The latest IPCC report on the state of the world’s climate shows that the remaining carbon budget – the amount of CO2 that can still be emitted while keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees – is almost gone. To meet net zero within these parameters, we will need to remove CO2 that is already in the atmosphere. One method of achieving this is by using bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). However, BECCS is not yet ready for use at scale, and raises societal concerns around land use for biomass, the safety of stored carbon, and potential distraction from emissions reductions. Here, Dr Rob Bellamy from the Department of Geography explains his recent research into how BECCS might be incentivised responsibly, by accounting for public and stakeholder preferences.
- Nearly 80% of the British public know nothing or only a little about BECCS. However, once it is explained to them, 72.8% of participants were supportive.
- Public acceptability of BECCS will be determined as much by the ways in which it is incentivised and governed as by its technical characteristics. Policymakers need to be mindful of the unintended consequences their choices can have.
- Stakeholder policy preferences reflect geographically varying societal values and interests. Policymakers need to account for the diversity of these perspectives that will ultimately determine the success—or failure—of their policy designs.
What is BECCS and why are public and stakeholder attitudes important?
Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is an approach to carbon dioxide removal (CDR) which involves generating energy through burning biomass (such as wood and agricultural products, solid waste, landfill gas and biogas or ethanol and biodiesel) coupled with the capture and storage of the resulting CO2, in geological or other long-term reservoirs, such as depleted oil and gas reservoirs.
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 how it might be incentivised responsibly, by accounting for public and stakeholder preferences for policy development. This is an urgent question to address, given that BECCS forms a significant part of plans to reach net zero, and that it is unlikely to be rolled out widely if decision makers do not take advantage of the social intelligence that can be gleaned from diverse citizens, industries, non-governmental organisations, scientists, and other governmental policymakers and officials.
Our two studies set out to explore diverse public and stakeholder preferences with respect to the development of policy for BECCS.
In the first study, we used a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods to compare public 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. We found that the type of policy instrument used to incentivise BECCS significantly affected perceptions of the technology itself. In particular, 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 CO2 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.
In the second study, we undertook a comparative analysis of stakeholder attitudes to four idealised policy scenarios for BECCS, including representatives of government, business, nongovernmental and academic communities, in the UK and Sweden. The motivation here was to account for diverse and geographically varying societal values and interests.
Our analysis revealed five key insights. First, a business-as-usual scenario is inconsistent with ambitions to develop and deploy BECCS. Second, any policy incentives to stimulate BECCS should not detract from emissions reductions. Third, economic incentives that focus on carbon pricing risk being too low to stimulate investment in BECCS. Fourth, a dilemma exists with respect to the pursuit of either technology specific and technology neutral policies, where a technology specific policy would incentivise BECCS, but disadvantage other approaches to CDR as well as fossil CCS; while on the other hand, a technology neutral policy could incentivise other CDR approaches and fossil CCS, but disadvantage BECCS as a comparatively immature approach. Fifth, each national context raises different geographical and policy preferences and concerns. These include not only clear geographical contrasts – for example between the two countries’ CO2 storage capacities and biomass supplies – but also differing societal contexts that shape prevailing public policy preferences and stakeholder concerns. For example, British stakeholders showed a particularly strong support for a price guarantee scheme, which is interestingly the very same instrument opposed by British publics.
What does this mean for policymakers?
In light of these findings, we have six key recommendations for 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, including fixed payments which were approved of, and price guarantees which were strongly opposed.
- Recognise the need to develop new incentives and make enabling reforms to existing policy instruments.
- Stakeholders are alert to the importance of avoiding trade-offs between emissions reductions and CDR, suggesting that concerns about mitigation deterrence should be addressed in real-world policy contexts and not in relation to abstracted models.
- Employ multi-instrument approaches to incentivisation that do not overly rely on carbon pricing or force a choice between technology-specific and technology-neutral policies.
- Attend to the diversity of stakeholder and wider public perspectives that will ultimately determine the success—or failure—of their policy designs.