Uncertainties Around Carbon Capture and Storage: Lessons from Historical Case Studies in the UK

Speaker: Florian Kern, University of Sussex

About the Sustainable Energy Lecture Series

Stakeholders at all levels are beginning to realize that collaboration amongst experts in many fields will be necessary to address sustainable energy issues. The Carleton Sustainable Research Centre (CSERC) hosts a seminar series devoted to issues related to the transition toward a more sustainable energy system. The goal is to bring stakeholders together (government officials, business representatives, civil society organizations, and academics) to facilitate networking, engage in dialogue, and deepen knowledge.

On February 22, 2012, Dr. Florian Kern presented on the Uncertainties Around Carbon Capture and Storage. Dr. Kern is a lecturer at Science and Technology Research (SPRU) at the University of Sussex, UK. His research is mainly on the policies and politics that surround transitions towards more sustainable energy systems.

Several organizations attended the presentation. These included-NRCan, the UK High Commission, the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute, Foreign Affairs, Carleton University students and faculty, and a Masters student from Queen’s University. The wealth of experience and expertise of the attendees stimulated an interesting and thought-provoking discussion.

Summary of the presentation

There is strong interest in Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) by UK policy makers. The UK has committed to an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. In order to achieve this ambitious goal, the country is counting on the promise of nuclear, offshore wind and CCS. Research in this area has shown that commercial-scale CCS projects are technically viable and are likely to be financially achievable if supported by government. However, despite the political interest in CCS, the country has not yet been successful in getting a single, large scale CCS demonstration plant built. This is largely due to the many remaining uncertainties that surround the implementation of CCS. Florian Kern is part of a research team that is attempting to identify these uncertainties and how they might be resolved or managed. The aim of the research team is to inform UK government policies on CCS.

Through an extensive  literature review, stakeholder interviews, and engagement with the project steering group, the research team identified the main dimensions of uncertainty that the development of CCS technologies face, as well as the interlinkages across these uncertainties. The research team has identified seven key uncertainties for CCS technologies as:

  • policy/regulatory uncertainty
  • economic/financial viability
  • variety of pathways
  • public acceptance
  • scaling up and speed of deployment
  • integration of CCS systems
  • safe storage

The research team is also examining how we can use analogue case studies to advise policy makers on the implementation of CCS and identify potential issues. An example of a partial analogue is looking at the literature on radioactive waste storage to help inform policy makers on carbon storage. By looking at these historical analogues it is hoped that insights on how to reduce uncertainty and overcome obstacles will be revealed.

Dr. Kern’s analysis highlighted the interplay of technical, social, political and economic features of CCS. Some of its conclusions are that historical lessons need to be drawn with care. The lessons do not necessarily produce policy recipes for successful implementation. Rather, they should be used to ask critical questions about CCS development, deployment and governance.

Summary of the discussion 

Public acceptance will play a large role in enhancing or hindering the development of CCS technologies. The discussion that emerged after the lecture was largely focused on understanding and addressing this uncertainty.

Role of Media:

It was noted that the media plays an important role in shaping public perception. This is particularly important with respect to CCS, partly because most people have little knowledge of the technology and its applications. The way it is portrayed in the media can result in strongly polarized positions on CCS.

Historical Trends:

Another observation was related to historical trends and how public acceptance can change over time.  Dr. Kern mentioned that there are some general trends that we can observe amongst different countries with respect to nuclear energy.  Following Fukushima, for example, Germany began shutting down its nuclear program, while the UK anti-nuclear response appears to be more short-lived.

Climate Change:

It was acknowledged that public tolerance for addressing climate change is deteriorating, which could negatively affect support for CCS negatively. Differing degrees of concern about climate change can be partly explained by external factors, such as economic conditions and the degree of controversy surrounding climate change. When the economy is struggling, for example, people tend to look past the fact that they may be in favour of moving away from fossil fuels but see the economy as a higher priority. UK citizens don’t doubt that climate change is happening and the majority are in favour of moving away from fossil fuels; it is more of a matter of shifting current priorities.

The degree of controversy amongst politicians has a negative effect on public opinion on the issue of climate change. There is currently a lot of disagreement amongst politicians about how to address climate change.  A recent study argues that the rise in citizen skepticism regarding climate change is largely due to disagreement amongst politicians.

Other issues:

Safe storage is also an important issue regarding CCS. There was interest to know whether carbon dioxide storage space is a constraint in the UK. Dr. Kern responded that there are no space constraints at the moment. For now, the government is focusing on abandoned offshore oil and gas fields for storage. Saline aquifers show potential but they have not been well studied or characterized.

The way forward:

Given the uncertainties, the question emerged about whether or not there is a way forward for CCS in the UK. It was thought that the current climate of government fiscal restraint might be a significant barrier to CCS initiatives. Dr. Kern stated that money has been put aside for a CCS demonstration project. There will be a new project competition but this time it will be at a smaller scale and will also be open to both coal and gas-fired power plants. At the moment, CCS is foreseen as having a key role to play in achieving the UK’s goal of 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. In order for that to happen, these barriers will need to be overcome.

Written by Sarah Gibb

Masters in Sustainable Energy Policy candidate

To view a PDF of his presentation, click on the following link:

Uncertainties around CCS_Kern_Feb 2012