WORDS BY NATHAN THANKI
ARTWORK BY MERIJN HOS
Since the Inflation Reduction Act passed last year, more U.S. dollars are headed toward carbon removal technologies—but are they really a solution? For The Frontline, writer and researcher Nathan Thanki argues absolutely not.
When discussing what the climate crisis will mean for life on Earth, it is generally understood that things are getting worse than predicted, sooner than predicted. Given this—and the lack of political will to pursue the transformative policies required to curb emissions from fossil fuel production or industrial agriculture—it is no surprise that many activists are getting desperate. I often feel that sense of desperation myself.
For some, the desperate measures deemed necessary in these times involve acts of industrial sabotage, such as blowing up pipelines. Other advocates are turning to the deceivingly more neutral-sounding carbon dioxide removals, also known as CDR. These are a set of vastly diverse intervention technologies that aim to mimic the Earth’s natural processes by increasing the rate and amount of carbon being removed from the atmosphere.
To the average person, this might not seem alarming. There’s too much carbon in the atmosphere, so why don’t we use the ocean, trees, or machines to put it somewhere else? Even if the technology has been pushed by the fossil fuel industry, can we not still use it to break free from coal, oil, and gas? And even if there are some downsides, isn’t it ultimately worth it if the alternative is climate chaos?
The devil, however, is always in the details. If something seems too good to be true, it usually is, so I spoke with philosophers, activists, scientists, academics, and policy advocates from around the world to find out whether carbon removal is feasible or wise. After many days of research, emails, and phone calls, I reached my conclusion: the climate movement would be mistaken to place any hope in carbon removals.
“There can be no safeguards if my land is going to be colonized or if I’m forced into carbon slavery because my lands and seas are turned into carbon burial grounds.”
The ocean and forests are capable of storing carbon dioxide, but they’re limited. We can’t safely plant enough trees or stimulate enough plankton growth in the ocean to save the world. Machines aren’t the answer, either. And yet, these are CDR’s empty promises.
The present reality of CDR, machine or natural, is that it 1) provides cover for industries to greenwash their pollution, 2) does not exist at scale or make sense given energy requirements and costs, 3) requires more land than we have available, 4) risks causing human rights violations, especially among Indigenous peoples, and 5) cannot guarantee ecological protection or that the carbon will stay out of the atmosphere after it’s removed.
“There can be no safeguards if my land is going to be colonized or if I’m forced into carbon slavery because my lands and seas are turned into carbon burial grounds,” said Nnimmo Bassey, a Nigerian activist and author. “It is likely that those who propose carbon dioxide removal know that it won’t solve the climate crisis but affords them opportunities to extract capital from speculative infrastructure and sundry consultancies. It is a game we cannot afford to play.”
A Delay Tactic
Already, the mirage of carbon dioxide removal technologies is providing a lifeline for fossil fuel-producing corporations and countries. These players are using the possibility of the technology to delay the equitable phaseout of fossil fuels and reinforce the power dynamics of carbon colonialism, a term describing the ways efforts to capitalize on capturing and storing carbon, as well as inequities in climate targets at large, reinforce colonial dynamics between nations.
“While some activists are misled,” said Max Ajl, an anti-imperial activist and author of A People’s Green New Deal, speaking about CDR supporters, “the intellectuals are doing the job for which they are paid: to prevent the consolidation of social and political forces that can act upon the world to make it better.”
A general rule of thumb when you are in a hole is to stop digging. We need to urgently address the root causes of climate change by transforming the energy system and restraining overproduction and consumption. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, better known as the IPCC, has made clear that global greenhouse gas emissions need to be halved by 2030 to have a remote chance of staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) warming.
CDR technologies are a tool not to avoid 1.5 degrees Celsius warming but, rather, to lower temperature rise after we dangerously overshoot past that threshold, explained Dr. Kate Dooley, a research fellow at the University of Melbourne. A big issue here is land. Dooley led a 2022 report showing how unrealistic government CDR plans for land-based carbon removal are given the amount of land available and the amount such plans would require.
That’s why climate justice movements have demanded that each country do its “fair share” in emissions reductions with rich, historically polluting countries making deeper cuts sooner, giving slightly more time and flexibility to poorer countries. Instead, those in power have opted to dig faster: fossil fuel production is on the increase, and 2022 saw decade-high fossil fuel exploration and record-high fossil fuel emissions.
“There is no plausible scale of carbon removal that could possibly compensate for business-as-usual in the energy system.”
Countries like the United States—the biggest historical polluter—have plans to expand fossil fuel production in the coming decade. Meanwhile, 2023 is set to see a record high for domestic production. It is no coincidence that the U.S. government is also shoveling billions of dollars at CDR; it goes hand in hand with continued pollution. Yes, we’re polluting now, officials say, but we’ll find a way to clean it up later. Here, Silicon Valley, have some cash! The responsibility for leaving fossil fuels in the ground is, instead, shifted to developing countries that have yet to fully tap into their resources and expand their energy access all while facing the devastating impacts of climate breakdown largely on their own.
Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, an associate philosophy professor at Georgetown University, advocates for carbon removal on the basis that governments simply need to decrease the amount in the atmosphere. He wants to see governments like the U.S. help developing nations fund their own carbon removal as a form of climate reparations. Still, he acknowledged that fossil fuel companies are using the technology to distract from a global just transition.
“There is no plausible scale of carbon removal that could possibly compensate for business-as-usual in the energy system,” he said.
We all seem to agree that removals shouldn’t distract from the urgent work of phasing out fossil fuels and that they cannot feasibly offset our current emissions. But the simple, unavoidable reality is that the promise of removals already serves as a distraction, making support for the approach baffling.
“Throughout the 30 years of international climate talks, the gap between governments’ commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions and the cuts that were implied by climate science has grown wider and wider,” said Dr. Simon Pirani, an honorary professor at Durham University. “They have tried to bridge the gap with reference to these technologies that, anyway, do not exist at scale.”
That’s right: CDR is a fantasy.
A Worthless Idea
Direct air capture is a variant of tech-based carbon dioxide removal proposed as a harmless solution to draw down carbon from the atmosphere and store it underground. While 18 small projects are currently running, they’re not making much of a difference at an emissions level.
One widely publicized $15 million project in Iceland was designed only to capture 4,409 tons of carbon dioxide a year, more than half of Bill Gates’ personal yearly transport emissions. This plant relies on Iceland’s unique geology of porous volcanic basalt rock and the availability of low-priced and clean power from local geothermal sources, conditions that are not available in many places where carbon is emitted, explained Soumya Dutta, science educator and climate justice advocate with environmental groups Friends of the Earth India and South Asian People’s Action on Climate Crisis. Even with these favorable conditions, the reported cost per ton of carbon dioxide sequestered is between $600 to $800.
Where geothermal isn’t an option, governments would have to rely on whatever is available. Right now, the options are largely oil and gas. And we’d need a lot of both: removing just one gigaton of carbon dioxide with direct air capture requires about 3700 terawatt hours of electricity, more than what the European Union produces in a year. Removing one gigaton of carbon dioxide covers only 2.5% of global annual emissions, but the process emits between roughly 1.4 and 5 tons for every ton removed because of how energy-intensive it is.
So, yeah: the tech simply does not exist—at least not at the scale required.
OK, so could we throw enough money at the problem to scale it up? Maybe, maybe not. What we should ask ourselves is why don’t we invest in technologies we know work—like renewables? After all, until we transition to a clean energy grid, these machines will depend on fossil fuels. Even if we built out sufficient clean energy to power them, why would we direct that energy toward these plants rather than provide electricity to communities in need? A world where both are possible is also a world where we don’t need these facilities in the first place.
“The best thing to do from an emissions reduction point of view would be to turn them off,” Pirani said.
Scaling renewables would be much cheaper than investing in CDR: no miracles are required.
Direct air capture is not magic. It can require the production of toxic solvents that include chlorine gas as a byproduct. Still, if somehow the concerns around cost, pollution, energy, and water intensiveness (27 tons for every ton of carbon dioxide) could be overcome, we would run into another problem: direct air capture needs a lot of land for networks of pipelines and storage facilities.
In the U.S. alone, the technology would need a transport pipeline network 70,000 miles long (nearly triple the Earth’s circumference) to store enough carbon to meet goals. Carbon dioxide is also corrosive, meaning pipes are likely to leak—with potentially lethal public health consequences. There are also significant limitations to the land available for natural removals when you consider what’s already planned, including over 333 million acres of untouched tropical forest for oil and gas, and nearly 3 billion acres for land-based carbon removal.
“Given vast areas are deserts or otherwise unsuited for trees, the actual workable area available [for natural removals] is very limited,” Dutta said.
These plans threaten the human rights of Indigenous peoples. They are already facing increased land grabs from private companies claiming to invest in nature-based solutions to the climate crisis—like developing new farming methods or building out harmful ecotourism. The commodified approach to climate change is already displacing and harming people.
The allure of using ocean geoengineering techniques to generate carbon offset credits, for example, has resulted in human rights concerns in the Philippines, said Neth Daño, a Filipina campaigner who led a fight against an ocean fertilization experiment in the Sulu Sea in 2007.
The logic behind removals is detached from the reality of complex ecosystems—both in our environment and our societies, Daño said: “In reality, the food chain involves bigger creatures feeding on plankton and re-releasing carbon to the atmosphere—over-nutrients disrupt ecological balance, trigger harmful algal blooms, and exacerbate ocean acidification.”
No ecosystem restoration project—even those that avoid human rights violations—could do what reducing fossil fuel emissions could. The numbers show this, so why do people choose to focus their energy on carbon removal?
A Human Rights Issue
When you bring up the problem with one kind of removal technique, advocates fond of another technique are quick to point out that they aren’t all the same. We can critically assess the specific threats and costs of each, but ultimately, they all have the same underlying assumptions, supporters, and purpose: profit.
Advocates argue that the many unknowns and risks associated with CDR justify further funding, research, and policy. “The field is still nascent, so that presents an opportunity for environmental justice principles to shape policies,” said Alayna Chuney, senior policy adviser at Carbon180, a non-governmental organization that promotes carbon removals.
But isn’t it more likely that commercial pressures will continue to shape the field and research agendas? Even though their ability to remove carbon isn’t guaranteed, private interests are already using carbon markets to gamble on their future.
Scientific assessments in international arenas, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, have identified the potential harm of such technologies—but countries and research projects have averted attempts to address those harms through regulatory or enforcement frameworks. The COP27 climate negotiations in Egypt were a recent example where countries ignored efforts to establish even loose safeguards.
“This is about our rights as Indigenous people, our traditional knowledge of the Earth’s systems, and our relationship to our lands and the natural world.”
Panganga Pungowiyi, an Indigenous mother from Sivungaq in the so-called Bering Strait and climate geoengineering organizer with the Indigenous-led and climate-focused Indigenous Environmental Network, explained that researchers often want to extract her community’s traditional knowledge while pigeonholing their opposition as “anti-tech.” But Indigenous peoples have long-standing relationships with their lands and have developed ways of living in harmony with Mother Earth that avoid useless carbon credits.
“The debate is not about the relative pros and cons of this or that technology,” Pungowiyi said. “That is the framing of the venture capitalists behind the proposals. This is about our rights as Indigenous people, our traditional knowledge of the Earth’s systems, and our relationship to our lands and the natural world. There is no moral dilemma for us.”
Indigenous peoples and communities who live on the lands that will be impacted by removals projects already understand what is at stake—and the risks that further research will enable.
“We have a long, painful history of colonial governments and corporations exploiting and experimenting on our lands and bodies,” Pungowiyi said. “Our lands were sacrifice zones for the extractive industries that caused the climate crisis. Now, these so-called solutions will perpetuate this historical injustice. They want to maintain control over our resources and lands and bodies while telling us it is for our own good.”
Why are we letting ourselves be seduced by CDR technologies when other options exist? Like improved building insulation to increase energy efficiency and keep people warm?
“We should be advocating technologies that benefit people, not corporations,” Pirani said. “This is not a gleaming, stainless-steel, super-exciting technology drooled over by people like Elon Musk—but it’s a technology all the same.”
Carbon removal, like other geoengineering techniques, is a huge business opportunity. The interests behind CDR plunder the language of climate justice and the traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples selectively—a continuation of what has always happened under colonialism and capitalism.
Unfortunately, some activists and researchers seem willing to buy it.
A Way Forward
The bottom line is that carbon dioxide removals without fossil fuel phaseout still leave us screwed. We must reduce carbon dioxide emissions, not waste time figuring out how to remove what industry has already spewed.
The alternative reality where we deploy carbon dioxide removals alongside deep emissions cuts perpetuates the present system of exploitation and capitalism. Why is that the target? Most advocates of removals share some of my criticisms and concerns. It would be difficult not to.
“Some [removal technologies] are extremely land-intensive and could very well drive land grabs and land access issues,” said Chuney of Carbon180. “Focusing on the most sustainable version and accepting only the best version of [the technology] is critical.”
Responding to the recent tragedy in the Congo where a carbon-offsetting project run by oil giant Total dispossessed farming families of their land, Chuney described it as “an example of what should not be done when doing carbon removal.” What should be done, she said, is “build a more just and equitable carbon removal field with good actors who share our belief in the potential of carbon removal to redress past harms.”
Climate change is not merely a matter of carbon. It is not about abstract theories. It is a matter of nature and power. It is ecological and political.
Advocates argue that we don’t have the luxury to dismiss removals on ideological grounds.
“The problems with scale are political and technical problems to think about how to solve practically rather than moralizing them out of relevance,” said carbon removal advocate Táíwò.
There is too much carbon in the atmosphere—and this will be true even if we are successful beyond our wildest dreams in decarbonizing the global economy. But what we are able to remove and sequester in an ecologically and socially responsible way is so little under present technologies that this conversation should take a back seat to what climate justice movements have long argued should be our top priority: to protect and restore forests while bringing about rapid reductions in fossil fuel emissions.
No technology exists or is applied in a vacuum. CDR is no different and has been deliberately promoted from far-fetched quackery into mainstream debate and research and even into international climate negotiations. Ours is a world in which the perspectives, knowledge, and worldviews of Indigenous peoples and people in the Global South are sidelined and marginalized—and where risks to their well-being and that of ecosystems and non-human life are ignored, concealed, or simply accepted, especially when there is the promise of a techno-fix to sell. Wishing things were different doesn’t make them so.
Climate change is not merely a matter of carbon. It is not about abstract theories. It is a matter of nature and power. It is ecological and political. Carbon dioxide removal is a risk we don’t need to take—especially when we already have real solutions at hand.
Desperation may be inevitable given present realities, but it is also dangerous. We can’t let that emotion guide us. The casualties will be everything the climate justice movement has fought so hard for.