Reporting from the IEAGHG Social Research Network Meeting in Calgary January 2014

Clair Gough (Research Fellow, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research) reports from the IEAGHG Social Research Network (IEAGHG SRN) meeting, held in Calgary 13-14 January 2014 and which she attended with support from the UKCCSRC

The IEAGHG SRN brings together researchers from around the world with the aim of “fostering the conduct and dissemination of social science research related to CCS in order to improve understanding of public concerns as well as improve the understanding of the processes required for deploying CCS projects”. 

The meeting started with a ‘scene setting’ presentation from Myles Allen, Skyping in from Oxford. There were three Skype presentations over the course of the meeting, seamlessly bringing in speakers from the UK and the USA.  Prof Allen reported on the recent IPCC fifth assessment report and presented the “SAFE carbon”  concept for deploying CCS within a cumulative emissions budget framing.  SAFE stands for Sequestered Adequate Fraction of Extracted carbon and is based on the principle that by the time GHG emissions surpass  1000GT (the “trillionth ton” ) we must be sequestering 100% of any carbon emissions – i.e. we should be burying carbon at the same rate as we are digging it up.

Having heard about the broader context, the meeting turned to the pioneering work happening in Canada and the US, where much can be learnt from demonstration projects which appear to have successfully achieved a social license to operate within the host communities.  In addition to public perceptions work in the Netherlands, Australia, UK and Poland, it was fascinating to reflect on impacts of Fukushima from a social science perspective and what implications this might hold for CCS.  In South Africa plans to build a pilot CCS plant are currently being explored in a context that couldn’t be more different from the other regions we had heard about.  Holding a Focus Group with individuals that may have walked for four hours to attend, many of whom cannot read, to discuss an expensive and complex technology addressing a problem they have no role in creating presents a unique set of challenges many of us can barely comprehend!

As well as the international context it was great to have several methods-focused presentations in which we heard about approaches to assess public opinion and responses (e.g. Q methodology, the role of social media, interactive online tools, choice experiment surveys) and views from other disciplines, such as the psychology perspective (on belief attitude formation and communicator credibility, pitfalls and remedies of various communications strategies, concept of cognitive closure).

Finally, my own presentation came in the final session on pipelines – I reported on the social impacts of CO2 pipelines, based on our work with the COOLTRANS Project  (funded by National Grid), alongside presentations relating to well blowouts in the US and pipeline and utility corridors in Canada – three different perspectives on a visible and crucial element of the CCS chain.

At the end, what struck me most from the meeting was to see both the similarities and the differences of establishing CCS programmes in each of the geographical regions covered. Similar, in terms of the principles and best practice of building an engagement process and what factors are important (trust, local context, distributive justice, perceptions of risk, inter alia); different, in terms of the contrasting levels of existing knowledge and familiarity: from Canada and the US where host communities tend to be familiar and comfortable  with activities in the subsurface and are often employed within the oil and gas industry, to South Africa where potential host communities are very rural, diverse and, in some cases, without access to clean water, let alone electricity, and without even the words in the local languages to discuss CO2 abatement technologies.

It was a stimulating and diverse meeting, with a great variety of speakers. And outside of the meeting, well, it wasn’t as cold as I had feared (following the continent’s extreme low temperatures the previous week), we were bowled over by the Canadians who were incredibly friendly and hospitable, with an apparent fondness for great public art (see pic).