Public perceptions of carbon capture, use, and storage (CCUS)
For a technology that has seen as little industrial-scale deployment as CCUS, a truly phenomenal quantity of social scientific research has been conducted into public perceptions of it; factors affecting its support/opposition; and awareness, knowledge, and effect of additional information on CCUS acceptance. For example, a systematic review of public perceptions of CCUS published in 2014 reveals 42 academic articles, whilst a 2019 review identifies 135 articles. A 2021 systematic review of CCS communication and trust building revealed 115 articles (several overlapping with the public perceptions sample).
In many respects, the magnitude of attention is valuable, as it can be far more beneficial to understand public reactions and influences on public attitudes/support before projects commence. Otherwise, industrial and policy actors are usually left cleaning up the mess of a project implementation gone wrong. A core assumption – and a repeatedly empirically validated maxim of the social scientific research on both CCUS and novel energy technologies more broadly – is that without public acceptance, technologically robust and economically viable development will fail. This is understood to the point of banality in the aforementioned articles in the systemic reviews. For example, despite the limited number of CCUS projects to date globally, protests have occurred to some developments and local support has been lacking in many instances (for example in Germany and the Netherlands).
In this brief overview of public perceptions research, I present some fundamental findings that are robust across many studies, and then offer recommendations for the most practically useful, academically interesting, and methodologically innovative directions for future research in this area.
Nearly all research on public perceptions of CCUS examines beliefs about risks and benefits attributed to the technology and its implementation. Over a multitude of studies, key risks of CCUS have been identified as:
- It only addresses symptoms of problematic carbon emissions and not the causes,
- It leads to reduced policy incentives to mitigate carbon emissions further,
- Safety concerns over leaks or explosions due to over-pressurization,
- Cost/expense of the technology,
- Uncontrollability of the technology,
- Public and scientific uncertainty about the technology.
Benefits that repeatedly emerge are:
- Reductions in carbon emissions, thereby mitigating climate change,
- Economic investment in jobs and communities where projects occur.
Trust in institutional actors responsible for implementing or regulating projects is regularly revealed as the most important factor that shapes risk and benefit perceptions. Trust reliably has a much larger effect on risk and benefit perceptions than knowledge of CCUS does. Public perceptions research commonly alleges that risk and benefit perceptions are, in turn, key determinants of support for CCUS, with benefit beliefs being seen as more important for predicting support and acceptance to CCUS generally, and risk beliefs being seen as more important in relation to acceptance of specific local projects.
A majority of the published studies on public perceptions of CCUS, nevertheless, use online surveys as their primary form of data collection (another portion uses in-person or telephone surveys). Whilst allowing for extrapolations to broader populations than other research approaches, such data cannot demonstrate the direction of causality between beliefs and support/acceptance. Because knowledge of CCUS is generally very low, and trust in institutional actors heavily influences responses to the technology and its deployment, it is also possible that people make decisions about whether they support the technology or not (for example, based on initial emotive reactions, trust, and broad values), and then update their beliefs about the risks and benefits accordingly.
A key revelation about risk and benefit perceptions of CCUS is that whilst sometimes related to each other, these beliefs are often not highly correlated. For some other technologies, it is common to see risk perceptions highly negatively correlated with benefit perceptions. This relationship is much more ambiguous for CCUS; one could perceive high risks and high benefits, or low risks and low benefits.
Variations in beliefs
Risk and benefit perceptions, whilst consistently related to the key themes covered above, have been shown to differ notably between: (1) countries, (2) areas with potential for CCUS implementation and areas with little potential, (3) offshore vs onshore deployment, (4) the source from which the carbon came, and (5) the stage in the CCUS process – capture, transport, use, or storage. In the largest review of public perceptions of CCUS to date – the 2019 review including 135 articles – the majority of articles included examined perceptions in a single nation, with a heavy focus on Europe. Cross-national comparisons were present in 23 articles (17 per cent). These comparative studies also focused heavily on Europe, with 79 instances of European countries being compared, across 16 countries. Non-European comparisons were limited to ten instances in which the US, Japan, Canada, and Australia were included.
The comparisons that exist, as well as reviews of single-nation studies side-by-side, reveal, for example, elevated risk perceptions and lower support in Germany and the Netherlands compared to the UK. This is perhaps at least in part related to general findings of higher perceived risk, more concerns about lack of local benefits, and lack of support or acceptance for projects close to prospective development sites. A number of studies have asked members of the public to assess their support for hypothetical development close to where they live; far fewer – but still some – have evaluated support in areas close to prospective development sites (for example, in Germany, where a national assessment of viability was conducted), and in relation to actual proposed projects. The clear pattern is that less support exists for CCUS locally. Nuance does exist, with evidence of a few locations notably supporting projects where clear evidence for tangible local benefits exists.
A number of researchers, and industry actors, focused on energy development siting have termed local opposition to energy projects NIMBY – not in my backyard. Nevertheless, leading scholars in this area have recommended against such a simplistic and unnuanced description of differential acceptance levels at local and national scales. People local to a project have more awareness of things that could be threatened (or advanced) through the project – such as local tourism, cultural meanings, and job prospects. They might also have specific experiences with prior energy development – such as coal mining – which could evoke comparisons to previous industrial problems or accidents, or to loss of trust in industrial actors that were not good neighbours to local communities. The reasons for local opposition are often complex, but do mean that context-specific understanding is essential for assessing the viability of specific CCUS projects.
Few studies have specifically examined perceptions and acceptance of offshore versus onshore projects. One might expect that offshore sites would be more removed from potential local impacts, so on the basis of the foregoing discussion, they would experience higher acceptance. The data suggest this is true to some extent, but larger risk and benefit issues tied to global climate change, CCUS as a ‘techno-fix’, and addressing symptoms versus causes still apply here, so offshore siting is not the panacea it might seem at first.
This points us also to the relevance of the source of carbon. The large majority of studies on public perceptions of CCUS attend to carbon captured from use of fossil fuels, predominantly at coal-fired power plants. The studies that examine carbon captured from other sources – such as the steel industry and biomass plants – show that acceptance can be higher and risks seen as lower/fewer in such cases. Nevertheless, the paucity of such investigation suggests research opportunities.
The stage in the CCUS process has also been shown in a few key studies to strongly affect risk perceptions, support, and acceptance. Concerns, as can be seen by the key risks listed above, are generally associated with storage and transport. Higher acceptance of industrial use of carbon exists, compared to storage, and the process of carbon capture is not viewed as particularly problematic (unless the source of carbon is problematic, as above). Again, however, a substantial majority of public perceptions studies have attended to CCS broadly or storage specifically, leaving gaps in understanding of risk/benefit perceptions and support for transport, use, and capture.
Knowledge, awareness, and communication
After examination of risk/benefit perceptions, support, and acceptance of CCUS, the next most commonly assessed aspect of public interaction with CCUS is the level of public awareness and specific knowledge about CCUS. As one would expect, this also varies cross-nationally and regionally within countries (places with more exposure to industrial projects or government discourse and planning show higher knowledge). Nevertheless, across virtually all studies to date, the common finding is that public understanding of CCUS is quite limited. Even if people have heard of it, they know little about it. Over the last two decades of public perceptions research studies, knowledge and awareness are climbing, but slowly.
This lack of knowledge could be seen as beneficial for governments or industries seeking to expand deployment of CCUS. If people are poorly informed about a new technology, then this is seen in social psychology as an object to which public attitudes would generally be malleable. There might be potential for further information, and targeted communication, to influence the level of support and acceptance. Social scientific research on CCUS repeatedly champions the need for effective communication on this topic – indeed, identifying messages, messengers, visuals, dissemination pathways, and specific language that will lead to higher public acceptance of CCUS is the primary purpose of many such studies.
The focus on communication and acceptance has also been critiqued by some scholars; I discuss three reasons here. First, even in studies that reveal a genuine statistically significant empirical connection suggesting that certain information or messages can lead to, or are associated with, higher acceptance, the magnitude (and therefore real-world meaningfulness) of the effect is often small. For example, a shift in acceptance of 0.15 on a 1–5 scale of support/opposition could be statistically significant, but will mean very little for acceptance of a real project.
Second, although appeals for effective CCUS communication are nearly universal in the literature, there are also a number of claims about ‘information deficit’ – an empirically invalid assumption that people simply lack information and will necessarily change their views when gaining additional knowledge. The actual evidence from the public perception and communication studies shows a broad mix of additional information marginally increasing support for CCUS, decreasing support, or having no effect. There is, of course, strong potential for the effect of additional information on support/acceptance to be mediated by factors such as those discussed in the ‘variations in beliefs’ section above, but this level of nuance has rarely been explored.
Third, even if communication were to increase acceptance, some scholars question whether this should be the goal of researchers. Several studies point to communication as one step in a public engagement process, but only an incremental stage that follows understanding of perceived risks/benefits; it is followed by robust and credible public engagement and a transparent decision-making process that reflects the engagement. The relational context matters for any energy project, and CCUS deployment is no exception; recall the aforementioned influence of trust.
The engagement process should also be thought of as continual and iterative, not a one-off sharing of information. Indeed, as members of the public learn more about CCUS, they understand the technology better, but they also understand its role in society and in their community better, and they understand how its effects intersect in complex ways with their core values. The role of CCUS in their community will touch on a number of values and beliefs that are best considered in processes that offer a range of ways in which public stakeholders can be heard, learn more, and contribute in a non-trivial way to decision making.
The foregoing brief summary of CCUS public perceptions research on perceived risks/benefits, support, acceptance, variations in beliefs, knowledge, communication, and public engagement points to a few clear academic gaps and opportunities for focusing future studies, despite the considerable social scientific research to date.
Because of the clear differences between countries and between locations proximate to, versus distal from, prospective development, more comparative studies would help further elucidate the mechanisms behind cultural differences in beliefs and attitudes towards CCUS. Comparisons could also include investigation of different carbon sources for CCUS, and explicit views on the different stages – capture, transport, use, and storage.
There are a very large number of ways in which country, region, sources, and stages could be combined. Some of this could be explored in the large online surveys common to CCUS research. The methodology is well established, but could be innovative if including national samples along with regional sub-samples across countries, or if paired with in-depth qualitative understanding. In one sense, I would like to advocate for research beyond Europe, considering how heavily the research literature has attended to this continent. Conversely, I would like to see more understanding of processes at local levels in areas exposed to prospective development. If those areas happen to be predominantly in Europe, then perhaps the manifest geographic focus is appropriate.
A final recommendation relates to public engagement. Although an expansive literature exists on how to engage effectively with communities and public stakeholders in relation to siting of energy projects, there is certainly more room to see this approach applied to CCUS, and engagement strategies tested empirically in locations dealing with deployment of CCUS projects and technologies. Deliberative workshops and iterative, interactive engagement with members of the public in areas affected by prospective CCUS development would help plug academic gaps and simultaneously contribute to the full engagement process, beyond just persuasive communication.
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