Has Carbon Utilisation Captured its Audience?

Article by Adisa Azapagic and Slobodan Perdan

A look into public awareness and acceptance of carbon capture and utilisation

“FRACK off!”, “No Fracking Here!” shouted the placards of the protesters against hydraulic fracturing (fracking), waved angrily by protesters worried about its potential environmental and social impacts.

“Frankenstein foods!” screamed the headlines in the national newspapers, reporting on public fears in a response to government’s drive to encourage genetically modified (GM) farming and persuade people to eat more GM foods.

“Enormous environmental and social risks” are raised by nanotechnology, warned Prince Charles, the risks that could even lead to the “grey goo” catastrophe.

“Not under our backyard” emphatically declared the public opposed to the idea of storing carbon underground, causing severe delays and cancellations of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) projects across Europe.

John Gomez / Shutterstock.com
Frack off: New, unfamiliar technologies are often met with public anxiety

As it has been well documented, people not only need to be convinced of the advantages of a novel technology, but also have to accept the perceived impacts it may have on their everyday lives

These snippets of recent public concerns about new technologies just illustrate what we have known for quite some time: new, unfamiliar technologies are often met with apparent public anxieties and worries.

The public concerns such as those raised by GM or fracking or CCS may or may not be fully justified – we won’t go into that argument here. But there is an important message underlying these opposing voices: public acceptance is critical for successful implementation of new technologies. (A royal endorsement is not required though, but it may help!)

As it has been well documented, people not only need to be convinced of the advantages of a novel technology, but also have to accept the perceived impacts it may have on their everyday lives. Public opinions, as the examples above testify, can certainly influence the direction of future development and deployment of new technologies.

Carbon capture and utilisation

Carbon capture and utilisation (CCU) is a relatively new technology. Unlike its cousin, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), CCU has not caused any public controversies so far. Nor has it attracted any unwanted media attention. One would say that there is nothing contentious about CCU at all. Or, there may be a different explanation for this: people simply either haven’t heard about CCU or don’t know much about it, hence a lack of the limelight.

As a reader of The Chemical Engineer, you probably know a thing or two about CCU. It is, indeed, a broad term which covers a range of technologies that capture and convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into viable commercial products, such as construction materials, chemicals and fuels. Together with CCS, CCU has been receiving increasing attention in recent years, as these technologies are perceived as promising options for climate change mitigation.

It is easy to see the appeal of CCU from a climate change perspective: by capturing CO2 emitted by industrial or power plants and using it to manufacture useful products, CCU technologies have the potential to reduce CO2 emissions. CCU could also lower the costs of climate change mitigation and shift some of the costs onto consumers who would ultimately pay for the resulting goods and services. Moreover, CCU can result in value-added products that create jobs and economic benefits. It may also offer other non-climate benefits, such as industrial waste stabilisation, or gains in competitiveness.

Although some are already in industrial use, most CCU technologies are still at a relatively immature stage of development. As the CCU technologies move from research and development to deployment, their public recognition and acceptance will become increasingly important for their successful implementation.

Yet, little is known about public awareness and understanding of CCU. How much do people really know about it? Do they think that CCU would work as a climate change mitigation technology? Do they have any safety concerns about it? Would they be in favour of its wider deployment in the UK? These are just some of the questions we asked ourselves while working on a project that looked at the sustainability of CCU technologies.

To find answers to these and similar questions, we conducted a public survey. The main aim of the survey was to establish the extent of awareness and acceptance of carbon capture and utilisation. The survey was conducted online using the services of TNS, a research agency which has access to a large cross-section of the UK population.

As the CCU technologies move from research and development to deployment, their public recognition and acceptance will become increasingly important for their successful implementation

More than 1,200 adults aged 16+ and demographically representative of the UK population participated in the survey. It is the first national survey on public awareness and understanding of CCU in the UK. Here are some of the key findings, which were published in Sustainable Production and Consumption1.

How much does the public know about CCU?

The results of our survey show that, overall, the general public in the UK is not yet familiar with CCU. The results also indicate that there is a relatively high level of initial acceptance, and, in principle, a very low level of opposition to CCU, albeit built on very limited knowledge and a low base of awareness.

One of the key findings of the survey is that the awareness of CCU is very low – only 9% of respondents expressed confidence in knowing what CCU is.

We asked the survey participants if they had ever heard of CO2 capture and utilisation and whether they knew what is meant by it. As shown in Figure 1, whilst over a third of the respondents (36%) indicated that they had heard of CCU, only 9% said they had heard of it and know what it is. The majority, almost two thirds (61%), had not heard of CCU.

Figure 1: Awareness of CCU

Who knows most about it? (The “white male effect”)

There were a few demographic differences in terms of whether people had heard of CCU. For instance, there was a significant difference between female and male respondents regarding the level of awareness on CCU. The data indicate that men are more likely to know something about CCU: 74% of the respondents who said that they had heard about CCU and know what it is were male, while only 26% were female.

Similar gender differences re-appeared later in the survey as well. When asked whether they would be worried if a CCU plant were to be located within their community, women were significantly more worried than men. We were not surprised by this particular finding, though. There is a well-documented tendency of men to be less concerned with risk than women, often referred in behavioural and psychology research as the “white male effect”. Did a similar “male effect” distort the data regarding the above-mentioned gender difference in awareness and knowledge of CCU as well? Well, perhaps. But, as is often  the case with surveys, it is not the only bias that the analysis has to take into account.

Measuring a level of awareness using questions such as “Have you ever heard of…” relies on self-reporting, which is indeed sensitive to the “response bias”. This bias (also known as “survey bias”) is a well-recognised tendency of survey participants to indicate they have heard of a particular subject in order to appear knowledgeable or to give an answer they think is expected from them. We did, of course, account for this bias. But, with the likely presence of the bias against admitting ignorance and the fact that, generally speaking, polls tend to overstate recognition, the low response rates for self-reported awareness of CCU appear even more striking.

Article By

Adisa Azapagic

Professor of Sustainable Chemical Engineering, University of Manchester

Slobodan Perdan

Research Fellow, University of Manchester

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