Field notes from an assembly of Greenhouse Gas Removal demonstrators

Oct 4, 2022

Photo of smokestack by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

Home > Field notes from an assembly of Greenhouse Gas Removal demonstrators

By Dr Laurie Waller, Researcher on Responsible Innovation & Societal Engagement

In September 2022, researchers from across the Greenhouse Gas Removal Demonstrators (GGR-D) Programme met at Manchester’s Friends Meeting House to compare notes from the field and discuss the practicalities of demonstrating GGR. Over two days field researchers, technicians, modellers and social scientists intensively discussed and presented on topics as varied as paludiculture trials on lowland peat, GGR metrology and the role of flux towers, the linking of field results with systems models and the real-world chemistry of enhanced weathering.

For myself, an ethnographer, this meeting was itself a field site of sorts where I was keen to learn from field researchers about social issues that cut across GGR field experiments. My sociological imagination of field-scale demonstrations was tickled on learning that our meeting place was a site of high significance in the history of political demonstration; artwork on the walls graphically depicting the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. Such an event may seem a world away from the field experiments being discussed at this meeting. But, social questions and the problem of public participation are far from incidental to the prospective innovation of GGR.

In policy discussions about GGR, social issues are often bundled together under the topic of “social acceptance” and treated as largely external to the innovation process. An exercise designed to explore how researchers rank GGR techniques against competing criteria (see photo) highlighted why such internal/external distinctions may often be fuzzier at the level of practice. For example, biochar is often treated as a GGR technology in its own right. But it is also an input widely deployed across the field experiments; including for peatland restoration and in bioenergy crop trials. Such conceptual fuzziness doesn’t necessarily contradict the neat classifications of GGR methods found in innovation literatures but does suggest the relevance of a longstanding sociological insight: that practices of technical classification are often bound up with social questions about for whom, and to what ends, we order things. What makes biochar socially acceptable may differ depending on whether it is deployed as a distinct GGR technology or as an input in agriculture or for conservation.

“Social questions and the problem of public participation are far from incidental to the prospective innovation of GGR.”

Over the two days discussions revealed how field experiments often have a distinctive social life of their own; though not always visible in scientific reporting or discussions in official political forums. Issues of land ownership, access and use are widely seen as challenges to scaling the technological deployment of GGR. Such questions also have immediate practical significance for researchers in the field. For example, experiments conducted on land owned by universities and dedicated for research may afford elaborate experimental set-ups and techniques of measurement. These may not be available in the same way for field research conducted on privately owned land where researchers may have to negotiate for access and co-exist with other users (farmers, grazing animals, walkers, game keepers, to name just some actors that appeared in discussions). Other glimpses of the social life of the field surfaced in discussions about the summer drought – the result of an unprecedented heatwave in the UK – and the technical maintenance and measurement challenges this generated, throwing light on roles played by technicians and other land users in irrigating and maintaining field sites. Turning localised field experiments into demonstrations of GGR will clearly involve actors with very different kinds of expertise and experiences. Making these forms of participation visible requires moving beyond procedural approaches to public engagement and adapting engagement interventions to the specific forms of social life cultivated through experiments; something my colleagues and I are working on under the concept of “responsible innovation”.

Our assembly of demonstrators might appear to approximate certain classical ideals of public debate, with some lively exchanges and occasional disagreement. It’s certainly hard to imagine field-scale demonstrations of GGR as analogous to a violent event like Peterloo. Yet, though today we think of Peterloo as a public demonstration it’s worth remembering that those who lead the massacre saw the demonstrators as a precisely the opposite: a threat to the established public sphere. Demonstrating GGR technologies will call publics (of various sorts) into being; how innovators engage with publics and address their concerns will likely prove crucial to the responsible innovation of GGR.

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