Edinburgh University's activities in the social science of CCS - recent research and new book

2012-06-29 11:19 by Anja Reitz

CCS is facing a tough time! Most people in the field agree with this statement largely on the basis of a number of setbacks to planned demonstration projects and a dearth of financing from industry and national governments in recent years. A shortfall of cash is not particularly remarkable in times when the global economy is strained. Yet, it is interesting to observe how the CCS community is coping with this challenge and others, including pushbacks from local publics in response to storage plans. Such observations can also point out best practice and lead to insights about where the field is heading.

Recent research activities

The Scottish Carbon Capture and Storage research group at Edinburgh University has kept busy with a host of public perception research activities in recent months. One of these – the Scottish large group process on low-carbon energy technologies – was funded by the Global CCS Institute, using a methodology developed at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), in Australia. Undertaken in Edinburgh throughout 2011-12, the project assessed perceptions towards carbon mitigation technologies before and after expert presentations. Key findings included that the Scottish public are encouraged by the rapid and successful deployment of renewable energy generation and that they hold mixed opinions regarding CCS. While some people were very supportive, others felt that it was an unnecessary technology for Scotland, or too risky an undertaking.

In-depth ethnographic work on public perceptions is being undertaken through the ECO2 project, funded under the EU FP7. This includes a case-study of public reactions to the QICS experiment off the west coast of Scotland, in which several tonnes of CO2 are being released into the shallow surface in a sea loch. Finally, a set of public communication documents on technical issues related to CCS, are being developed for the IEA GHG. And in an effort to address the broader public communication channels, focus groups have been undertaken with science writers and journalists to better understand any implicit messaging conveyed in the way that scientific and technical information is communicated.

As CCS technology begins to mature and enter the world of larger budgets and increasingly complex project planning, a host of wider social science related research questions are becoming more relevant to the prospects of large-scale deployment. This includes the low price of carbon and the EU Commission’s inability to raise enough funds for demonstration projects through the auctioning of allowances under the NER300 scheme, and the increasing focus on coupling CCS with revenue generation such as enhanced hydrocarbon recovery. Social scientists who study this arena are interested in how the science, technology and policies linked to CCS develop in the face of these challenges, and what it means for the prospects of the technology system.

A good example of this is Edinburgh University’s involvement (together with the Universities of Sussex, Cardiff and Imperial College) in a newly released UKERC report, Carbon capture and storage – realising the potential?. The report analyses the key uncertainties facing CCS deployment in the UK, through a systematic comparison with historical examples of technologies facing similar uncertainties. The analysis encompasses a broad range of technical, political and economic uncertainties, and their interactions with one another. In this way it shows how technical issues are related to questions in policy, politics and economics.

Beyond research into questions that have a direct bearing on technology roll-out (development strategies, learning rates, etc.) social scientists should always be asking questions about how decision making for social policies unfolds, and specifically for science and technology what type of evidence appears to shape government discussions and reasoning. These questions are being addressed in PhD research alongside analyses of how geoscientists have presented their case for CO2 storage, and how their research is translated into government policies where risk assessment and risk management take centre stage. The work of scientists and engineers is therefore of major interest to social science research into CCS, at Edinburgh and beyond. Investigating how science and technology is taken up across the world is both a worthwhile social inquiry – because we should hope to learn from our mistakes – and a fascinating academic undertaking – because science and technology mean different things in different fora.

The Social Dynamics of Carbon Capture and Storage

The basic notion underlying such research activities – that technical uncertainties often are linked with a wider social, political and policy context – is explored in our recent book on the social science of CCS. In a series of chapters written by social scientists, all of whom have researched CCS for years, The Social Dynamics of Carbon Capture and Storage explains the key drivers and debates which account for the shaping of the technology and how it has arrived at its present juncture. It considers the role of key turning-points such as the publication of the IPCC Special Report in providing a case for CCS, iconic projects (such as Sleipner, Barendrecht and Longannet), the EU CCS Directive, and other major events that promoted the technology or acted as stumbling blocks to a larger fleet of projects being rolled out worldwide.

However, social science analysis concerns more than simply pointing out the immediate challenges facing science, technology and policy communities. It is engaged with the matter of how different stakeholders – and their values, interests, resources, commitments and ideas – set the terms of a debate, and consequently how social action shapes technology. The book therefore also asks:

  • how governments, scientists, industry and NGOs have portrayed the prospects for CCS over the years;
  • how research foci have evolved;
  • why people may oppose or support local demonstration (and even research) projects;
  • how uncertainty in science is translated into risk in regulation; and
  • how discourses on innovation are linked with culture.  In short, this book aims to put humans and the institutions they create centre stage in the unfolding CCS story.

While a number of collaborators have contributed with their own distinctive voices, the editors argue that the technology is undergoing a crisis and will need to find new rationales, applications and support among diverse social groups – more wide-ranging than those who have currently engaged with it. Until now, CCS policy has been dominated by a technocratic, expert-driven push, moderated by the dominant neo-liberal economic ideology of the last three decades. However, this approach is increasingly challenged in a number of arenas as politicians struggle to create policy frameworks that favour ‘cost-effective’ low-carbon technologies, often imagined as the product of bottom-up innovations. The position of CCS in relation to key societal agendas, including sustainability, energy security, global governance and democracy itself may therefore have to evolve, to create wider support for the technology.

This book will be of interest to anyone who is engaged with the development or study of CCS, and is asking questions about the political, policy and social context in which the technology develops and is governed.

Source: GCCSI blog, 28 Jun 2012 | Benjamin Evar


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