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Q&A with LanzaTech on Prioritizing Environmental Justice in Carbon Management Projects

Q&A with LanzaTech on Prioritizing Environmental Justice in Carbon Management Projects

The Justice 40 Initiative will direct a groundbreaking amount of federal funding for disadvantaged communities historically burdened by industrial waste in the United States. This initiative and voices from the environmental justice movement have inspired companies to focus on equity in their carbon management projects. LanzaTech, a carbon transformation company that recycles carbon oxide emissions (e.g., carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide) to create everyday products, is prioritizing environmental justice in their projects and mission.

I interviewed Sarah Eisenlord, a technical grant writer on LanzaTech’s government relations team working to create their environmental justice plan, about the intersection of carbon management and environmental justice.

As their CEO Dr. Jennifer Holmgren often says, LanzaTech is looking to others in the environmental justice field to grow, learn, and ask, “where are there gaps in [our understanding around] environmental justice and disadvantaged communities and how can we connect directly with the citizens and community leaders in those communities to address historical environmental injustices?” Spurred by the growing environmental justice movement, they hope to increase the positive impact of their carbon management projects by finding answers to these questions and others.

LanzaTech is a member of the Great Plains Institute (GPI)-convened Carbon Capture Coalition and Industrial Innovation Initiative.

What is the Justice40 Initiative?

The Justice40 Initiative, included in President Biden’s Executive Order 14008, supports communities burdened by climate change and industrial pollution by directing 40 percent of the overall benefits from federal investments in climate and clean energy towards disadvantaged communities. These benefits can come from clean energy and transportation, affordable and sustainable housing, training and workforce development, pollution reduction and remediation, and clean water infrastructure programs.

Through the initiative, federal agencies will develop accountability measures to reach this 40 percent goal. Agencies will also create a Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool to help identify and direct benefits to disadvantaged communities.

Organizations like LanzaTech already see changes brought by the Justice40 Initiative in federal investment requirements. Eisenlord, mentioning a recent funding opportunity, said, “When I opened the FOA [Funding Opportunity Announcement], I saw that 10 percent of the application’s success relied on a diversity equity and inclusion plan. I’d never seen that before. I was excited because it meant no matter how technically and economically sound a given project is, it must be accountable to environmental justice and social equity as well.

While Justice40 is a step forward for the federal government in addressing climate change and prioritizing overburdened communities, companies’ active engagement in environmental justice discussions will ensure that this funding supports communities.

How can carbon dioxide make products while reducing pollution?

Capturing pollution to make shoes, shorts, or jet fuel may seem far-fetched. Still, LanzaTech does just that by feeding carbon oxide waste to a biocatalyst (engineered microorganisms) in a process called gas fermentation.

The company currently relies on carbon capture, which traps carbon oxide emissions from industrial processes before they reach the atmosphere. They feed the captured carbon to bacteria that transform the emissions into ethanol. This ethanol can be used as a low-carbon fuel or can replace petrochemicals used to create synthetic materials for low-carbon cleaning detergents, plastic containers, low-carbon clothing and running shoes, and sustainable aviation fuel.

Although the bulk of the company’s work focuses on making low-carbon fuels and chemicals from increasingly diverse waste feedstocks (beyond industrial emissions), LanzaTech also finds it essential to consider how their work affects communities throughout their production process, from sourcing their materials and transporting their product to educating their consumers. They are keenly aware that their work must have support and buy-in from all communities, especially those most vulnerable. Through their projects, LanzaTech hopes to reduce social inequalities by providing environmentally sustainable economic opportunities for communities historically overburdened by pollution and underinvested in essential infrastructure and health care services.

Ninety percent of air pollution-related deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries and areas. “Reducing local pollution by removing criteria pollutants will have an immediate and impactful benefit to communities co-located with industrial plants, refineries, and airports,” Eisenlord explained. Sustainable aviation fuel specifically reduces aviation-derived air pollution that disproportionally impacts low-income neighborhoods near major airports. A recent study found gaseous and particulate pollution (carbon oxide, carbon dioxide, nitric oxide, and nitrogen dioxide) at residences downwind from Boston Airport were up to 4.8-fold higher than residences not downwind. At-risk communities are often located near major airports and can suffer from poor air quality and associated health issues, including higher rates of lung and heart disease. These impacts could be mitigated by every gallon of sustainable aviation fuel consumed at these airports.

Eisenlord hopes for a future where carbon recycling technologies are implemented in communities worldwide. Gas fermentation can open new avenues for producing low-carbon materials and boost local economies while cleaning the air and reducing climate change impacts.

LanzaTech’s Environmental Justice Plan

How does a company incorporate environmental justice into its carbon management projects? LanzaTech is actively working to find the answer.

Requirements like the Funding Opportunity Announcement described above are, at minimum, a “checkbox” that companies must fill out to receive any funding from the federal government. LanzaTech wants to step beyond that checkbox in all aspects of their work. For them, Eisenlord explained, it means considering projects that might not have same short-term economic gains as others but will have immense social and environmental benefits for communities if they’re successful.

These projects will help show other companies working in carbon management that considering environmental justice impacts is more than just one part of a project. “We can’t be comfortable where we are. We want to understand what the metrics are and how to use them effectively,” said Eisenlord. This desire to move past expectations spurred them to create and implement a company-wide environmental justice plan. The plan will include project components that help determine the highest probability of bringing economic and environmental benefits to underserved surrounding communities.

To answer these questions and begin drafting the plan, Eisenlord said her strategy started with talking to experts in the environmental justice field. “I’m reaching out and talking to people who know more than I do to understand from their perspective what information we need to gather, what analyses we should be doing, and what conversations we should be having.” Eisenlord is candid that she wants to make their environmental justice work meaningful and not something akin to greenwashing—when a company is more focused on appearing environmentally friendly than minimizing their environmental impact.

Organizations have often failed to highlight the ongoing, disproportionate impact of carbon-intensive industries on disadvantaged communities in the United States. LanzaTech wants to make sure their environmental justice work is intentional.

Carbon management and environmental justice

LanzaTech wants to create a circular carbon economy where companies use waste carbon to create products rather than emitting it into the atmosphere and relying on fossil fuels. They are using carbon capture and utilization to make that vision a reality but have encountered misunderstandings about the technology along the way. Prioritizing environmental justice principles in carbon capture and utilization projects is complex and threaded with misconceptions about the technology’s advantages and disadvantages.

Eisenlord expanded on these misconceptions, saying that “the biggest misconception about carbon management is that it’s supporting business as usual by removing the burden of environmental liability, and it’s not; it is creating a circular carbon economy with huge environmental justice benefits. We need to understand that many solutions, including carbon management, are necessary to solve the climate crisis.” LanzaTech knows carbon is essential in the materials, chemicals, and fuels required to maintain and improve the quality of life of our neighbors and communities and is crucial for advancing civilization. We challenge where that carbon comes from: below ground fossil resources or above ground recycled carbon from the ample carbon waste streams tipping our planet towards a climate crisis? Climate goals require reusing carbon already on the surface of our Earth and removing the carbon already in our atmosphere.”

The widespread deployment of carbon management technologies will require robust federal funding, policy mechanisms, and public support. Eisenlord shared that these advancements will “create a pathway to more efficient use of resources, lower levels of pollution, high recycling rates, fewer environmental impacts near disadvantaged communities, pathways of transition for currently polluting industries, good-paying jobs, and a future where humanity’s needs are finally met sustainably.” Carbon management is essential to their mission to create a world where CO2 is reused instead of just emitted and, as Eisenlord said, “carbon is too valuable to be wasted.

How can the public support carbon management and environmental justice?

The public can play a vital role in ensuring that companies’ efforts to reduce pollution and prioritize environmental justice communities come to fruition. A circular carbon economy can boost consumers’ ability to buy sustainably and equitably. “The public can drive change through their own decisions, purchases, and votes,” Eisenlord said. She added that “when consumers are more in touch with what they are buying and where it comes from, they can start demanding more sustainable production.” Companies can bolster their community engagement and environmental justice initiatives to offer products that are both low-carbon and produced equitably and LanzaTech is excited to see these plans evolve.

This blog was originally published by Great Plains Institute.