An African case for carbon removal

Africa should demand a politics where carbon removal targets and techniques are set by community decisions rather than by market forces.

Photo by Devon Janse van Rensburg on Unsplash

Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) refers to a variety of approaches that remove carbon from the atmosphere after it has been emitted. These CDR techniques range from “nature-based solutions” that restore ecosystems to technological approaches like “direct air capture,” which filter carbon dioxide out of ambient air. The stakes of developing these approaches are high: every pathway that limits global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius in the most recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report projects the use of carbon removal approaches: that is, deploying them on an unprecedented scale is a “bio-physical requirement” of meeting climate change goals. Yet, governments worldwide are repeating the mistakes made on both climate and the pandemic crisis: investing too little and too slowly in research and deployment of CDR.

Who will be faced to bear the most serious burdens if underinvestment continues? Since 1751, the entire African continent has contributed a paltry 3% of global emissions: utterly dwarfed by the contribution of individual countries like the US, China, and Russia. However, the calamities caused by the climate crisis have hit the continent first and hardest. Mozambique is still reeling from last year’s cyclones, with the highest wind speeds ever recorded; meanwhile, the Sahel region loses 100,000 hectares of arable land every year, driving mass displacement and conflict.

Given the stakes and the responsibility borne by global Northerners, one would think that justice minded, North-based organizations would back CDR. Yet, the reception from such organizations has been icy. The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), based in Washington DC and Geneva, to its credit, is one of the few organizations that has offered an extensive, public position: one expressing support for “natural approaches to CDR” over “tech” solutions.

The CIEL and likeminded (but quieter) groups have plausible concerns about carbon removal, but their decisions about how to respond to them miss the mark. They worry, for example, that the development of carbon removal technology will act as a blank check for coal and oil industries, who indeed want to co-opt carbon removal for profit-serving purposes, such as enhanced oil recovery. Similarly, some worry that carbon removal will pose a “moral hazard” to emissions-reduction: making us unserious about making the necessary cuts to emissions that CDR cannot possibly replace.

But the needed argument is not about what the oil companies should want, but about what the rest of us should want. The political world is much too complex to expect incentives to perfectly divide friend from foe on every constituent issue—at least environmentalist groups ought to hope so, given the well documented historical connection between white supremacy, eugenics, Nazism, and environmental movements. Arguments that keep meticulous track of what is in it for ExxonMobil are often uncurious about what will happen to Africans and global Southerners in the scenarios they describe. While CIEL insists that it is at least biophysically possible to reach lower climate targets by “natural approaches,” they do compare the plausibility of winning a political fight with oil companies over the direction of carbon removal with the apparently more politically plausible scenario of “the virtually complete elimination of fossil fuel emissions and fossil fuel infrastructure by 2050.”

Recent research estimates that land-intensive CDR (including afforestation, a “natural” approach) could lead to a five-fold increase in the price of food: genocidal, famine conditions. Relatedly, Africa has been hit hardest by a global land rush, and accounts for 75% of the land pledged to the global “Bonn challenge,” which aims to bring 350 million hectares of the world’s deforested and degraded land into restoration by 2030. Meanwhile, the land use implications of “natural based approaches” for food, housing, and conflict go unanalyzed.

In short, while environmental groups give sobering and relevant analyses of the political challenges of technologically-intensive carbon removal, they do not give reasons to prefer their alternative. Since we cannot moralize the pollution out of the air, the IPCC’s target of 100-1000 gigatons goes largely unaddressed by the sorts of rejoinders that emphasize odd convergences of interest between villains and heroes. Pointing out inconvenient political incentives raises important questions: but they are questions about how to do carbon removal, not whether.

Africa should demand a politics where carbon removal features as an aspect of systemic change rather than an alternative to it; where carbon removal targets and techniques are set by community decisions rather than by market forces; a commitment by global North countries to public funding for CDR research rather than ceding knowledge production to the oil industries; and one where African communities and researchers are empowered over both research and deployment of CDR.

As the Pan-African Climate Justice Alliance’s insists in its manifesto: “Africa must sign no suicide pact”—no matter who’s writing it.

Further Reading