Posted 13 Feb, 2024
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This post explores the importance of anchoring CDR policy design and advocacy in local factors (hooks) and timeframes (windows). Two current policy proposals from California and Massachusetts are assessed and compared. 

All (carbon removal) politics is local.

Policies designed to support carbon removals vary considerably by objective, design, underlying rationale, scope of impact, level of ambition, and a multitude of other factors. This, of course, is entirely to be expected. Such variation is a natural outcome of the complex and multifaceted set of needs that the sector requires to take root, and ultimately flourish and scale. Massive government interventions are needed to bolster demand for CDR, as well as enable and incentivize suppliers. Other forms of policy are required to fund, accelerate and direct research and development. Still more are needed to establish robust standards and criteria that define, legally and operationally, what CDR even means, and how it is to be measured, certified and verified over time. And yet another set of necessary actions relate to laws and regulations that either enable or impede CDR project development, on the ground, in or across specific jurisdictions. These include various amendments, reforms or clarifications to existing permitting, zoning, and premises liability laws, to name just a few examples. 

But it is a mistake to assume or expect that the design and ultimate shape of any given policy in any given place will neatly correspond directly to the internal priorities of the still nascent – and politically obscure – carbon removal industry. Enacting policy is a political process, and at present there is not a place on earth where the interests of carbon removal command sufficient recognition or clout to simply dictate terms in a vacuum. To the contrary, particularly at this early stage, sector priorities inevitably will be influenced, enabled or pre-empted by a multitude of different, often highly idiosyncratic local factors that prevail in the specific jurisdictions where policies are conceived, fought for, and ultimately enacted or rejected. In short, the form that CDR policies ultimately take in any given context will arise from the tension between what is optimal for the sector, and what is possible, politically.

Hooks and Windows.

Local factors that can be favorably leveraged for both effective policy design and advocacy to increase the likelihood of success can be thought of as ‘hooks’. These represent policy features and activist tactics that are informed by local realities that are conducive to gaining support, countering opposition, and reducing friction related to implementation. Moments in the local political or social context that provide cover or momentum for CDR policy proposals can be identified as “windows”. CDR policy advocates, operating in any context – national or subnational – must begin by taking stock of hooks and windows, and arrive at proposals based on the political advantages that the latter can bring to the effort. 

Hooks can be as diverse as the places where they are identified, but common types include existing background laws already in place, as well as established policymaking conventions and precedents that have a local history of success. It includes local economic conditions – historical, present-day and aspirational. And it most certainly includes highly place-specific power dynamics that determine which interests and constituencies do or don’t have influence over policy outcomes. And such factors are not static, but rather, like all things political, dynamic and unpredictable over time. This means that advocates must be conscious of the moment when deciding when to push, pivot or wait. 

Hooks can directly influence both the internal substance of CDR policy proposals, as well as how they are framed and argued for within the context of political advocacy and coalition-building. At this low familiarity, low influence phase for our sector, effective policy strategies must work backwards from a deep understanding of local hooks to arrive at politically viable policies that can gain quantifiable ground and open up new avenues, even if they are far from ideal.  Every win, however minor, can create political space and capital for more ambitious proposals in the future. Every failure, by contrast, can result in the opposite, making conditions for success in the future more difficult. The most damaging outcomes will result when the temptation to shoehorn sector optimal proposals prevails over approaches that start with a studious consideration of winning hooks and windows.

A high level comparison of a two different ‘bright spark’ policy proposals currently in play in two U.S. States can illustrate the influence of hooks and windows over both policy design and advocacy. 

Case study: The powerful hooks underpinning California’s historic SB 308 legislation.

California’s SB 308, or the Carbon Dioxide Removal Market Development Act, can rightly be identified as one of the most consequential and ambitious pieces of CDR demand support legislation ever proposed, to date, anywhere in the world. As law, it would create a powerful demand signal for CDR via a polluter pays compliance mechanism. This mandate would require legally defined high emitting facilities to purchase a certain amount of CDR tonnes per year, following compliance criteria established by state regulators. Purchase requirements would escalate each year, between 2028 and 2045, ultimately reaching a purchase quantity of 7 million CO2 tonnes, annually. 

Several local hooks explain the impressive scope of SB 308, and why California is in a class of its own, among states, in terms of CDR policy ambition.

Hook 1: CDR support is already implied by existing law.

The first relates directly to existing and prior policy commitments already in place. California is one of just a handful of U.S. states that have enshrined a binding net zero target in law. This obligation, by itself, set in motion comprehensive emissions accounting by the state, which in turn quantified both the limitations of emissions reductions, and the need for carbon removal, to achieve net zero. The California Air Resources Board, the state regulatory body having significant authority over setting rules and programs to achieve the state’s target, formally affirmed in a 2022 Scoping Plan that CDR is needed to reach net zero, and quantified the amount required by 2045. The compliance targets set in SB 308 directly mirror the timeline and volumes published in the scoping plan. 

This direct acknowledgement by the state in a formal public document furnishes a powerful rationale (hook) for action on CDR, as well as an aggressive timeline for implementation that includes specific net-zero aligned removal volumes that must be met by specific future dates (window). As a result, advocates for the bill can convincingly argue that SB 308 is simply installing a legal mandate and programmatic mechanism that California will require in order to comply with an existing law already on the books. In states where net zero laws are not in place, and where emissions baselines and targets have not been produced, this hook would not be available to justify a proposal as ambitious as SB 308.

Hook 2: California’s environmental policy exceptionalism.

Additional hooks leverage pervasive elements of California’s unique political and economic identity and history within the U.S. context that have broad resonance within the state. These include California’s long history of originating ambitious, high-impact environmental policies that were then subsequently adopted by other states, as well as the federal government. Examples span first-of-kind regulations and laws related to recycling and waste management, conservation measures, vehicle emissions standards, renewable energy investment, electrical vehicle incentives, and low carbon fuel mandates. This multi-decade history of leadership and influence, and the relationship between such policy interventions and measurable quality of life impacts and economic benefits, are not only well understood among California policymakers and the general public, but generally celebrated as evidence of Golden State exceptionalism. Therefore when SB 308 advocates argue that the legislation is a bold measure that California can pull off, can bear economically, and which will create new economic benefits, they draw on a familiar narrative and a considerable body of historical evidence that cannot easily be dismissed in state, or made as persuasively in virtually any other state. 

Hook 3: “Invent a future trillion dollar global tech industry? Duh, California does that all the time.”

Finally, California is home to one of the most diverse and dynamic CDR ecosystems, hosting what is likely the largest concentration of CDR startups, investors, buyers, and academic subject experts in the world. This reality supplies a hook that can be used to build a persuasive economic development and job creation argument in favor of the bill. And one that, again, has historical resonance and proof to back it up. California’s success at fostering world-leading innovation and technology industries that account for its economic success is objectively quantifiable, well-known, and widely celebrated. Therefore, making the claim that SB 308 will enable California to maintain its early lead, and come to dominate a future trillion dollar industry (and one that aligns closely with the state’s deep environmental values, to boot) frames the policy within a broader history, and pre-existing expectation that California can and should lead. And this argument can be articulated directly by local startups, investors, experts and other stakeholders who already call California home. 

Confronting Headwinds

It is difficult to separate the strength of these hooks from the ambitious design and political success, to date, of SB 308 (the legislation has already passed in the state senate). However, its future as law is far from certain. Other local conditions (‘anti-hooks’) are less favorable. These include the opposition of the state’s powerful oil and gas industry, and a cross-section of influential environmental justice organizations, as well as fiscal projections of short-term budget deficits that complicate any proposal with a multi-year price tag, or yet another compliance requirement for in-state industries. Yet efforts to mitigate these negative factors are clearly present in both the SB 308’s policy and advocacy strategy. Advocates can use oil and gas opposition to shore up credibility with other environmental groups whose support is consequential, and the bill itself includes specific language that ensures comprehensive community impact review for all carbon removal projects supported through the law. 

Case Study: Massachusetts S. 2096 – A narrower alternative with similar hooks. 

It is useful to contrast the experience of California’s SB 308 with that of another leading climate forward state where CDR support legislation is currently active. In Massachusetts, S. 2096 (the Carbon Dioxide Removal Leadership Act) is currently being considered in that state’s legislature. The bill proposes a state-administered CDR procurement program, whereby a designated agency would make annual purchases of CDR from projects located within the state via a competitive, multi-factor selection process. In contrast to California’s SB 308, S. 2096’s proposed program is much smaller in scope, and would only be authorized for five years, starting in 2025, after which the legislature would be required to reauthorize it. 

Massachusetts, like California, is one of only four states that have enacted net-zero laws. Further, carbon removal as a net zero imperative has been formally acknowledged and even quantified in formal state documents, even referencing possible ‘procurement’ programs that align with the central mechanism proposed in S. 2096. Therefore a similar hook is in place to justify the need for S.2096 as is present in California. However, state documents citing the need for carbon removal are less developed and more tentative in Massachusetts than in California, and lay out a preliminary strategy that would rely heavily on natural and working lands-based (NRW) removals. California’s scoping plan, by contrast, makes explicit that NRW removals will not be sufficient to deliver the level of removals required to achieve net zero. 

While not as heralded or developed as California’s innovation economy, Massachusetts hosts an impressive and growing tech sector, anchored around world-class universities in the Boston metro area, and one of the strongest economies in the United States. The current Governor has included building a world class in-state climate tech sector as a part of her first term economic development agenda. As a result, a similar ‘own the future’ hook can be leveraged in Massachusetts as in California, but in the former the expectation of leadership of this kind is more nascent and carries less political power than it does in the latter. 

Based on the sum total of these factors, CDR advocates in the state elected to support a more limited but politically viable bill that could form a powerful building block for more ambitious policy aims in the future.