It is often said that travel broadens the mind, and so it proved to be when I headed to Calgary on a UKCCSRC Early Career Development Bursary to attend the fourth IEAGHG Social Research Network Meeting in mid-January. Such had been the busy-ness of the preceding few months that I practically had to be carried onto the Air Canada jet at Heathrow, but when I returned to Terminal 3 one week later I was fully re-energised and fired-up to do more low-carbon social science research. The most amazing thing of all was that I’d been motivated nearly as much by what I saw before and after the conference as by the talks and presentations during it.
My fellow social scientist Clair Gough from the Tyndall Centre has already given a really nice account of the conference itself, so I won’t repeat that. I will, though, put in a little plug for my presentation, which was an overview of the social science work package of the European Union-funded SiteChar project. For the last two-and-a-half years, my colleagues and I at Edinburgh have been working with the Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands, UfU (the Independent Institute for Environmental Issues) in Germany, and the Scottish Government. Our aim has been to take the concept of ‘site characterisation’ and extend it beyond physical science and engineering to encompass the social characteristics of areas potentially suitable for geological storage of CO2. We have carried out a comparative study between the Moray area in Scotland, UK (potential offshore storage) and Zalecze-Zuchlow (potential onshore) in Poland, and the Social Research Network Meeting in Calgary was a good opportunity to showcase our overall findings. I won’t bore you with the details of those here, but I’ve put some links to outputs from our work at the end should you be interested.
Instead, I’d like to focus on Calgary itself – because walking around the city first with my ‘CCS social science’ head on, and later with the messages from the conference running through my head, really made me think about the effects, both positive and negative, of fossil fuels on society. It started at the airport in London, where half of the people on the flight were heading out from the UK to work in the oil fields or in the apparently related and booming construction industry. The creation of employment and revenue became even more apparent when I woke up upon landing at Calgary Airport, looking out the window to see Calgary city centre – a mass of skyscrapers abruptly rising out of the flat Albertan prairie land. A large proportion of these belonged to companies involved in hydrocarbons, and each of them would of course be full of workers. The heated malls with their designer shops and maintained gardens (one of which was even a designated public park despite being indoors) suggested there were certainly positive economic benefits to be had from fossil fuel extraction, as did the Mum I saw at the ice hockey stadium spending over two hundred dollars kitting her kids out in matching Calgary Flames uniforms. If CCS-related projects like Boundary Dam and Weyburn-Midale can provide a realistic trajectory of climate change mitigation that draws on the existing skills, knowledge and infrastructure in the area, then that’s perhaps no bad thing for the region.
But there are, of course, two sides to every story. ‘Eat The Rich’, declared an arresting piece of graffiti on the outside wall of one of these fancy shopping malls. This suggests the positive benefits of a fossil fuel economy are perhaps not distributed as evenly as one might hope, and that the kind of consumption I described above doesn’t sit well with everyone’s idea of what a sustainable society should look like. When I told people that I’d walked from the city centre out to the ice hockey arena – a pleasant twenty-minute stroll – they looked at me as if I had two heads. Many people drive everywhere, often in pick-up trucks that make a Range Rover look tiny. The result of this is that there is virtually nobody on the streets and hardly anyone in the city centre after ‘office hours’ (granted, the weather might have a part to play in both these things as well). Coming from the UK, where we see very visible attempts to promote pro-environmental behaviour like widespread cycle lanes, energy efficiency stickers and hybrid cars, I was staggered to find sweatshirts, keyrings and mugs on sale unashamedly declaring pride in Alberta’s oil reserves. So stunned was I by these ‘Got oil?’ branded goods that I bought a mug as a souvenir.
I’m not making a judgment here on whether the trajectory of climate mitigation via controlled fossil fuel use that CCS entails is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing. All I’m trying to do is highlight the fact that the way we choose to go about making energy can have big implications for the kind of society we create, both for better and for worse. Over my five days in Calgary, I found myself time and time again rummaging in my rucksack for my notebook to jot down an idea that had been pricked by something I’d seen, and these thoughts are already starting to worm their way into my paper and research proposal drafts. Having the opportunity to visit a part of the world that is playing a leading role in the development and deployment of CCS, coupled with spending two days with social scientists looking at CO2 capture, transport and storage in very different contexts all over the globe, has really renewed my enthusiasm for researching the social dimensions of the energy and climate change challenges that lie ahead.
More about the SiteChar project – including reports, publications and deliverables from all elements of the project – is online at www.sitechar-co2.eu/
This post originally appeared online at www.ukccsrc.ac.uk