Do “carbon-centric” fixes worsen environmental racism?
A peer-reviewed paper says climate solutions that only cut emissions — like carbon capture or carbon offsets — will do nothing to address longstanding U.S. environmental racism. Instead, a fossil fuel phaseout and a more comprehensive set of solutions is needed.
There is a long history of environmental racism in the United States and the energy transition has a chance to address historical wrongs, but a reliance on “carbon-centric” climate solutions that narrowly look at only cutting emissions may ignore or even worsen these injustices, according to a new paper.
An extensive body of research, stretching back decades, has documented the longstanding pollution and public health burdens placed disproportionately on Black, Brown, Indigenous, and poor communities of colour. Oil refineries, pipelines, toxic waste sites, incinerators, mines, and other extractive industries have targeted disadvantaged communities dating back decades and even centuries.
The research has been collected and laid out in a new article published in the June issue of the peer-reviewed journal Energy Research & Social Science. The authors look at what they call “fossil fuel racism,” that the growth of the fossil fuel economy in particular occurred alongside land dispossession, colonialism, and racialized violence. Indeed, the paper argues that the growth of the fossil fuel economy didn’t just happen to benefit from those historic wrongs, but that the production of fossil fuels requires “sacrifice zones,” where coal, oil, gas, and other mining operations impose polluting and health risks on nearby communities.
“You can look at different types of pollution, you can look at different types of impacts, but the general pattern is pretty consistent across industries, across different types of pollutants. That for the most part, it’s Black, Brown and Indigenous poor people that are bearing the brunt of this,” Tim Donaghy, a senior research specialist at Greenpeace USA, and one of the authors of the study, told Gas Outlook.
“Things have happened 100 years ago and you can still see those patterns in where pollution is sited today,” he said.
He pointed to the example of “redlining,” a New Deal-era policy in which the U.S. government insured mortgage loans, but largely excluded Black neighbourhoods, effectively barring Black communities from accessing mortgage financing. The policy exacerbated segregation, inequality, and intergenerational wealth, a legacy that is very much felt today.
Redlining can also can be connected to pollution — redlined neighborhoods are associated with the siting of power plants. “There have been a ton of papers that have come out in the last couple of years basically tying redlined neighborhoods from back in the 1930s to pollution and climate harms today,” Donaghy said.
“Communities of colour have known this and have been saying this is a huge problem for decades. And it was only later that it became something that academics studied,” he said.
The energy transition is clearly picking up pace, with the adoption of renewable energy and electric vehicles accelerating. Governments around the world are implementing climate policies — slowly, and sometimes begrudgingly — to push the transition forward.
But many climate solutions on offer only look narrowly at cutting greenhouse gas emissions, which may do nothing to address historic environmental injustices. For instance, hydrogen and carbon capture, which have received a lot of attention recently, are favoured solutions by the industry. And the Biden administration’s signature climate achievement, the Inflation Reduction Act that was signed into law in 2022, offers hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies for clean energy technologies, including for hydrogen and carbon capture.
But those solutions offer no benefit to communities living near existing power plants and refineries. Thus far, carbon capture technology has a poor track record, suffering from cost overruns and technical problems. Even assuming it eventually works as intended, carbon capture will result in polluting facilities being allowed to operate for many more years, allowing local pollution to continue unimpeded.
“Carbon capture is not going to capture ethylene oxide or benzene, or any of the other really harmful carcinogens that are coming out of those stacks,” Kendall Dix, the national policy director at Taproot Earth, a global climate justice organization with a focus on the U.S. Gulf South, told Gas Outlook.
A lot of the carbon capture hype is focused on the Gulf Coast, in places like Louisiana, where the oil and gas industry, and the state, hopes to use captured CO2 for other industrial processes. In a way, it offers an opportunity for existing industries to find new markets. But it will require building out a whole network of new pipelines that can carry carbon dioxide, layering new infrastructure links on top of legacy oil and gas infrastructure.
That may lead to other problems. In Louisiana, wetlands provide a buffer against hurricanes for coastal communities, which will be increasingly vital with storms projected to become more severe from climate change. But new pipelines carrying carbon dioxide could further erode Louisiana’s wetlands, just as oil and gas infrastructure has done, Dix said.
“It’s essentially a doubling down on sacrifice zones,” he added, referring to the proposed buildout of a carbon capture network.
Donaghy also cited another “carbon-centric” solution — carbon offsets — as an example of a misguided policy. If an oil refinery is required to cut pollution, for example, it could buy an offset and have trees planted somewhere else and have its record wiped clean. But that’s cold comfort for the refinery’s neighbours, who see no change in its operations.
“Even if you are charitable and assume that the offset is a high-quality offset, it doesn’t do anything for the other air pollution that comes out of the refinery,” Donaghy said.
Rather than these carbon-centric policies, he says that a better approach would be climate solutions that offer a variety of benefits all at once, in line with the Green New Deal concept that was popularized several years ago by climate activists, academics, and some members of Congress.
There are many variations of the Green New Deal proposal, but in general, the framework supports comprehensive solutions that improve housing, healthcare, jobs, labour rights, and other provisions to assist the transition, such as support for workers in the fossil fuel industry to find new work. It would also manage and plan for the phaseout of fossil fuel operations, rather than leaving it up to the market.
Many of these concepts are normally thought of as outside of the realm of climate policy, but proponents say it would better address the climate crisis and also build broader political support.
“Ten years ago, the idea was to slap a carbon tax on it and then we’d be good to go. And now I think people are realizing that we need to protect communities through this transition. And if we do it right, we can get great outcomes for everybody,” Donaghy said. “It’s all quite complicated. You can’t just put a carbon price on it and walk away.”
He went on. “There’s this opportunity here. If you focus on fossil fuels and aim for a phaseout, that’s a good way of fixing the climate crisis and the public health crisis, and potentially doing something to alleviate these historical injustices that these communities have suffered,” he said.