The UK CCS decision – what might it mean for society and low-carbon energy?

Full disclosure, as all the cool kids say. I am not the biggest fan of carbon dioxide capture and storage. I’ve been fortunate enough to receive a nice amount of research funding through CCS, but am always very clear with funders and collaborators that my interest is in what we can learn from an environmental sociology perspective and offering critical feedback rather than logrolling for CCS deployment. I ask awkward questions at conferences and seminars. I get very uncomfortable when I hear people talking about how we can engender ‘support’ from ‘the public’ for CCS as if it is intrinsically a good thing.

So if the UK government had announced on Wednesday that they would be taking the £1 billion that had been ringfenced for the UK’s first full-scale CCS project and investing it directly in renewables and energy efficiency I would have been quite happy. The idealistic side of me would far rather we as a society spend a lot of money on reducing demand and developing wind, wave, tidal and the rest than on a complex bit of kit that stretches out a fossil fuel-based economy for a few decades more.

But there is also a pragmatic side to me that says we have to get the ball rolling by doing stuff to our existing infrastructure and doing it pronto, and it is this pragmatic side that is most disappointed at the government’s decision.

Uncertainty around energy is becoming a real part of Aberdeen’s built environment…

In my view, CCS is not the issue when it comes to thinking about the societal effects of Wednesday’s decision. The vast majority of the populace don’t know what CCS is, let alone that a large amount of funding has been withdrawn. As our data often reminds us, CCS is just one aspect of climate change, and energy and climate in turn are just one small aspect of the messy complexity of people’s daily lives. Rather, what concerns me is what the CCS decision is symptomatic of, and what it says more widely about who is responsible for taking the lead on decarbonisation and how we make the decisions that will get us there.

One of the things that has come across loud and clear from speaking to citizens and peripheral (yet still crucial) stakeholders across Scotland is the expectation that the government leads on not just CCS deployment, but decarbonisation more widely. Not industry or the private sector, not ‘the market’ deciding what is the most efficient solution, the government. Nearly everyone that has participated in the various projects I have been involved in agrees with the premise of human-induced climate change, and can quite readily engage with the notion that there are no ‘easy’ solutions and that some tough and costly decisions lie ahead. So if, on the back of support for renewables being removed, the government withdraws funding for what was previously talked about as a significant bit of kit in the fight against climate change, what will citizens think about their leaders’ commitment to decarbonisation? And what, then, might be the knock-on effects on trying to build support for things like home energy efficiency or increased bills if our ‘leaders’ don’t appear to be taking climate mitigation seriously?

(it is also interesting to note that people often aren’t specific about whether they mean Westminster or Holyrood or Brussels when they talk about ‘the government’ in this context, but that’s another discussion…)

From our CO2-EOR work, we found there was already plenty of scepticism about the ability of governments to deliver coherent low-carbon policy outcomes

Related to this is the issue of consistency, coherency and stability. Particularly in the work on CO2-Enhanced Oil Recovery I’ve been involved in most recently, we have seen that real scepticism arises from both stakeholders and informed members of the public when different parts of ‘the government’ appear to be going in contradictory directions. The impression of having one institution to squeeze every last drop of oil out of the North Sea whilst at the same time another attempts to restrict CO2 emissions illustrates this very well. It thus follows that removing funding for a range of low-carbon energy options and paving the way for nuclear and shale gas (which regardless of CO2 emissions can be divisive, being viewed as risky and environmentally damaging more generally) whilst at the same time talking about climate obligations risks creating confusion if not outright scepticism. This may become problematic further down the line for some of the tougher or more contentious aspects of decarbonisation, if it creates the impression the those elected to lead don’t have a clear strategy or objective in mind.

The final thing worth noting is the manner in which the announcement about the withdrawal of funding was made. A surprising but major finding of a lot of discussions colleagues and I have had with Scottish stakeholders is how decisions about decarbonisation get made – with this seeming to count just as much as what the final decisions are about the trajectory on which we are heading. There appeats to be a sense that representative democracy struggles to encompass the range of concerns that may be at play when we discuss value-laden and emotional issues like climate change, with some more egalitarian/environmentally-leaning voices even hinting that our current political structures might not be up to the job of responding to climate change. Now this might be a bit of a leap, but announcing the withdrawal of the £1 billion competition funding through an announcement to the Stock Exchange – and not in the space in which decisions are supposed to be deliberated by elected representatives (i.e. Parliament) – perhaps does little to alleviate citizens’ concerns about representative democracy (and the people within it) being able to deliver outcomes in the manner in which society at large expects. Following this up by announcing that the Secretary of State will determine fracking appeals rather than an inspector helps even less.

I am not an engineer, an economist or a policy wonk. I can’t comment on whether or not either the White Rose or Peterhead CCS projects were likely to deliver value for money, or whether the UK is now more or less likely to meet its climate change commitments. But what I do know is that any policy initiative is going to require the engagement of citizens at large through their votes and electricity bills, and also the support of the peripheral stakeholders who are crucial in shaping public sentiment. On the back of all the bad news we’ve had about renewables already this year, I just can’t help but feel that pulling the plug on the UK CCS competition at such short notice sends out all the wrong signals to wider society about the UK government’s commitment to mitigating climate change. And if the government that people look to, trust and above all expect to lead on decarbonisation doesn’t seem able to put out a clear and consistent message, then what?

Note: I am aware many of the links above may be behind paywalls. Email if you would like access to a paper you cannot download freely.


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