Interest in carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) has been steadily receiving increased attention over recent years. This is particularly true in the wake of COP26 and bolstered by IPCC reports that suggest that they are essential technologies towards mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. But recent surveys and public opinion polling suggest that either the public is not confident, or doesn’t know enough about CCUS to back efforts. As public acceptance is vital for the successful implementation of any new technology, the public’s wariness and unfamiliarity with this technology suggest that it may currently be hindering wide scale deployment. 

What is Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage and Why is it Important? 

Carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) is an umbrella term that describes a number of technologies in which carbon dioxide (CO2) is sequestered from the atmosphere and either converted into viable commercial materials or stored. The basic idea of CO2 capture technology has been around since the 1920s, when it was first used for the separation of CO2 found in natural gas reservoirs from methane gas. It is currently proposed as a method to capture CO2 from an existing industrial processing and storing it in subterranean structures – either depleted oil and gas fields or deep aquifer formations. From this process, experts estimated that the best technology could capture up to 90% of the CO2 emissions produced from the use of fossil fuels in electricity generation and industrial processes. 

carbon capture utilization and storage The deployment of CCUS has been predominantly at the industry level. Photo by: International Energy Agency

From the perspective of a policymaker keen to tackle climate change, it is quite easy to understand the appeal of CCUS and related technology. The potential emissions reduction in capturing CO2 from industrial plants, and instead either recycling it to be used in the manufacturing or stored, is enormous. Moreover, the deployment of such technologies would likely result in non-climate benefits, including the creation of jobs, economic stimulus and in the case of utilization, a circular economy. Such benefits may be helpful in facilitating just transitions, particularly for regions in which the effects of climate change force mass job changes. Deployment of CCUS however, and in particular commercially viable deployment, is lagging. 

The Importance of Public Acceptance in CCUS

There are a number of factors that could explain the slow uptake of CCUS, but the most prominent arguments point to the high cost. Commentators in the field have suggested that the technologies required for CCUS are too expensive and unable to compete with comparative wind and solar electricity. Moreover, they have suggested that the viability of these techniques are dependent on carbon pricing policies that are, as of yet, not robust enough to support CCUS. However, recent reports from the International Energy Agency (IEA) have suggested that there is no single cost for carbon capture and utilization and as technologies continue to be developed, the commercial viability only increases. 

carbon capture utilization and storage The global weighted average of the cost of renewable energy has fallen dramatically over the past year. Image by: Our World in Data

This trend has also been historically observed, as the cost of renewables such as wind and solar have dropped as much as 80% in the last decade, suggesting that the successful deployment of CCUS may follow the same trajectory. Moreover, recent reports of rising carbon prices as a result of mandatory carbon markets are quickly making technologies such as CCUS more economically viable. 

Recent surveys and public dialogues have suggested that there exists an additional barrier to the successful deployment of CCUS: public acceptance. Although there are some examples of CCUS technologies in industrial settings, a wider deployment will be required to meet net-zero goals. As these technologies move beyond a relatively immature stage of development, public recognition and acceptance is likely to become increasingly important in successfully meeting net zero commitments. This is not a challenge that is singular to CCUS; the successful implementation of technologies are often influenced by the public’s viewpoint, as people need to be convinced of the advantages of the novel technology. 

Given that successful deployment of these technologies, and therefore efforts to meet net-zero commitments, is reliant on public acceptance the question becomes: what can be done to increase public acceptance of CCUS? 

How Do We Increase Public Acceptance of CCUS?

It is important to note that public acceptance, or social acceptance, is a broad term. Specifically, social acceptance should take into consideration three levels: socio-political, market and community acceptance. Socio-political acceptance refers to a broader acceptance of green technologies, from policymakers and the general public. Market acceptance, on the other, involves buy-in from relevant stakeholders and technology investors. And finally, community acceptance involves buy-in form local community actors, particularly those living close to the development of new projects. It is important that policymakers take into consideration all three facets when proposing new plans for wide deployment of CCUS.  

Investigating determinants of public acceptance for policies and technologies for the commercial deployment of CCUS is essential to understanding the feasibility and success of such technologies. As of yet, this research is underrepresented in industry and in academic literature. One simple first step towards better public acceptance of CCUS is simply to increase research into the intersection of social science and climate studies. Recent reports have suggested that there are misallocations in climate research funding: an estimated 0.12% of all funding for climate change mitigation research is spent on social science research. Instead, the vast majority of funding is directed towards the natural and technical sciences.  This suggests that although public acceptance of new technologies such as CCUS are identified as problematic, less is known about ways in which this can be addressed. Directing more funding into the intersection of climate change and social science research is essential, as new technologies for mitigating climate change are anticipated and will likely face similar public resistance. 

CCUS policies can take various forms, depending on which technology is being addressed. While this complicates public acceptance, as it is likely to vary depending across policy initiatives, what is known about public sentiment is promising. A broad range of policies have been introduced to increase deployment of CCUS, including the banning of new fossil fuel power plant construction without CCUS, government subsidies for CCUS development or increases in taxes on the fossil fuel industry. Initial studies have suggested that there is a broader backing for bans, rather than for subsidies and tax increases. Additionally, the public expresses more interest in CCUS when there is a greater distance of a plant from residential areas, following a similar NIMBY-ist (Not In My Backyard) that has been noted in other policy areas. Moreover, there have been reports suggesting that the public does not want to see investments in carbon capture be taken away from investments in other arenas, such as renewables. Interestingly, policy implementation is also preferred for sooner timelines rather than later. This suggests that once the public is aware of the benefits of CCUS and related technology, they are supportive of swift deployment and implementation. 

One reason for a lack of public acceptance appears to simply be a lack of knowledge on the topic. In international surveys carried out, the public either did not know about projects or had fundamental misunderstandings about the underlying science. In some of these international survey-style reports, carried out in the United States, China, Germany and Japan, the common theme that linked the three together include the role of trust, community compensation, and communication in increasing public acceptance of CCUS. 

While there is some skepticism about the long-term environmental benefits, overall there appears to be positivity surrounding CCUS as a tool for mitigating the effects of climate change. Simply put, people do not know enough about CCUS to have a strong opinion. As such, policymakers and proponents of CCUS need to invest resources into educating the public about the benefits of the technology, as well as building trust and a sense of community involvement in such projects. In making this investment, there is a greater chance that deployment of CCUS will be substantial and long-lasting, helping to meet net-zero commitments.