The 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change has set out commitments to limit the increase in global average temperature to “well below 2°C and pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C”. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that this is still possible, but nearly all of their scenarios assume that it will require extensive deployment of negative emissions technologies (NETs). Here Dr Rob Bellamy from the Department of Geography explains his latest research which looked at how any potential policy incentives for NETs can make a big difference on how these technologies are viewed by the wider public.
- Negative emissions technologies (NETs) have the ability to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and store it on land, underground, or in the oceans.
- Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is one example of a NET.
- Public perception of BECCS will likely depend on how it is promoted by the UK Government – specifically what type of incentives or subsidies are used.
- Fixed payments were approved of, while price guarantees were not. Standards and lobbying were also approved of, while taxes and certification schemes were not.
- Policymakers need to be mindful of the unintended consequences on public perception these financial incentives can have.
What is BECCS and why are public attitudes important?
Most, if not all of the pathways laid out to meet national targets for the Paris Agreement rely on some form of NET, with the most common being BECCS.
BECCS combines the generation of energy from burning biomass with the subsequent capture and storage (CCS) of the CO2 this burning releases. If biomass cultivation and associated land-use changes are done in a sustainable way, then BECCS has the potential to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, delivering an overall net reduction in emissions.
Despite growing interest in BECCS it will not come forward without strong institutional support and significant new incentives for research, development, demonstration and deployment. One particularly understudied question concerns public perceptions of BECCS, and the role that policy instruments might play in shaping those views. This is an urgent question to address, given that BECCS presents significant challenges to dominant energy generation and climate policy regimes. In addition, it’s unlikely that BECCS, or any new negative emissions technology, will be rolled out widely if policymakers do not take advantage of the social intelligence that can be gleaned from citizens.
Our study used a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods to compare perceptions of BECCS in three different policy scenarios. The motivation behind this approach was to understand how alternative policy scenarios might affect perceptions of that technology. This is a question that has largely been ignored in research on public perceptions of technology. Rather than assuming that attitudes are formed in relation to the technical characteristics of a technology, we assert that they emerge with regard to tightly coupled socio-technical systems within which those technical features are embedded.
We found that the type of policy instrument used to incentivise BECCS significantly affected perceptions of the technology itself. In particular, there was a reduced level of support for BECCS following discussion of a ‘supportive’ policy scenario. There was a great deal of opposition towards a price guarantee scheme – where government would guarantee a higher price for producers selling energy derived from BECCS. This stemmed from participants’ knowledge of the high costs being imposed on taxpayers by this mechanism in order to support new nuclear energy provision (notably in relation to Hinkley Point C).
On the other hand, we found a high level of support for another supportive instrument, fixed payments (whereby government would pay a fixed amount to operators of BECCS based on how much carbon dioxide they remove from the atmosphere), which were the single highest ranked instrument in the study, owing to their ability to establish a direct link between public spending and the climate change performance of BECCS operators.
We also found more support than opposition for ‘coercive’ and ‘persuasion’-based policy instruments, particularly in the form of:
- standards (whereby government would place a direct obligation on new and existing fossil fuel power plants to be converted to biomass energy and equipped with a carbon capture and storage system from a specified date);
- lobbying (whereby government would seek to persuade leaders of the energy sector of the benefits of BECCS as a form of energy generation).
At the same time, we found more opposition than support for:
- taxes (governments would place a carbon tax on new and existing fossil fuel power plants to encourage a shift towards BECCS);
- certification schemes (governments would introduce an accreditation scheme that would allow companies that produce or distribute BECCS-derived energy to advertise that fact with a special logo).
There was a high level of support for BECCS overall but this was qualified by a range of concerns, including its geographical footprint, geopolitical feasibility and relationship with alternative courses of action.
What does this mean for policymakers?
We recommend that policymakers do not rely only on evidence about attitudes towards the technical characteristics of BECCS, but understand that attitudes will be formed based on the coupled socio-technical systems within which technical features are embedded. Our study has identified a number of specific policy contexts for BECCS which have demonstrable potential for broad public support or opposition. Fixed payments were approved of, while price guarantees led to a significant reduction in support for BECCS. Standards and lobbying were also approved of, while taxes and certification schemes were not.
Finally, policymakers must also be cognizant of the range of concerns surrounding possible BECCS implementation if they are to incentivise research and development responsibly. For example they should seek to guard against the use of prime agricultural land for growing biomass. They should also seek to strike a balance between the opportunities and ethical concerns associated with growing biomass abroad, particularly in developing countries, where national economic gains from exporting biomass may conflict with local land use and livelihoods. Policymakers should also guard against the risk that using BECCS may delay or deter conventional efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, by affirming a priority commitment to them.