Editor’s Note: This article is part of Fast Company Spark, a new initiative for middle and high school readers.
The sharp fear of not having enough clean water to drink starting at six years old, as I was growing up in a working-class neighborhood at the south periphery of Puebla city in Mexico, is an experience I’ll never forget. It showed me a side of the climate crisis that people are experiencing around the world, and what happens when powerful countries and corporations put profit over people and the planet. Today, at 19, my childhood experiences are what energize me to organize with the Fridays for Future movement, a youth-led global collective that advocates for systemic climate action.
Water scarcity is one of the many repercussions of climate change that the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns about in their latest report. The report paints a grim reality of global droughts, superstorms, extreme heat and flooding at a devastating scale (which only confirms the experiences of people like me living in the Global South). The report links these climate catastrophes to greenhouse gas emissions as the main driver. It’s time to stop spewing greenhouse gas emissions and protect our planet. At the same time, we also need to remove the legacy climate pollution that is lodged in the atmosphere.
The existing climate pollution in our atmosphere, which continues to heat our planet, has been complicit in climate injustice. Every atom of carbon has a history, and most were emitted by the Global North: the richest countries, companies, and elites in our society. Carbon also fuels wars. The U.S. has the most polluting military industrial complex on earth. Russia is the world’s second largest gas producer and third largest oil producer, and is currently behind the military invasion of Ukraine. Fridays for Future stands in solidarity with Ukraine and all oppressed peoples living under the horrors of war, and calls for immediate support for Ukrainian refugees.
Given all the climate chaos the Global North has inflicted, it’s time for countries in the Global North to seriously consider climate reparations. Following the lead of anti-racist movements, climate reparations are actions by countries that have grown wealthy at the expense of others to repair the climate damage they had a large role in inflicting. Climate reparations can level the playing field for countries that did not cause climate change and also help to foster peace.
Climate reparations could come in many forms. One is money: rich countries and businesses paying compensation for death, illness, and the destruction of natural resources. That money is needed, and won’t be turned away. But it’s a short-term solution that mainly reinforces the power dynamics between rich and impoverished countries. It gives an impression of fairness while doing nothing to make polluters take actual responsibility for their emissions.
Climate reparations that go further can hold the key to restorative climate justice by addressing legacy emissions with carbon removal. Carbon removal uses nature-based and technological solutions to trap and store legacy climate pollution. This means it has the potential to actually reverse some climate damage, rather than just compensate people for pollution’s deadly effects. The IPCC finds that gigatons of carbon removal are required to create a planet that will be safe for my generation and the generations to come.
Carbon removal can help promote climate justice—if it is deployed in a responsible way. Responsible deployment includes engagement with the communities most impacted by climate change. As the IPCC report confirms, climate change is global but the impacts are not equally shared. Its effects are felt most crushingly by vulnerable groups such as people of color and Indigenous people. The impoverished communities of the world bear the biggest burden. And young people will face the worst consequences of climate impacts in upcoming years.
Communities in my country, Mexico, have suffered water shortages, heatwaves and agricultural problems. We have temperature rises around 50% higher than the global average. I have experienced this personally: attending school when the temperatures are so high that it can be hard to concentrate and experiencing symptoms of heatstroke from walking back home in that heat. For vulnerable groups like children and the elderly, this can be lethal.
Carbon removal is a way for the biggest emitters to pay their climate debt. Carbon removal includes restoring forests to absorb carbon dioxide, using soil to store carbon, and using machines to remove carbon directly from the air with approaches like Direct Air Capture. Carbon removal technology needs more work to scale up and to lower the costs. But, who’s better equipped to pay for that development than the countries and companies with the biggest technological resources and the most money?
Carbon removal can’t be a substitute for cutting emissions, but it can work alongside it. As a climate activist, I’ve seen how carbon removal discussions can distract from emission reduction targets. I get why people are wary of talking about it. We’ve watched companies and countries make net-zero pledges without promising to cut emissions, arguing that new futuristic technology will save us. Carbon removal instead of emissions cuts is nonsense. And carbon removal that has an over reliance on nature-based solutions, which risks leading to land grabs and displacing marginalized and Indigenous people from their land, is unacceptable.
Like all transformative change, climate reparations won’t happen overnight. But every day that we let pass without action means more droughts, more heatwaves, and more typhoons. It means more companies are allowed to hoard water for profit and cause disasters like fires and oil spills. It means that more people like me are getting sick from drinking polluted water.
In the midst of a mounting climate emergency and continuing fossil wars, my generation has no choice but to continue organizing for global climate justice, for everyone in the world today and for the generations ahead of us. Permanent carbon removal to address historic pollution, alongside cutting emissions, is a sustainable and promising route to global climate justice if it is deployed responsibly. Climate reparations with carbon removal will force those most guilty for fueling the climate crisis to clean up their emissions mess. The world’s wealthiest elites have the money to spend to make this happen. Justice can be achieved when it does.
Maria Reyes is a climate activist with Fridays for Future. She’s based in Puebla, Mexico.