Why Boulder and Flagstaff are pooling resources to buy carbon disposal

In the summer of 2020, the Liberal City Council of Flagstaff, Arizona passed a resolution to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030, tasking the city’s Office of Sustainability with developing a plan to get there.

The agency’s small team set to work gathering community feedback and modeling different emission reduction options. But the tight deadline backed them against a wall. The best plan they could come up with, one that was both ambitious and realistic, would only cut emissions by 44% by the end of the decade. That’s how Ramon Alatorre, Flagstaff’s climate and energy coordinator, found himself before city council last May, arguing that Flagstaff should do something few other local governments had even considered – these emissions would have to be balanced by sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

deliver a PowerPoint by videoconference, Alatorre described various approaches to extracting carbon from the atmosphere, including planting trees and restoring ecosystems, grinding minerals to improve their carbon-absorbing properties, and building futuristic factories. which suck in large volumes of air, separate the carbon dioxide, and send it to underground storage sites. He warned the city council that most were still in the early stages of research and development and were expensive.

“We cannot delay the development of carbon dioxide removal,” he said. “It will take time to evolve, and there will be obstacles to navigate.”

The town hall is convinced. Two weeks later, Flagstaff became one of the top cities in the country with a climate action plan which included the elimination of carbon dioxide, or CDR. But Alatorre’s presentation also resonated far beyond the borders of Flagstaff. A few months later, he was talking with Susie Strife, the director of sustainability for Boulder County, Colorado, who had heard of his presentation and was also working on starting a carbon removal program.

Now Flagstaff and Boulder County are partnering to form a coalition of local governments that will pool resources to fund CDR projects in the Four Corners area. By working together, Strife and Alatorre hope to not only help grow the carbon removal industry, but also give local communities a say in rolling out these projects, which can come with a myriad trade-offs and risks.

“If we’re not involved, we’re kind of at the mercy of whatever guardrails those who are involved put up or their parameters,” Alatorre told Grist.

To date, the development of zero carbon has been driven largely by a few big tech companies like Microsoft and billionaires like Elon Musk, who fund early-stage projects. Interest in CDR began to grow after a 2018 report by the United Nations climatologist group said the world would need to remove a lot of carbon from the atmosphere, potentially billions of metric tons per year. , to meet the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit.)

Alatorre and Strife want their communities to be climate leaders, but CDR is difficult to tackle with a limited municipal budget. “If a local government tries to do it on their own, it’s going to be extremely expensive and time-consuming, and we don’t have the technical expertise,” Strife said. “We are trying to pool resources and create a kind of local government platform for CDR.”

The idea for the coalition was, in part, inspired by Strife’s experience creating an initiative called Colorado Communities for Climate Action, a coalition of 40 local governments that collectively push for national and federal climate policy. stronger. She and Alatorre also compared him to Solarizea grassroots strategy that allowed homeowner groups across the country to pool their demand for solar panels and solicit competitive bids from companies, resulting in lower costs.

Strife and Alatorre were first connected by members of the OpenAir Collective, a national volunteer network of carbon removal enthusiasts and advocates. Christopher Neidl, a co-founder of OpenAir who advised the coalition, said that by pooling resources, it can be a driver for more innovative and creative deployment of CDR – solutions with “far-reaching advantage”. .

Neidl compared this strategy to that of Stripe, a Silicon Valley payment software company that has made a name for itself in CDR. Rather than paying for relatively inexpensive tree-planting projects, Stripe has spent millions of dollars buying carbon removal from startups, in many cases as the very first corporate customer. which have not yet fully proven their methods, in order to drive innovation and speed. until development.

A direct air capture plant in Iceland built by Climeworks, of which Stripe and Microsoft were the first customers.
Halldor Kolbeins/AFP via Getty Images

The Four Corners coalition is still in its infancy. He has a one page mission statement which lists a collection goal of $1.25 million to support the removal of 2,500 metric tons of CO2, which means they could end up spending up to $500 per metric ton. (Currently, the most expensive forms of carbon removal can cost several hundred to over a thousand dollars per metric ton.) Flagstaff and Boulder County have together committed $300,000 to get started. Boulder will use funds from its Sustainability Tax, a program that diverts a portion of county sales tax to sustainability programs. Alatorre said his department is contributing funding it received from the U.S. Federal Bailout Act, the COVID-19 stimulus package that Congress passed in March 2021.

The coalition’s first request for proposals, which it will issue later this summer, will solicit projects that involve capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequestering it in concrete. “Concrete is incredibly distributed, there are concrete producers in almost every community,” Alatorre said. “So if you were to use that to build our sidewalks, that could be really interesting.”

Alatorre and Strife are also excited about other local benefits that carbon removal projects could bring to the region, such as job creation and ecosystem health. The two explained the possibility of collecting wood debris from overgrown forests and turn it into biochar, a very stable substance similar to charcoal. Scientists believe that biochar can store carbon locked in wood and other organic waste for hundreds or even thousands of years – and when added to soil it can potentially improve water retention and returns. Independent of the coalition’s work, Strife’s office recently launched a request for proposals offering $450,000 to support local projects that both remove carbon from the atmosphere and support “resilience and landscape restoration.”

Stefan Sommer, an environmentalist who lives in Flagstaff and sits on the board of a local climate group called the Northern Arizona Climate Change Alliance, said he was concerned when the city incorporated carbon dioxide removal into its climate plan. “We need to focus more on reducing emissions, since there are so many uncertainties in carbon capture and sequestration,” he said. “I worry because it really depends on which avenue they take.”

He mentioned the tree planting programs that were discovered he was using faulty carbon accountingthe huge power consumption required for air filtering machines, and the challenges of measuring and monitoring the carbon removed by ocean-based methods, such as grow kelp then sink it to the bottom of the ocean.

But Sommer was more optimistic when he learned the coalition was planning to research ways to store carbon in concrete. “I think it’s wonderful that they’re considering this option,” he said. “It’s something that has the potential to remove some CO2 from the atmosphere and stop emitting a lot of it, as cement production accounts for around 8% of global emissions.”

Sommer isn’t alone in being skeptical about eliminating carbon. Many climate and environmental justice advocates fear that pursuing these solutions will divert attention and resources away from reducing emissions today – largely because some of the the largest carbon removal projects in development today are backed by fossil fuel companies. There are also concerns that the potential environmental and economic impacts of carbon removal projects will fall on historically overburdened communities.

A group of researchers recently supported in The New Republic that carbon removal should ultimately be a public service, like waste disposal, and fully owned and operated by communities. This structure could ensure that CDR is deployed in the public interest, as a source of well-paying jobs and in the way that is most beneficial to communities. Toly Rinberg, a PhD student in physics at Harvard University who studies carbon removal and one of the paper’s authors, fears that if carbon removal projects are owned by private companies, the incentives will only be focused on carbon and profit, not research for public health or local economies.

He said carbon removal is currently so nascent and small-scale that it makes sense for governments to use public money to fund private projects in a way that builds trust in communities. But he wants businesses and governments to think early about how to build in community control, so that when these projects grow 1,000 times, they will still align with local priorities.

Alatorre and Strife hope cutting-edge projects at the grassroots level will help build support for carbon removal from the ground up. “We talk to people who are part of our community and ask them what their concerns are, and educate our constituents about it who might be skeptical,” Strife said.

Stephanie Arcusa, a postdoctoral fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Negative Carbon Emissions, who previously interned at the Flagstaff Office of Sustainability, said she’s excited about the coalition because it will give ordinary people a more great exposure to carbon removal and will help ensure that the benefits go directly to the community.

“I don’t think they think they can cover all of their shows through their coalition, but maybe it’s a way to cut costs, catalyze change and make it more visible to local people. “, she said. “I think it’s more about perception and appearance than making a material difference – for now.”

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