Authoritative climate modelling shows we need to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. This post explores how carbon dioxide removal (CDR – also known as ‘negative emissions’) can find a progressive politics.
We are motivated to write this because of multiple engagements with researchers, NGOs and climate activists, for whom the words ‘negative emissions’ or Carbon Dioxide Removal’ evoke a politics of delaying climate action, re-enforcing corporate power, and techno fixing of climate change while leaving bio-diversity and other sustainability crises alone. We recognise and deal with these here and connect CDR to the wider politics of labour and land.
Removing CO2 from the atmosphere means planting trees, restoring ecosystems, increasing carbon stored in soils, storing carbon from burned bioenergy and capturing carbon directly from the air. The last two, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage and direct air carbon capture and storage (BECCS and DACCS), are usually called ‘engineered’ removals. This means they produce a direct stream of CO2which can be geologically stored. Both of these technologies are simulated by the Committee on Climate Change to make up a large part of the UK’s negative emissions needed to reach ‘Net Zero’. This is the point at which remaining emissions to air are balanced by emissions removal from air. Engineered removals are favoured in government policy while nature based removals (restoring ecosystems, soils and forests) are favoured by corporates buying voluntary carbon credits.
Because we need to deploy these technologies and practices on a large scale, and because they all must `Go Somewhere’ we should understand carbon dioxide removal as a politics of place. This means exploring what deployment means in the places that suit them. For direct air capture and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, the focus is on ‘Net Zero Industrial Clusters’. For nature based removals the ‘right’ place and the right technology are much more contested.
Starting with engineered removals, burying CO2 efficiently needs piped transportation. The World Economic Forum has identified nine Net Zero Industrial Clusters globally. These industrial areas revolve around piped CO2 storage infrastructure. This enables hard to abate sectors to operate carbon capture and storage from remaining fossil-fuelled processes, and connects negative emission technologies like BECCS and DACCS. There are two ways to approach these clusters and the state subsidies that they need. One can portray them as a form of mitigation delay, a way of extending existing power relations and of reproducing industrial capitalism for one more round of profit making. On the ‘left’, the general environmentalist, sceptical of capitalism's relationship to nature and untrusting of industrial solutions, will see BECCS and DACCS as another barrier in the transition to a fundamental shift in our use of and relationship to planet earth. Alternatively, on the populist ‘right’ Net Zero becomes another detached public subsidy from which few benefits flow to ‘the Great British People’. No matter how convincing the research over BECCS ‘lifecycle emissions’ or how clean the DACCS process can be made, this will meet resistance because it reproduces interests that progressive environmentalists and right populists alike, do not trust.
What space is there for a politics of Net Zero Clusters that addresses these real concerns? At present the local politics of place is absent from this narrative. In the UK the two Net Zero Clusters surround Liverpool and Hull. Two of the most economically depressed areas in the country. The volume of public subsidy needed to create the infrastructure and subsidise the technology is well past £2bn. However, there is a void in public understanding of what this subsidy is actually for. Very little public dialogue is forthcoming and consultation is limited to technology choices.
Image: Invest Liverpool (2021) at https://www.investliverpool.com/news/hynet-north-west-commits-72m-in-liverpool-city-region-low-carbon-initiative/
Net Zero Industrial clusters, supported heavily by taxation as they are, deserve a different politics, one which recognises industrial unions, community representatives and local governments. One which has the principles of a just transition at its heart and recognises a cost of living crisis as central to people’s concerns and in serious competition for public spending. There will be substantial churn in skills and jobs to enable this transition. Jobs guarantees that address the actually existing workforces in these areas and the skills transition required should be part of the deal. Independent oversight of the emission claims of industry should be central to the allocation of resources. Critically, there should be no reliance on ‘trickle down’ economics as a justification of such public spending, social goals should be hardwired into the bargain.
Clear benefit sharing between labour, capital, and the local retention of benefits, however, is explicitly off the table. If we want to counter the premise that carbon dioxide removal in Hull and Liverpool is a continuation of ‘business as usual’ then business as usual needs to be scrutinised, the commitment of such high public subsidy squarely justifies this reconsideration of what Net Zero Clusters should be.
In the same way that subsidising engineered removal invites a new politics of place, nature based solutions invite a new politics of land. Healthy ecosystems accumulate carbon, unhealthy ecosystems emit carbon. Our industrial farming model has created incredibly sick ecosystems, disastrous for both biodiversity and climate. In parallel, there is an incredible synchronicity between solving the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis: both need soil and ecosystem regeneration.
At the same time, we should not be asked to regenerate ecosystems through public subsidy if we cannot access those ecosystems. We are asked to pay to regenerate nature, but not allowed to experience this regeneration. Our current politics of land in England is exclusion, including new laws that criminalise trespass. Rights of access to nature are limited to rights of way, and diminishing common lands. The enclosure and privatisation of England drove the 17th Century poet John Clare insane; “Now this sweet vision of my boyish hours Free as spring clouds and wild as summer flowers Is faded all – a hope that blossomed free”. Finding a progressive politics of carbon dioxide removal means connecting the regeneration of ecosystems to public access; people’s connection to nature needs regeneration too.
Image: by kruszyzna0 from Pixabay
One such opportunity for this is our new agricultural subsidy settlement. Following the UK’s exit from the European Union, a renewed agricultural subsidy scheme the ‘Environmental Land Management Scheme’ is being launched in 2022, which will focus on sustainable farming, local nature recovery, and critically landscape restoration such as rewilding some land, afforestation, and peatland/salt marsh recovery. Each of these has large-scale contributions to make to carbon removal targets, but is currently progressing in seeming isolation from the burgeoning voluntary market in emissions removals.
The landscape restoration stream of subsidy funding will select pilots in 2022 and select pilot projects based on cost, biodiversity benefits, carbon and climate resilience, social impact, including public access and community engagement. There is a huge opportunity then, to link the voluntary markets for carbon removal to a new form of agricultural subsidy and new rights of access to regenerated landscapes. A place-based progressive politics of carbon dioxide removal would explicitly seek to support public access and public benefit requirements on landscape and ecosystem restoration. This politics would ensure public access and open the door to a different relationship to nature.
Regenerating ecosystems, from forests to soils, wetlands to peatland has huge potential, perhaps equal to that of engineered removals in the short term. Ecosystem regeneration cannot be measured only in carbon cost and permanence of storage. It should be judged as part of a wider opportunity to reconnect with and restore nature. One could go further, and suggest that landscape restoration payments could be leveraged to bring more land into democratic and community control, experimenting with new forms of commons for ecological regeneration.
Finding a progressive politics of carbon dioxide removal means tackling real issues in the places where different negative emissions technologies will thrive. In industrial heartlands that might invite new relations to labour and urban communities. In England’s uplands it might mean a patchwork of new national parks, in the lowlands it might mean regenerative agriculture with new forms of public access. This relies on a change to progressive attitudes to what negative emissions are and what they can be.
If we accept the current trend of corporate voluntary markets for nature based solutions and unaccountable state spending on engineered removals, then yes negative emission technologies will be a mitigation delay and business as usual. If negative emissions are instead an opportunity to leverage public subsidy to improve industrial relations and politics of land, then they could be part of a wider progressive transition to Net Zero.
Illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
Stephen Hall has a diverse career spanning environmental management systems, business model innovation research, environmental/sustainability consultancy and sustainability programme design and delivery. He is an Associate Professor of Sustainability at one of the world's leading sustainability schools at the University of Leeds. He is a Director of the Centre for Carbon Removal, and I have delivered sustainability consulting for large commercial and government clients.