By Dr Rob Bellamy, CO2RE lead on responsible innovation and societal engagement
The government’s new Energy Security Strategy has now joined the earlier Net Zero Strategy and Green Industrial Revolution Ten Point Plan in setting out key roles for new and innovative technologies. Low carbon hydrogen, small modular reactors and advanced nuclear power, and methods for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere are among those set to help us deliver on net zero energy.
But new and potentially expensive technologies such as these can raise important societal concerns, including but by no means limited to their: readiness, environmental risks, feasibility, costs, geopolitical dimensions, safety, and ethical considerations.
One response would be not to use them; perhaps instead focussing on cuts to energy demand. This could certainly help to keep costs down amidst the energy crisis, but it too could raise societal concerns, not least of which would be cold- or heat-related mortality and morbidity. And not to mention the fact that you can’t just hypnotise people into changing their habits. For the promises of behaviour changes to be scaled up, we need to change the narrative from ‘we’ need to reduce this, that, or the other, to targeting the relatively smaller proportion of people who overconsume. Indeed, in many cases we might ethically expect an increase in consumption of emissions.
“It’s clear that new technologies must be incentivised responsibly; not only to keep down the costs to consumers amidst the worst cost of living crisis in a generation, but also to ensure the broader legitimacy of, support for, and ultimately success of the technology choices made.”
But it’s a myth that we can deliver on net zero without new and innovative technologies. Take, for instance, carbon dioxide removal methods. In the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sixth assessment report on mitigation released two weeks ago, it’s now acknowledged that the use of carbon removal is definitively “unavoidable” if net zero is to be achieved. If new technologies are to be scaled up then, they must be further incentivised, such as is being done through the Carbon XPRIZE and its announcement today of 15 interim competition winners.
But it’s clear that they must be incentivised responsibly; not only to keep down the costs to consumers amidst the worst cost of living crisis in a generation, but also to ensure the broader legitimacy of, support for, and ultimately success of the technology choices made. It’s the kind of thing that I’m trying to do as responsible innovation and societal engagement lead at CO2RE.
Let’s look at the example of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, or BECCS, which, according to analyses by the Committee on Climate Change and others, could play a major role in delivering negative emissions for the UK. Typically when trying to account for societal attitudes to new technologies, we look at how people relate to their physical characteristics, like in this case the biomass, the power station, or the CCS infrastructure. And we’ve found out a lot of risks to its scaling up through doing this, including public concerns about land use changes, foreign imports, safe storage, deterring emissions reductions, as well as of course, costs. But technologies aren’t just bits of kit; they are sociotechnical systems: they simply won’t work without the social arrangements that go along with them: the people, procedures, policies, and so on.
And when you present to people different policy scenarios for how BECCS might be incentivised, this can significantly alter public attitudes towards the technology itself. My research shows that guaranteeing a higher price for energy produced from BECCS can significantly damage attitudes towards the technology. This is the same instrument that has been used to incentivise new nuclear power provision in the UK, which has involved spiralling costs being passed onto taxpayers. On the other hand, paying a fixed amount to operators of BECCS based on how much carbon they remove can give the technology a boost, as can placing direct obligations on fossil fuel power plants to be converted to biomass energy and equipped with CCS, and persuading fossil fuel companies to develop BECCS technology through the use of lobbying and certification schemes.
The lesson here is that societal input is crucial if we are to scale up net zero energy. In doing so, we can build more democratic, acceptable and intelligent technological designs for everyone.