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A lot of ink has been spilled in the past year on the efforts to reform San Diego’s trash collection, and the discussion has been intense. What has not garnered as much attention though is our city’s Net-Zero carbon pledge. Currently San Diego has a goal to reach net-zero emissions — that is emitting as much carbon as we remove — by 2035. This is an incredibly lofty goal and it’s also largely seen as symbolic as the current Climate Action Plan has no solution for the roughly 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide that the city needs to remove from the atmosphere. Many attempts to capture or sequester carbon dioxide rely on environmental efforts like tree planting or marshland restoration, and while those are important and beneficial, San Diego will need a lot more than that to meet its ambitious pledge.

Trash pickup might provide an answer.

Let’s think about how trash pickup works: we all throw things away into bins which get collected by a company (or the city itself). That company has some relationship with the city and either recycles the waste or, in most cases, dumps it in a landfill. This is bad from an environmental perspective, but let’s focus for a second on the general concept that residents (or the municipal government) pay to have waste — a necessary aspect of life — picked up and disposed of. We could do the same with carbon emissions.

Direct air capture is a relatively new carbon capture technology that pulls carbon dioxide out of the air and then either converts the carbon into usable materials for industry, or simply buries it in the ground where it is safely contained. These companies often struggle to be commercially viable because the carbon often has limited commercial use and consumers or businesses don’t want to pay for simply burying it. But we’ve already solved this if we treat carbon emissions a similar way as we do trash collection.

The city of San Diego should pioneer the idea that it’s the municipal governments’ responsibility to pay direct air capture companies to collect and sequester the carbon that its residents emit. In turn we, the residents, would pay a small fee — perhaps assessed by household income — to support this service. A city-wide effort would lessen the costs for any individual investor or resident and give the city a tangible way to meet its current climate goals.

Carbon emissions are — in some form and amount — going to be a fact of life for the conceivable future. We just don’t currently have the ability to decarbonize many industries and technologies. And even if we did, we would still need to remove a significant amount of the carbon we’ve already emitted to stave off the worst effects of climate change. San Diego has taken a huge step toward meeting its goals with the recent rollout of the region’s new community power provider—which among other things provides 50 percent renewable energy by default with the option for residents to opt into 100 precent renewable power for a small fee. The trouble is that this is still nowhere near enough.

Environmentalists often don’t like direct air capture as a solution because they see it as distracting from the larger goal of world-wide decarbonization, but that thought process misses the forest for the trees. If we’re still emitting some carbon dioxide, but later removing much more than we emit, that’s a net win for literally everyone involved and, more importantly, we could implement it now. Time is running out to have a stable climate future, and we can’t afford to be sticklers here. Perfect cannot be the enemy of the good.

San Diego can and should set up a program for its residents that uses a carbon fee to fund city-wide direct air capture. Some companies are already doing this and San Diego could be a leader in the effort to bring the same programs to local government. Carbon dioxide removal is necessary to meet our climate goals and until we actually create a hard plan to start doing it, our net-zero climate goal will remain a fantasy.

Brian Schrader

Brian Schrader is a software developer and writer focusing primarily on housing and climate change. He lives in Normal Heights.

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