Tap into carbon capture’s potential by building public confidence

Posted on Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Author: Patricia Larkin, Stephen Bird and Monica Gattinger

Senior Research Associate, Positive Energy
Faculty Affiliate, Positive Energy
President, Positive Energy and Director, ISSP, uOttawa

Originally published in Policy Options on April 1, 2021

As Canada’s 2030 greenhouse gas emissions targets creep closer, our menu of technological options will grow increasingly fixed. A recent report from the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices states that most of the emissions reductions required to reach our 2030 goals will likely come from existing technologies. A cascade of new studies, commentaries and billionaire-funded competitions have put renewed focus on carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS). This technology is established in Western Canada but remains underdeveloped as a mitigation option for point-source, emissions-intensive industries such as oil and gas, cement, steel and chemical manufacturing.

A new study from Positive Energy at the University of Ottawa articulates what it might take to change that.

The story of CCUS to date is largely one of untapped potential. Nearly every emissions scenario where the increase in global warming is held below 2 degrees Celsius entails widespread deployment of CCUS and eventually negative emissions. Positive Energy survey research shows that 74 per cent of Canadians expect a transition to a clean-energy economy before 2050. Further, a 52 per cent majority believe that fossil fuel development is compatible with meeting the country’s climate goals. Without carbon capture, this future is highly improbable. Canada’s expertise in CCUS, as evidenced by multiple large-scale integrated projects, has put us in a prime position to capitalize further on the economic and environmental benefits of this technology.

Despite our expertise, Canada is in the early stages of thinking through the socioeconomic, political and policy challenges posed by CCUS, particularly the matter of public confidence. Our research identifies a number of actions that government and industry can take to better manage these risks. Without investor and public confidence in the technology and the decisions that govern it, CCUS will likely remain a story of untapped potential.

Canada needs a far more robust discussion about the non-technical risks of deploying and scaling climate solutions like CCUS. Our study undertook a comprehensive review of academic, industry and government publications, as well as in-depth interviews with decision-makers representing a range of perspectives on CCUS policy and implementation. The research revealed that effectively managing the political, policy and project risks surrounding this technology will require both policy and regulatory levers, along with co-operation from industry stakeholders.

First and foremost for public confidence is whether people consider CCUS to be “clean tech.” We encountered two conceptions of clean tech in our work: one is a narrow conception focused on emissions reductions, while the other is broader and extends beyond emissions to other environmental, health or economic impacts. Which conception will dominate over time remains to be seen.

CCUS for oil and gas production intersects with debates about the future of these energy resources in Canada’s economy. Positive Energy’s survey research has shown that while most Canadians agree that oil and gas will be important to the country’s future economy, opinions on the issue can be polarized along partisan lines. As such, it will be crucial to attend to public perception and the risk of polarization to pursue broad application of CCUS.

Participants in our study believe that CCUS meets the criteria for clean tech. The climate is, of course, indifferent to our definitions, but funding programs and government policy may not be. The acceptance of CCUS as “clean” is crucial for the acceleration of research, development and deployment.

This is where public education will matter. We found that current information and education on CCUS technologies aimed at policy-makers and the general public need strengthening. In particular, communicating that CCUS is not exclusive to fossil fuel use and production – and in fact has many potential applications for “hard to abate” sectors ­– is critical to improving public understanding. Abating, capturing and otherwise reducing “process emissions” from heavy manufacturing such as cement, steel and chemicals manufacturing offer clear opportunities. Demonstration and effective communication of current and potential future success stories is also pivotal to CCUS’s technological and economic progress.

But it doesn’t stop with public education. We identified a need for improved CCUS communications and knowledge-sharing at all levels, including international networks and demonstrations for export markets. Canada is a global leader in CCUS, so international knowledge-sharing could enhance our competitive advantage. Learning and engagement with all stakeholders and the public will be crucial going forward. The erosion of industry, stakeholder or public support (either support for specific projects or more broadly the technology itself) could put the brakes on forward momentum.

The process of developing a national strategy would be an important public education and knowledge-sharing exercise in and of itself.

Governments can do more to boost CCUS by creating clear and coherent climate policy, including a predictable price path for carbon and a regulatory environment that supports innovation. Consistent carbon pricing in particular will be crucial: it creates the needed price signal for investors and innovators, and underscores the necessity and value of the technology, particularly for industries where CCUS may be the only mitigation strategy. Ottawa’s new path for carbon pricing, which sees the carbon tax rise to $170 per tonne by 2030, is an important step. Last week’s Supreme Court decision affirming the federal government’s constitutional right to price carbon in the national interest is likewise crucial.

But this must be more than just a disjointed set of actions. One of the key recommendations of our study is the need for a national CCUS strategy. Much like the roadmap and action plan for small modular reactors and the national strategy for hydrogen, this will require enhanced federal-provincial and industry co-operation, along with engagement of affected groups, stakeholders and rightsholders. The process of developing a national strategy would be an important public education and knowledge-sharing exercise in and of itself.

Several other risk-management options that we identified require joint action between policy-makers and industry. CCUS costs are declining but remain relatively high, particularly for capture. Industry participants flagged cost-sharing as a top concern to spread out risk and provide additional incentives for innovation, creativity and entrepreneurialism. Expanded analysis and development of storage strategies could also help to demonstrate the potential value of different CCUStechnologies. We emphasize again that this includes expanding our understanding of potential CCUS applications beyond the fossil fuel sector.

2030 will arrive in the blink of an eye. Plans to reach our climate targets for 2030 and beyond must take seriously the issue of public confidence in potential mitigation technologies. Polarized public opinion and politics could prove fatal to many of the breakthroughs we need to drive down greenhouse gas emissions. A wide range of actions will be necessary to fully capture the benefits of CCUS. Building public confidence is near the top of the list.

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