Christian Braneon has been thinking about climate justice for nearly 20 years. A civil engineer by training, it’s what drew him to graduate school and made him want to study climate change in the first place.
“I never thought that I could find a job focused on climate justice,” he told Protocol.
That just changed. Braneon has joined carbon management platform Carbon Direct as its first head of climate justice. In that unique role, he’ll ensure that Carbon Direct’s software and advisory services used by some of the world’s biggest tech companies are not just scientifically rigorous, but equitable, too.
Prior to Carbon Direct, Braneon spent five years as a climate scientist at NASA, where he helped cities understand and adapt to their climate risks using satellite data. “I tried to center equity and environmental justice every chance I got,” Braneon told Protocol in his first chat after starting the role. That included bringing in redlining data sets in the agency’s research on urban heat islands, among other efforts.
Carbon removal is a nascent area of research largely focused on tech fixes to pull carbon from the atmosphere. But deploying that technology at scale has the potential to negatively impact local communities and ecosystems.
As the industry scales up, its success could hinge on not only how much carbon companies are able to remove and how effectively, but also mitigating potential unintended harms they might cause in the process. That includes, among other things, involving communities early in the process. By hiring a head of climate justice, Carbon Direct is signaling to the rest of the industry that scaling equitably is just as important as scaling fast.
“Sometimes we have a paternalistic approach to deciding what environmental justice looks like or what equitable benefits look like,” Braneon said. One of the first things he told his colleagues at Carbon Direct when he started was, “We don’t get to decide what community benefits are. The community tells us what they perceive as benefits. And then we work with them to come up with solutions that help achieve those benefits and create equitable outcomes.” It’s a subtle shift in thinking that he believes is crucial for the carbon management industry to scale equitably.
He sat down with Protocol to talk about why he thinks climate justice should be central to the carbon removal industry’s work and how to center it the right way.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What does the role of head of climate justice entail? How do you define climate justice, particularly in the context of carbon removal?
Climate change projections suggest that low-income countries are going to bear the brunt of the climate impacts. They’re not well positioned to deal with extreme weather events and the shocks to agriculture and other sectors of society, and yet they contributed the least to greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon dioxide removal presents an opportunity for wealthy nations to remove legacy emissions they’ve already put in the atmosphere and help society avert these climate change impacts that will disproportionately affect low-income countries. In my role, I’m aiming to deepen and sharpen how we think about environmental and climate justice internally, influencing our culture, our operations, as well as our client engagement.
On the other side, your job is also to make sure that these carbon removal products are minimizing harms, or, as written in your criteria for high-quality CDR, avoiding the negative impacts to economic, social, and environmental systems stemming from a CDR project. What's the biggest harm you're worried about?
I think that what stands out to me is the fact that many of the projects will ultimately happen in the Global South, where it’s very different from developing something in a wealthy nation. You may, for example, do a reforestation project. You’ve done a good job scoping and thinking about the carbon sequestration benefits and know how much carbon can actually be captured as a result. You’re convinced that this is a project that wouldn’t have happened before. And yet, someone coming in from the outside may not realize that there was an informal settlement right where that forest was, and there were some folks displaced as a result of that reforestation project. So I think one of my biggest concerns are unintended consequences, because there hasn’t been enough community engagement on the ground in those places. That’s something we’ll have to think through.
Christian Braneon speaking with Vice President Harris.Photo: Taylor Mickal/NASA
And how would you ensure that Carbon Direct’s platform incorporates consideration of these potential harms when evaluating carbon removal solutions?
We want to make sure that our clients understand all the different dimensions of their impact. In our platform right now, you can get a sense for the tons that you’re managing now and your carbon impact. But what we need to shift to is understanding your broader impact: How many jobs did you create? What’s the quality of those jobs? Perhaps in a place like Kenya, a project is developed and a road is also built, and that is actually the core benefit to the community: having a roadway where there was not a roadway before. So part of what we want to do in our platform is help our clients really understand the broader impact beyond just tons managed. Quantifying that and bolstering how we think about equitable benefits more broadly is part of our goal with the platform.
How do you ensure climate justice is central to Carbon Direct's work rather than secondary or, even worse, siloed off completely?
Honestly, part of what attracted me to Carbon Direct is that there was already all this interest and commitment to climate justice before I joined.
What I’m doing is assessing how we think about environmental justice and climate justice in the review of projects and deepening that assessment. Instead of doing what people traditionally do when they think about environmental issues — asking yes-no questions like, “Are there harms?”— I want to bring some rigor and make it more robust. Like, “Hey, use this data set, and explain to me what the existing pollution burden is in a given community.” Or, “Use this tool to help me understand the associated demographics and who the vulnerable folks in the community are where this project might happen.” Ask, “How much community engagement has a project team done?” and place it on a spectrum.
How do you evaluate if a company or potential client is actually serious about its net zero goals or just greenwashing? What do you look for, and what are some red flags?
One of the initial things I’ve gotten involved in is anti-greenwashing screening. The key here is, “What commitments have you already made around reductions?” We ask clients to actually explain in detail how they’re going to achieve those reductions before we even get to the discussion about carbon dioxide removal and offsets. And we actually start the process with suggesting additional ways to do reductions and better strategies and approaches for reductions.
When companies are not interested in reductions, that is a red flag for us, and that’s when we actually step away. We absolutely say no to clients, and my goal is to make our approach to anti-greenwashing deeper and more rigorous. We have to decarbonize our society as quickly as possible and, in addition, use carbon dioxide removal as a way to prevent some of the most adverse climate change impacts from impacting folks in low-income countries.