Public acceptance of carbon capture and storage: An underestimated challenge in the race to net zero

The debate around carbon capture and storage (CCS) is often focused on costs.

But social acceptance may be the Achille’s heel of CCS, particularly where narratives stress the risks of storage.

Having signed the Paris Agreement, many of the world’s leading economies have manifested their plans to become carbon neutral in the coming decades.

While in the public mind carbon neutrality is associated primarily with a dramatic growth in the share of renewable energy and electrification of the most energy-intensive industries and sectors, investing in these solutions alone is unlikely to lead to reaching carbon neutrality on time.

Though this is generally due to factors such as significant costs associated with converting the entire technological process from fossil fuels to renewables, limitations posed by scarce critical minerals and hampered technology transfer, hard-to-abate emissions also play a huge role. In fact, around a third of the global CO2 emissions is generated by essential industries such as steel, cement, aluminum, and chemicals – i.e.  the hardest-to-decarbonize areas of the global economy.

Most experts admit that in these hard-to-abate sectors, achieving net zero carbon by mid-century is not possible without applying carbon capture and storage (CCS) – the process of trapping carbon dioxide and storing it securely away from the atmosphere. Although many CCS technologies have already reached the commercialization stage and can be applied to real-life emission reduction projects, the number of such projects around the world is still quite modest.

While many CCS projects are slow to be implemented due to significant installation costs (around USD 400-500 million per average unit), financial concerns are not the only barriers for CCS. In fact, even the most affluent companies and governments that can easily cover these expenses often face other significant challenges preventing such projects from being launched. Social acceptance of CCS is one of them.

Schwarze Pumpe and ‘numbyism’

One of Europe’s most industrialized economies, Germany, was a global pioneer in initiating large-scale CCS projects. In cooperation with Vattenfall, the Schwarze Pumpe CCS project in Spremberg launched in a blaze of publicity in 2008 – a beacon of hope for industrial decarbonization- was supposed to be the first pilot scheme effectively linking the three stages of capturing, transporting and storing carbon dioxide. Designed to capture annually up to 100,000 tonnes of CO2 produced by the 1,600 MW Schwarze Pumpe power plant, then compress it and bury some 3,000 metres below the surface of the depleted Altmark gas field, the project would have been the world’s first successful demonstration of CCS technology. This, unfortunately, did not happen.

The reason was strong opposition of local communities to the idea of storing carbon dioxide in the vicinity of their homes. As a result, the Schwarze Pumpe CCS project became a victim of the so-called ‘numbyism’ (not-under-my-backyard) thinking, a mentality by which individuals or communities oppose the idea of interference in (or in this case, under) their residential areas. In particular, because of local communities’ significant concerns about the safety of the project, Vattenfall was not permitted to start injecting the captured carbon dioxide into the ground. Consequently, the investment project worth EUR 70 million, had to vent the CO2 straight into the atmosphere. In the end, after five years of liaising with the local communities, when Vattenfall did not manage to alleviate concerns around the risks of the Schwarze Pumpe CCS project to communities’ wellbeing, the company was forced to abandon the initiative and withdraw from CCS research altogether.

A no-go issue that must be reconsidered

Unfortunately for companies like Vattenfall as well as all levels of the German government, the case of the Schwarze Pumpe CCS project caused a chain reaction with respect to other similar initiatives proposed around the country. For instance, having been awarded EUR 180 million from the European Programme for Energy Recovery to develop a pilot CCS plant at the Janschwalde coal-fired power plant, Vattenfall had to cancel the project again ‘due to the large scale opposition from the public’. In fact, with time, the question of launching CCS projects in Germany became a no-go issue for the country’s politicians who did not want to lose potential voters. This should not be of any surprise, as, according to a 2015 analysis of public acceptance of CCS, the technology barely has any support in Germany. In particular, the study findings indicate that German citizens ‘assess the technology as that of high risk and do not perceive its benefits’.

At the same time, with its ambitious climate plans, Germany will need to address the issue of improving public acceptance of CCS. Indeed, since a quarter of German emissions stem from hard-to-abate industries (such as cement, steel, and chemicals production), most researchers and industry experts warn that reaching climate neutrality by 2045 without introducing reliable CCS systems may not be possible. Research conducted for the Federation of German Industries on possible emissions reduction pathways stated that reaching an ambitious emissions reduction goal of up to 95% would require exponentially larger investments and the use of ‘currently unpopular technologies such as CCS’. In this respect, while dedicating additional funds to decarbonization is essential, increasing the societal acceptance of CCS technologies seems to be an equally important part on the climate agenda.

Given that the joint efforts of various German stakeholders have been struggling to improve the public opinion on CCS for more than a decade, this case should serve as an example for other European countries where such projects may be launched. In particular, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, where such initiatives as CCS4CEE emerge, should develop their own policies on improving societal acceptance of CCS technology. This will be particularly challenging in the CEE region, where a general lack of public and institutional knowledge of CCS prevails and thus attitudes are more uncertain. However, history shows the unmistakable ability of social opposition to derail CCS or ‘CCS-like’ projects, such as fracking and gold mining. In these countries, the challenges of gaining local and national acceptance for CCS projects could become real and sizable very soon.

*Aliaksei Patonia is an EPG Fellow. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of EPG.

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