Exploring the role of carbon capture and storage technologies: integrating geoscience and society to identify effective pathways to delivering a fair and equitable net-zero carbon future.

Overview

The UK’s energy system is evolving. It is widely recognised that to meet our future energy needs whilst tackling the increasing threat of climate change, an energy strategy that integrates a broad range of low carbon energy technologies is required. Cutting carbon emissions, maintaining secure energy supplies and providing affordable energy have been policy goals high on the political agenda for some time, but there is increasing recognition that to accelerate decarbonisation of the economy more widely, transition pathways will need to include technical solutions such as carbon capture and storage (CCS).

The UK’s Net Zero Strategy (BEIS 2021) highlights the important role that CCS technologies will have across the whole energy system, including scaling up cleaner fuels such as hydrogen and biofuels, and removing emissions from industrial and manufacturing processes. The proposed ‘systems approach’ for achieving net zero outlined in the Net Zero Strategy acknowledges that the environment, society, and economy are interconnected components of the system, and that their interdependencies must be navigated carefully. The successful deployment of low carbon solutions relies not only on addressing key technical, political and economic challenges, but also on building public confidence, support and engagement. To ensure a just transition, geoscientists, environmental scientists and social scientists must work together to identify how best facilitate meaningful engagement and debate around CCS that includes evidence-based environmental, social and economic impacts and trade-offs.

Despite widespread societal support of a net zero future, the technologies that could enable such a transition are often contested, with recent research identifying a complex mix of values and beliefs, social contexts, understandings of risk and uncertainties, and types, scales and locations of technology amongst others as drivers that shape attitudes and perceptions.

This PhD studentship is an interdisciplinary collaboration between The University of Stirling and the British Geological Survey (BGS), bringing together geoscience, energy geographies, futures thinking and science communication expertise to explore how different ‘publics’ engage with CCS and related subsurface energy technologies as part of the transition to net zero, and to evaluate the impact of different evidence-based framings of these technologies within the net zero narrative. By building an understanding of how risk perceptions and public responses are shaped, and the social, environmental and economic trade-offs society are willing to make, this project aims to evaluate the impact of societal responses to CCS deployment and identify effective pathways to engage the public in delivering a fair, equitable and supported low carbon energy landscape.

Methodology

This interdisciplinary project will integrate geoscience, energy geographies, geocommunication and futures research. The project will adopt a mixed methods approach, combining research design and theories from both the natural & social sciences to broaden the understanding of how societal engagement with CCS and associated subsurface energy technologies may impact their deployment and contribution to the UK’s future energy system. The project research will be based in the UK and take a case studies approach informed by current BGS research programmes on CCS and other related projects.

The student will work closely with BGS scientists and communication experts to gain an in-depth understanding of CCS technologies and their risks, benefits and uncertainties. Data collection methods will be co-designed with the project partners and will involve both quantitative modelling and a range of creative and engaging qualitative approaches that will be informed by the Government Office for Science’s ‘The Futures Toolkit’. It is envisioned that these will include: interviews with experts to gain an understanding of the challenges of communicating the science associated with CCS technologies; a range of participatory ethnographic approaches such as geo-located walking interviews, participatory mapping exercises and focus group discussions to understand how local communities with different ‘energy identities and experiences’ perceive CCS and the contribution it could make to achieving net zero; and creative futures thinking methods to identify gaps in knowledge, consensus building, future choices and trade-offs. Scenarios, underpinned by quantitative models, will be developed to explore the how societal response may impact the scaling up of CCS technology across the UK.

Key research questions:

1. How are carbon capture and storage technologies understood, perceived and valued by different UK publics?
2. How does a community’s energy identity, sense of place and proximity to energy infrastructure inform their attitudes, perceptions and response to the net zero transition and the future energy landscape?
3. What are the long-term communication and cultural cognition challenges facing the development of CCS and related subsurface energy technologies?
4. To what extent will societal acceptance or opposition influence the future deployment of CCS, and what effect will this have on the feasibility of meeting climate-oriented targets?

Project Timeline

Year 1

“Understanding CCS and related sub-surface technologies” Following a critical review of the literature (months: 0-4), the student will interview CCS experts (at BGS and other relevant stakeholders), to build an understanding of the technologies, identify benefits and challenges and co-design data collection methods.

Year 2

“Attitudes to CCS technologies and how they are shaped” In this phase the student will undertake a series of participatory activities and qualitative data collection approaches with diverse publics to explore how different ‘publics’ engage with existing and emerging subsurface energy technologies. During year 2, the initial quantitative modelling needed for the development of the evidence-based scenarios will be undertaken in preparation for year 3’s futures work.

Year 3

“Different framings of subsurface technologies” The student will use a number of participatory ‘future thinking’ approaches (informed by previous data collection) to identify preferred pathways to a low carbon future that integrates both the surface and subsurface energy landscape.

Year 3.5

The overlapping data collection phases of the project will take 34 months to complete, with the remaining time being allocated to writing the thesis & papers for publication, attending conferences & networking with stakeholders.

Training
& Skills

This studentship will provide a platform to build an interdisciplinary research career in energy studies, geoscience and geocommunication. The student will develop broad expertise in the natural sciences and data modelling, together with skills in the social sciences, communication & applied anthropology. Training offered will depend on the background of the applicant although initially the student would be invited to attend a 2-day internal induction training workshop at the BGS headquarters in Keyworth, which would introduce them to the range of BGS science, its management structure and support that is available to students.

In addition to the training available through the IAPETUS programme, other courses that would be available to the student include; Introduction to Geology, Accessing BGS Information, First Aid for fieldworkers, GDPR training, Building personal resilience and Developing your management skills. The student would also receive some on the job training to ensure that they have the opportunity to develop an understanding of the geological aspects involved in the chosen case study projects and energy technologies.

References & further reading

Government Office for Science (2017) The Futures Toolkit: Tools for Futures Thinking and Foresight Across UK Government.

Thomas, M. et al. (2017) ‘Deliberating the perceived risks, benefits, and societal implications of shale gas and oil extraction by hydraulic fracturing in the US and UK’, Nature Energy, 2(5), p. 17054. doi: 10.1038/nenergy.2017.54.

Venables, D. et al. (2012) ‘Living with nuclear power: Sense of place, proximity, and risk perceptions in local host communities’, Journal of Environmental Psychology, 32(4), pp. 371–383. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2012.06.003.

Whitmarsh, L., Xenias, D. and Jones, C. R. (2019) ‘Framing effects on public support for carbon capture and storage’, Palgrave Communications, 5(1), p. 17. doi: 10.1057/s41599-019-0217-x.

Further Information

This PhD aligns with the new BGS strategy where Geoscience and Society is highlighted as a key underpinning theme.

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