As we inch closer to the precipice of irreversible climate change, the debate surrounding how best to address its challenges intensifies. Two primary solutions have emerged in this arena: Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and adaptation. While both have their merits, there’s a moral question at the core of this debate. Do we remove the CO₂ we’ve introduced, thereby addressing the root cause, or do we adapt to the changing world, leaving behind those who can’t? The ethics of this dilemma are further intensified when we consider those most affected by these changes, yet have benefitted the least from the industries responsible for CO₂ emissions.

What is Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR)?

Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR), sometimes referred to as “negative emissions technologies,” encompasses methods and strategies designed to extract and sequester carbon dioxide (CO₂) from the atmosphere. The goal is to mitigate and potentially reverse the buildup of greenhouse gases, which are responsible for global warming and climate change.

Various methods and technologies for CDR include:

  1. Afforestation and Reforestation: This involves planting trees on previously unused land (afforestation) or replanting trees in areas where forests have been removed (reforestation). Trees naturally absorb CO₂ through photosynthesis.
  2. Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS): BECCS combines the growth of biomass (which removes CO₂ from the atmosphere) with a process to capture and store the carbon dioxide produced when the biomass is burned for energy.
  3. Direct Air Capture (DAC): In DAC, machines directly pull carbon dioxide from ambient air. Once captured, the CO₂ can be stored or utilized. DAC requires energy, and its environmental benefit is maximized when renewable energy sources are used.
  4. Enhanced Weathering: This approach involves spreading certain types of crushed minerals, like silicate rocks, over land or in the ocean. These minerals react with CO₂, turning it into a solid or allowing it to be stored in the ocean.
  5. Ocean Fertilization: By adding nutrients (like iron) to certain parts of the ocean, it can stimulate the growth of phytoplankton, microscopic plants that absorb CO₂. However, this method has potential ecological implications and is still under discussion regarding its viability and safety.
  6. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS): Although primarily associated with capturing CO₂ emissions directly from large sources like power plants before they enter the atmosphere, CCS can also play a role in CDR when combined with other methods, like BECCS.
  7. Soil Carbon Sequestration: This method involves changing farming practices to increase the amount of carbon stored in soils. Techniques include conservation tillage, cover cropping, and agroforestry.
  8. Blue Carbon: Coastal ecosystems, including mangroves, salt marshes, seagrass beds, and peatlands, capture and store large amounts of carbon, often referred to as “blue carbon.” Protecting and restoring these ecosystems can be a form of CDR.
Carbon Dioxide Removal - Kiritappu peatland
Peatlands are wetland ecosystems that accumulate plant material under saturated conditions to form peat. They store massive amounts of carbon, and restoring degraded peatlands or preventing their drainage and destruction is crucial for carbon sequestration and carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere. Photo: Kiritappu peatland in early July of Hokkaido, Japan. Photo by Miya.mMiya.m‘s file, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Each of these methods has its advantages, challenges, costs, and potential environmental impacts. Their feasibility depends on various factors, including technological advancements, economic considerations, policy support, and societal acceptance. It’s also worth noting that CDR alone is not a solution to climate change; it needs to be paired with significant reductions in current greenhouse gas emissions.

Adaptation: Navigating the New Normal

As the effects of climate change become more pronounced, there’s a growing sentiment advocating for adaptation. This approach is about making changes to our infrastructure, lifestyles, and societies to withstand the challenges posed by a changing climate. Whether it’s building sea walls to protect against rising oceans, developing drought-resistant crops, or relocating entire communities, adaptation is seen by many as a practical way forward.

As our world changes, getting warmer and warmer, here are some of the measures nations are considering or implementing:

  • Infrastructure Improvements: Coastal cities invest in sea walls and flood barriers. Modified building codes ensure structures can withstand extreme weather events.
  • Water Conservation and Management: In drought-prone areas, rainwater harvesting and desalination plants offer solutions.
  • Agriculture Adjustments: Drought-resistant crops and altered farming practices can ensure food security.
  • Disaster Preparedness: Early warning systems and efficient evacuation plans can prevent casualties during extreme weather events.
  • Technological Solutions: Urban cooling solutions and climate-controlled environments can combat heat waves.
  • Disease Monitoring and Control: Changing climates can lead to the spread of tropical diseases to new areas. Monitoring and control mechanisms can ensure these diseases don’t become epidemics.
  • Urban Cooling Solutions: As cities become heat islands, solutions like green roofs, reflective pavements, and urban green spaces can help keep them cool.
  • Air Conditioning and Climate Control: In regions where heatwaves become more frequent, climate-controlled environments can be life-saving.
  • Resettlement: Some areas, especially low-lying islands, might become uninhabitable. Resettling the residents of these areas to safer locations might become necessary.
  • Living in Artificial Environments: While it sounds like science fiction, there could be a future where some envision large-scale habitats in space or underwater as potential adaptations.

However, adaptation also comes with a significant cost, both financially and morally. While wealthier nations and communities may afford the adaptations necessary to shield themselves from the harshest effects of climate change, what happens to those without such resources?

The Ethical Dilemma: Leaving the Vulnerable Behind

The heart of the issue lies in the allocation of resources. If we, as a global community, choose to prioritize adaptation over CDR, we risk perpetuating a cycle of inequality. Adaptation, by its very nature, will likely favor those who can afford it, leaving the most vulnerable exposed to the harshest realities of our changing climate.

Furthermore, by choosing adaptation, we essentially accept the new climate norm, with all its consequences. This includes not just environmental changes, but also the socio-economic repercussions, such as climate refugees, increased conflicts over dwindling resources, and the loss of habitats and biodiversity.

Poorer nations, already on the frontline of climate change impacts, face a slew of challenges in adapting:

  • Limited Financial Resources: Many adaptation measures require significant capital. With constrained budgets, poorer nations often prioritize immediate needs.
  • Lack of Technical Know-how: Advanced solutions demand specialized skills, which might be scarce.
  • Insufficient Infrastructure: Introducing advanced adaptations is challenging without foundational infrastructure.
  • Institutional and Governance Challenges: Weak regulatory frameworks can impede the enforcement of new building codes or large-scale infrastructure projects.
  • Social and Cultural Barriers: Traditional lifestyles might resist modern agricultural techniques or community relocations.
  • Competing Priorities: In nations grappling with challenges like poverty, long-term climate adaptation often takes a backseat.
  • Existing Debt Burdens: Heavy external debts restrict nations from investing in new adaptation projects.
Water inequality: digging for drinking water in a dry riverbed
A woman painstakingly scoops water in a dry riverbed near Kataboi village in remote Turkana in northern Kenya. In 40°C heat and with no access to clean water, she resorts to collecting unfiltered water for her family in containers. The lack of rain in the arid years across the Horn of Africa results in failed crops, lack of water, and death of livestock. This poignant image not only captures the immediate challenges faced by locals but also stands as a testament to the broader disparities in climate adaptation capabilities between regions, highlighting the urgency of global intervention and support. Picture: Marisol Grandon/Department for International Development. Image source: Wikimedia

Ethical Implications and the Path Forward

The disparity in adaptation capabilities underscores a broader ethical dilemma. By prioritizing adaptation, we risk deepening global inequalities. The nations that have contributed least to the climate crisis might suffer the most, unable to shield their citizens from its ramifications.

A holistic approach integrating CDR with targeted adaptation strategies can bridge this disparity. Such an approach demands global cooperation, empathy, and a commitment to justice. Investing in adaptation, ensuring it’s equitable, and supporting the most vulnerable is not just a practical choice-it’s a moral obligation.


As the world grapples with the realities of climate change, it’s essential to remember that our actions, or the lack thereof, have profound implications. The capacity to adapt should not be a privilege of the wealthy but a right for all. International collaboration, technology transfer, and shared expertise can ensure no nation is left behind in our collective journey toward a resilient future.

M. Özgür Nevres

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