’t the only potential problems with large-scale carbon capture and storage. Direct air capture is energy-intensive, and needs to be sited where there is ample renewable capacity or waste heat to run the processes. Geological CO2 injection needs to be monitored and done safely, and more research on induced seismicity is required. While we have several decades of experience with carbon capture and storage, that does not make the technology foolproof. We already know that companies can misuse incentives for CCS because they already have: in the US, the 45Q tax credit provides $35/ton for CO2 with EOR, and $50/ton for dedicated carbon storage. But in an audit of claims on this tax credit, 87% of the nearly $900,000,000 in rebates were granted while firms were not in compliance. Several even failed to submit monitoring and verification plans. The point is that geological carbon sequestration needs regulation to be safe, and bad-faith actors will abuse incentives for doing carbon clean-up if public authority is not watching closely.

Can these kinds of tools, born of extraction, possibly be used for decolonizing the atmosphere? This is a real question. Carbon removal at scale involves an immense infrastructure of power plants, capture facilities, pipelines, and injection wells, and as Winona LaDuke and Deborah Cowen put it in Beyond Wiindigo Infrastructure, “infrastructure is the how of settler colonialism”. And yet, as they also say, we can and must have “alimentary” infrastructure, “infrastructure that is life-giving in its design, finance, and effects”: “infrastructure is not inherently colonial — it is also essential for transformation; a pipe can carry fresh water as well as toxic sludge”.

Capitalism-as-usual would create a circular-carbon or carbon drawdown infrastructure that is not “alimentary”; it would, in contrast, be constructed according to the same old logics. But the techniques and technology in question also hold the potential to make the climate safer. This is why we should engage in ways that go beyond simply rejecting them out of hand. Instead, we should be aiming to control their use, and guarantee community and global benefit in their development and design.

Carbon removal can fit into the Green New Deal

Carbon removal could easily be one part of an international Green New Deal. Looking at the US resolution introduced by Representative Ocasio-Cortez in 2019, many goals are compatible with progressive biological and geological carbon removal: achieving net-zero through a fair and just transition, creating; millions of good, high-wage jobs; investing in infrastructure; securing public health and more. Many of the activities the GND resolution promotes could involve carbon removal, including clean manufacturing, restoring and protecting threatened ecosystems, repairing and upgrading infrastructure, and “promoting the international exchange of technology, expertise, products, funding, and services”.

Regeneration is already present in the GND. The US resolution commits to “working collaboratively with farms and ranchers in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible” by supporting family farming, investing in soil health, and building a more sustainable food system that ensures universal access to healthy food. In fact, some of the extant institutions and policies the US can use to support regeneration have roots in the first New Deal. Building the Great Plains shelterbelt, the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) planted 220 million trees, creating 18,000 miles of windbreaks on 30,000 farms. The SCS evolved to become the National Resources Conservation Service, which administers programs that assist farmers in cover cropping and conservation tillage today.

Granted, few politicians seem to grasp the scale of effort necessary. While all of the US presidential candidates support expanding soil carbon sequestration, only Senator Bernie Sanders suggested anything on the scale we require, proposing $410 billion to help farms transition to ecologically regenerative agricultural practices that sequester carbon and increase resilience in the face of climate change.

There is so much else in Green New Deal thinking that could readily incorporate drawdown: redesigning the built environment to embed CO2 by using building standards and mass public homebuilding with materials like high CO2 concrete, biochar, and wood. We could have procurement policies for regenerative organic certified agricultural goods for school lunches and in hospitals. We could have blue carbon and wetland restoration in tandem with adaptation measures.

The problem is that none of these ecosystem-based methods can realize the scale of carbon drawdown necessary. While some land-based measures like afforestation or soil carbon sequestration could in a progressively-supported scenario reach levels of 2–5 Gt drawdown annually, this rate cannot be maintained year-on-year because sinks “saturate”, or get filled up, so year-on-year rates fall to zero over a few decades. Then the carbon must be held there, or we risk losing it back to the atmosphere. A forest fire, or a change in land ownership and reconversion to tillage farming, would render the effort futile. When the need for sequestration is in the hundreds of billions of tons, the math just doesn’t work out. This means that (a) it is imperative to cut emissions immediately, and not rely on natural climate solutions to take up excess carbon; and (b) it would be a really good idea to build the capacity for geological carbon sequestration.

Demanding an industrial infrastructure for carbon sequestration could be a challenge for the climate movement. The GND text calls for “removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and reducing pollution by restoring natural ecosystems through proven low-tech solutions that increase soil carbon storage, such as land preservation and afforestation”. But if the line between what is demanded and what is unacceptable is drawn at “low-tech”, we abandon a vast terrain of opportunity for meaningful climate action.

Three progressive goals for carbon removal

Any engagement with carbon removal must be determined collaboratively and democratically. However, because simply saying “we need to have a conversation about this” and leaving it there seems inadequate, here are three goals for discussion.

1. Link carbon removal with the managed decline of fossil fuels

We need to keep the focus on managed decline, phaseout, phasedown, or just cuts — whatever you want to call supply-side interventions. This would entail at least three things.

Supply-side policies that integrate carbon removal and production: this could mean a “carbon takeback requirement”, through which companies are required to take back carbon they emit or produce. It could mean production quotas for fossil fuels, linked to certificates of obligation for carbon removal. Better yet, sequestration could happen before the sale and use of fossil carbon. Some climate scientists and policy analysts have proposed requiring a fraction of emissions be sequestered that rises to 100% over time. This is a discussion that progressives should jump into.

Just transition programs: Supporting workers to transition from fossil fuel extraction jobs to jobs in carbon removal / carbon management or carbon services industries, including cleaning up old wells.

Minimizing remaining emissions: This involves ramping up research and development on how to go the final mile decarbonizing hard-to-decarbonize sectors, and developing policy that sets limits on allowable emissions. This is a directly political matter. Emission reduction and allocation is not simply a modelling problem.

2. Ensure the public has ownership and return on investment

This demand relates to decarbonization more broadly, but it should be applicable to carbon removal as well. Imagine carbon removal undertaken not by private storage companies, but as public works. This is challenging because unlike utilities that produce and distribute renewable energy — which is a good that can be used — carbon removal is essentially waste clean-up, remediative not generative; it removes a harm rather than creates a good. A decarbonized atmosphere is a global public good, not an individually useable good. So the “investment” opportunity here must be contrived via policy. Still, some carbon removal methods will be entwined with energy utilities — take bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, with a system running on waste. California, for example, could meet its goal of being carbon-negative by 2045 by turning waste biomass into hydrogen, supplemented with direct air capture and ecosystem-based sequestration. Turning biomass waste into hydrogen and capturing the CO2 would improve air quality compared to burning biomass for electric power or waste disposal. Right now, California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard is a key policy instrument for driving private investment, but we should advocate for public investment in and ownership of facilities. This is also a good step for ensuring risks are well monitored, with full transparency.

3. Advocate for a global framework for carbon removal

We don’t want to reproduce carbon colonialism in a mechanism through which emissions are removed in the Global South so the North can continue emitting. We’ve started down that road with biofuels and forest carbon. Instead, we need the Global North to develop and pay for carbon removal technology to clean up legacy emissions in the atmosphere. There must also be technology transfer to support decarbonization in the South, and carbon removal technologies are just one possible part of that broader need. I don’t know exactly how to think about this, because the model of engineers in the North inventing technologies to be used worldwide does not sit well; better to have international collaboration in research and design. At the same time, it would not be right to demand that people who had little part in creating climate change should now spend their time and effort figuring out how to clean it up. It has always been a bit ambiguous as to whether the work of carbon removal is a burden or an opportunity — especially given the history and present reality of women and Black, Indigenous, and people of color doing the work of cleaning up after white men. At times the work of carbon removal is both a burden and an opportunity.

In short, it is clear we need to be discussing what an equitable effort towards carbon removal looks like globally, within the framework of climate justice and in conversation with global discussions concerning climate funding and technology transfer.

Mitigation and adaptation are both incredibly challenging and urgent, and to add the imperative of drawdown seems like an extra burden. But it is wrong to think of this as a third “pillar” or activity — what we need to do is integrate carbon removal as a part of our decarbonization and adaptation efforts.For if we have the newfound capacity to remove carbon from the atmosphere and put it elsewhere, do we not have the responsibility? The question here isn’t just “What technology or approach do we like?” but “How will these technologies be developed, with what social relations between human communities, and between those communities and the earth?”Progressives working together internationally can go beyond calling out the problems with current net-zero rhetoric, and move the conversation in the direction of what carbon removal infrastructure and practices we might want. In the words of LaDuke and Cowen, “socio-technical systems are not inherently good or evil”, and while infrastructure is the spine of the Wiindigo — the cannibal monster of Anishinaabe legend, an economic system that destroys the source of its wealth — it is “also the essential architecture of transition to a decolonized future”.

As of Fall 2020, Holly Jean Buck will be assistant professor of Environment & Sustainability at the University at Buffalo.

Photo: Natalia Medd

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