The New Climate Economy Needs Rules of the Road. Here’s A Start.
Written by Shashank Samala, Noah McQueen, Vikrum Aiyer, and Christian Theuer
As a climate innovation company that just received massive public investment from the federal government and inked one of the largest private carbon removal deals in history, we are waving a red flag. Companies like ours risk squandering our chance to help fight climate change and grow the economy if we don’t adopt rigorous, transparent principles that guard against the exploitative behavior that created the climate crisis in the first place.
Our company, Heirloom, removes and stores excess carbon dioxide from the air using a process called direct air capture. We use cutting edge technology to accelerate the natural process by which limestone, one of the world’s most common rocks, absorbs carbon dioxide (CO₂) from the atmosphere.
Groundbreaking science advanced by the United Nations revealed carbon dioxide removal (CDR) is essential to addressing climate change, in addition to dramatically reducing emissions. The Biden Administration is taking historic actions to advance this technology – including with a $1.2 billion program, through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, for projects in the Gulf Coast, which Heirloom is proud to join.
But if we are to usher in a new era of shovel-ready infrastructure, we need to address past injustices that have left communities disillusioned with non-inclusive development and lofty promises from corporate America. In the environmental community, our work has been viewed skeptically by those who fear removing carbon dioxide creates a free pass for polluters to continue emitting CO2 and perpetuate cycles of exploitation. There’s also a skepticism around safety, and that Silicon Valley, with its reputation for moving fast and breaking things, is pursuing profits at the expense of people.
Those concerns are valid.
So before we break ground on a greener economy–with more than 100 public/private carbon management projects publicly underway–we believe the carbon removal sector must take off the rose-tinted safety goggles. We have a responsibility to answer hard questions about the future we’re building, and ensure communities benefit from our growth.
Four Principles for High Road Carbon Removal
Over the last 6 months, we’ve consulted with environmental experts, activists, entrepreneurs, and racial equity groups to develop four principles for “high-road,” responsible carbon removal — and today Heirloom is the first company to commit our support of the Department of Energy’s proposed responsible carbon management initiative. Heirloom’s approach isn’t set in stone. But through it, we hope to establish a “race to the top,” where CDR companies center trust and equity, and chase high standards of conduct.
"While we've seen broad scientific consensus on the need for carbon removals to combat climate change, we've yet to see concrete blueprints for responsibly deploying these solutions. Heirloom’s approach shows a first and firm commitment to responsible carbon removal that doesn’t distract from needed emissions reductions or disregard community concerns. By placing community trust on par with climate urgency, Heirloom is helping ensure that neither communities nor ecosystems are sidelined in the race to net-zero emissions. For the sake of the climate critical role that removals can play, I hope other carbon removal companies echo and build on this foundation of ‘high road’ carbon management. " – Michael Brune, former Executive Director of the Sierra Club.
We must ensure that our industry isn’t used as a fig leaf to emit even more and protect against CDR excusing expansions of fossil fuels.
Our commitment is that no carbon dioxide removed by our technology will be used for enhanced oil recovery. We will not grant equity to companies whose core business is the production of oil and gas, nor will we name any of its industry representatives to the company board. And we do not subsidize our technology with fossil fuel revenues. These standards of governance should be the industry norm among companies in our sector.
That said, we must acknowledge that the energy industry’s vast subsurface and geological expertise can help ensure carbon is stored safely and permanently underground. To the extent CDR taps into the technical knowledge from ex-oil-and-gas industry experts, we should be transparent about it. And to the extent we want to usher in a new generation of jobs, we should build bridges, not walls, with this talent pool.
We’ll harness Measurement, Reporting, and Verification (MRV) – the three most important letters in CDR – as a tool for justice and transparency that gives communities a clear view into how our technology works. Those that claim to remove carbon dioxide should disclose exactly how much we remove and when it happens. And we should publish comprehensive data on safety (such as particulate matter release) — so communities can be confident our technology doesn’t harm air and water quality. Regardless of a company's confidence in their tech, communities should also have the chance to independently review this data, consistent with a recent call to action from the National Symposium on Climate Justice in Wisconsin.
Whether federally funded or not, CDR projects should uphold strong worker protections, with competitive wages and benefits, and a strong commitment to apprenticeships. We’re proud to work with union labor on our jobs sites in California and, as we look ahead, we will continue to consult with organized Labor, community colleges, and workforce development boards on local-hire opportunities, apprenticeship pipelines, and compensation to responsibly transition workers and lift up the people and places most impacted by climate change.
Companies should co-create community benefits agreements (CBA) and agile investment plans with room to evolve. This could include investments in environmental remediation or reparative justice to redress past harms; support for regional housing and transit programs; or even food insecurity and STEM programs. These agreements should be routinely refreshed by local feedback through an evergreen commitment to community engagement. Additionally, in instances where companies seek to work with a First Nation or Indigenous community, land rights should be respected and revenue sharing agreements should be developed with indigenous communities.
We know principles like these won’t be adopted by all — and they’ll certainly have to be applied differently across industries and over time. But we can’t let the climate space become the wild west, where companies cut corners, exploit workers, or ignore the history of communities.
Instead, we should be proving that there's no contradiction between moving at the speed and scale we need to save our planet and being responsive to the communities that host us and the workers. That’s what High Road Carbon Removal means. That's what 21st century climate justice ought to look like.
Our future has never been predestined. It has been built by the hard work and sacrifices of previous generations. And for much of the last century we led the world by a wide margin because we built things in America and invested in our people and ourselves. Yet somewhere along the way we stopped. Supply chains shipped overseas, manufacturing shut down, and towns hollowed out. But to have the best economy in the world again, we have to start building things responsibly again. And if we lead the moment with climate innovation we’ll power a manufacturing renaissance that unleashes good-quality jobs, strengthens American security, and passes down the precious heirloom of our planet for generations to come.
Got thoughts, feedback, questions or learnings to share? We would love to hear from you. We’re listening at firstname.lastname@example.org