13 July 2017

Does the ‘promise’ of Greenhouse Gas Removal technologies that capture carbon from the atmosphere undermine our efforts to cut production of greenhouse gases?

That’s the question being asked by social scientists from Lancaster University as part of a £8.6 million multi-institution research programme on Greenhouse Gas Removal (GGR) technologies.

The Lancaster researchers are looking at whether we are less likely to take action to mitigate climate change - such as taking energy saving measures or installing solar panels - if we believe that GGR technologies like carbon capture and storage or reforestation will help counter global warming.

“Our starting point is that there likely is a trade off, but that is not what people generally assume,” said Dr Nils Markusson, who is the principal investigator on the £330,000 Lancaster arm of the programme.

“People think it is like a lego set, that you build technical solutions on top of mitigation and get the sum of both, but that’s ignoring the interrelation between the two,” said Nils, an expert in the social aspects of climate technology development at the Lancaster Environment Centre

GGR technologies have not yet been developed at a scale where they are commercially viable, or able to make a significant impact on global warming. But the ‘promise’ that they will get there one day may still impact on our actions today, Nils explains.

“Does that ‘promise’ support the continuation of the neoliberal agenda with its market based solutions to climate change that have delivered too little?” Nils asks.

“Will people use the ‘promise’ of GGR to say that we don’t need to close down coal power stations or scrap high emitting vehicles?” says Duncan McLaren, the main researcher on the project.

“A lot of the current narratives around GGR and other forms of climate engineering are about how we can go on exploiting fossil fuels or tackle the climate problem more cheaply.”

But this doesn’t take climate justice into account, says Duncan, who was Chief Executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland before moving to Sweden to form his own environmental research consultancy. His PhD focuses on the justice implications of climate engineering and he is interested in looking at who wins and who loses from GGR, and its impact on mitigation.

“We think it’s important to put mitigation and GGR into a cultural, political and economic context: so we can start teasing out the power blocks and motivations involved.

“The problem with mitigation deterrent effects is that they are hard to identify: how can we tell if mitigation is delayed or deterred if there is still some mitigation going on, but simply not as much as would have happened otherwise?”

The researchers will be creating scenarios about how mitigation deterrence might play out and inviting stakeholders to debate them, including policy makers, business people, NGOs and  experts in the field.

“This is both to try to establish how mitigation deterrence might play out, and also to encourage people to think about the problem and take it into account,” Nils said.

“We want to get policy makers to really reflect on these scenarios and to understand the possible impacts of mitigation deterrence. Then perhaps this this will make them change their policies to try to reduce such effects.”

Researchers involved in GGR development will also be targeted.

“We want to stimulate more concern within the research community over how their approach interacts with existing mitigation,” said Duncan. “We want them to become aware of who might adopt their work and not naively engage with people who might use it as a way just to offset mitigation.

“The ultimate aim of the project is to encourage GGRs to be deployed in ways that don’t undermine mitigation, and indeed promote it.”

The Lancaster University team also includes co-investigators Dr David Tyfield and Dr Andrew Jarvis, and researcher Becky Willis from the Lancaster Environment Centre and Dr Bronislaw Szerszynski from the Sociology Department.

The Greenhouse Gas Removal Research programme involves 100 researchers from 40 UK institutions, and their partners. It is jointly funded by Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC), the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS). The Met Office and the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) are providing in-kind support.


Learn more about studying for a PhD or a masters at Lancaster University’s Graduate School for the Environment.