February 21, 2024

Community engagement and carbon removal: four takeaways for policymakers

To meet the EU’s interim climate target, Europe must remove up to 400 Mt of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in 2040. Reaching this target requires growing the carbon removal sector, which includes land-based and industrial methods. Typically, the growth of this new sector is framed in terms of engineering, economic and policy challenges, but removing carbon at scale also presents complex social and ethical questions. As carbon removal methods mature, there is a risk that innovation will outpace public engagement and the development of an informed public opinion, which in turn could affect the demand for CDR innovation and determine whether removals are scaled. Arguably, nowhere is engagement more needed than at the community level, where most removal projects will be trialled and potentially deployed.

To better understand the different conceptions of “community engagement” circulating within the sector, as well as to identify any gaps where policymakers might usefully intervene to give local people and companies the clarity they need to navigate engagement in a just way, I spoke with six carbon removal companies and one accelerator (see Table 1 for a full list of interviewees). Though my sample was small, it was diverse across methods, development stages, and project locations, reflecting the eclectic character of carbon removal today. It’s also important to note that this sample only represents half of the equation when it comes to community engagement, and similar research is needed to explore the views, experiences and priorities of local stakeholders. Through semi-structured interviews, I identified four key findings that together point to ways policymakers can intervene to ensure engagement happens in a fair and just way.

Takeaway #1: Carbon removal developers usually interpret “community” in terms of geographic proximity to prospective project sites, but there is still ambiguity as to who must be engaged.

CDR developers conceptualised “community” in a variety of ways, but most frequently in terms of physical proximity to prospective sites. Collectively, interviewees imagined a spectrum of stakeholders from “fence-line” communities living in the immediate vicinity of their operation, to the wider area comprising local civil society groups and leaders, to the wider public. For CDR methods with multiple steps, interviewees considered local stakeholders across all parts of their supply chain to be entitled to engagement. Notably, some developers did not use location as the decisive factor for community engagement, but rather type of involvement as the determining variable. For example, one developer only considered local people who worked directly with them as “community”.

Takeaway #2: Carbon removal developers tend to think about community engagement in one of two ways (or both): engagement as consultation and engagement as benefit.

CDR companies varied in their interpretations of engagement, but generally subscribed to two ideas: engagement as consultation or as benefit. These two approaches relate to questions of  procedural and distributive justice, respectively. For some developers, especially those working on methods likely perceived as novel, consultation was the primary goal. They explored the importance of consulting community members and organisations to give local stakeholders their rightful opportunity to reach informed consent or rejection of a proposed project. Collectively, interviewees identified multiple steps in a rigorous consultative process: researching local views and preferences (including commissioning new studies if existing information is lacking), establishing a two-way dialogue, co-creating an engagement plan, implementing this engagement plan, consistently listening and responding to community feedback, and creating a mechanism to ensure strong community relations are maintained long-term.

Another popular conception of engagement, especially among land-based developers, was engagement as benefit. Here, engagement meant sharing benefits generated by projects with local stakeholders through employment, partnerships with organisations, working with community-owned entities, and investing back into the local area. Some companies regarded this form of engagement as core to their mission, prioritising sites where projects could significantly improve local livelihoods.

Figure 1: Social science researchers (Natalie Carter (left) and Molly James (right)) hired by Direct Air Capture company Airhive conduct interviews with community members in the Tees Valley, where a pilot system will be built. This research aims to gauge perceptions and procedural involvement preferences for the future of DAC in the Tees Valley.

Takeaway #3: Carbon removal companies think community engagement is crucial for many reasons, but also say limits are necessary.

Interviewees listed seven distinct reasons to do community engagement: it is the right thing to do, it can be necessary to redress power imbalances, a mission-driven sector must hold itself to higher ethical standards, it is within the self-interest of businesses as lack of engagement builds risk to the enterprise, it is within the industry’s interest as the sector is vulnerable to reputational risk, it is within the community’s interest as there may be opportunities for them to seize, and it is within the global community’s interest as scaling CDR at pace requires collaboration.

In terms of the extent and outcomes of engagement, some companies explored which limits they would support. For example, one company said that their efforts should be proportional to the potential impact of their proposal, which would vary across projects and stages of project development. Regarding outcome of engagement, one company working on developing a novel method agreed that communities should be equipped with the means necessary to make an informed decision on whether to host a project and  should be able not to consent to it, but developers also thought that once a project was accepted communities should not expect to control the operation.

Figure 2: Smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe who just received a free training on biochar to soil application. The nearby artisan biochar project of CarbonConnect and the Organic Farming Academy offers rural employment and distributes biochar for free.


Takeaway #4: The governance of community engagement within the carbon removal sector is highly fragmented across methods, companies, and countries.

Carbon removal developers explained that the type and extent of engagement they were required to do depended on which funding processes, national policies and method-specific standards they were privy to. Currently, community engagement is encouraged or mandated through government processes (as part of funding applications, permitting processes and environmental impact assessments), policies (for example, the U.S. Justice40 Initiative requires 40% of overall benefits generated through federal investments into CDR go to disadvantaged communities overburdened by pollution) and private sector involvement (through provisions embedded in voluntary carbon market standards and investor preferences). These findings  suggests that how a project is funded and where it is located significantly impacts whether and how community engagement takes place.

So, what do these takeaways mean for policymakers? Here’s my take.

It’s clear that there is no consistent, comprehensive approach to community engagement across the CDR sector, creating ample opportunities for policymakers to step in. On the one hand, a diversity of approaches is natural for such an eclectic field. Ultimately, however, policymakers must find ways to plug the governance gaps in a way that is  flexible enough to apply across local contexts and potential projects. The key tasks include:

  1. Providing a definition of “community” to ensure that all relevant stakeholders are included in engagement;

  2. Convening an inclusive range of stakeholders to co-design a community code of conduct that would apply across CDR methods and comprise of a set of core principles and a variety of engagement options for communities and developers to pursue based on the particularities of a project;

  3. Delineating clear decision-making junctures that state when and in which ways local stakeholders can influence project development;

  4. Establishing an independent body that could help mediate engagement so as to avoid a power asymmetry between communities and companies.

The EU is well placed to bridge knowledge gaps on community engagement best practices in its capacity as an information hub, drawing on existing platforms such as the CCUS Forum and analogous models like the Rural Energy Community Advisory Hub.

These four actions would go a long way to clarifying ambiguities and hopefully provide communities with a clear view of their rights and channels of influence. Beyond adding clarity, policymakers should explore ways of integrating fair and just community engagement into CDR governance at large. One way of doing that would be to ensure that all EU certified CDR units result from similarly robust engagement processes, by integrating procedural justice provisions into the carbon removal certification framework. Whichever policy lever is pulled, it is key that strong engagement governance to be in place as soon as possible, to ensure that this new sector grows in a just way.

By Kayla Cohen, Senior Researcher


Appendix: Table of interviewees

Company Method Location Project sites (past, present & prospective)
Airhive Direct air capture London, UK Teesside, UK
Barcelona, Spain
Montreal, Canada
Tierra Foods Agroforestry with biomineralisation Hertfordshire, UK TBC, Mexico
CarbonConnect Artisan biochar Hamburg, Germany Rushinga, Zimbabwe
Mudzi, Zimbabwe
Sierra Nevada, Columbia
Drax Group Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (yet to apply CCS to plants) North Yorkshire, UK Across supply chain and deployment:
Scottish Highlands, UK
North Yorkshire, UK
Arkansas, United States
Mississippi, United States
Louisiana, United States
Alabama, United States
British Columbia, Canada
Planetary Ocean alkalinity enhancement Nova Scotia, Canada Cornwall, UK
Nova Scotia, Canada
Virginia, United States
Planboo Industrial & artisan biochar Stockholm, Sweden Sabaragamuwa Province, Sri Lanka
Southern Province; Sri Lanka
Mchinji District, Malawi
Groot Fontein, Namibia
Otjimbingwe, Namibia
Kiambu County, Kenya
Diaso, Ghana
Southern & Eastern Districts, Zambia
Remove Carbon removal accelerator Amsterdam, Netherlands Not applicable