Carbon Capture and Storage: Why People Don’t Know What’s Good for Them
This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.
By Benjamin Gan, C+S ’15
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) has been a relatively controversial topic in recent times. Although the IPCC has cited CCS as “an option in the possible portfolio of mitigation options,” public opinion on the effectiveness of CCS has not been optimistic at all. As the media often portrays it, the plan has been fraught with completion delays, limited uptake by governments and denouncement even by the most concerned environmentalists. Greenpeace, for example, has unabashedly labeled CCS a scam, citing its lack of proven reliability and association with the diversion of resources from renewables as key reasons why people should toss the idea into the trash — as with many other useful things.
Climate Change Heuristics
Yet when it comes to human perspective, let’s be clear about one thing: people don’t usually know what’s good for them. In the first semester of our M.A program in Climate and Society, we read and discussed the book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. The book is a fascinating exploration into the biases of our intuition; it comprises 500 pages of his most important research findings as a prolific scientist.
Through this book and class discussions with Ben Orlove we learned how certain heuristics lead to muddled thinking, such as the halo effect, availability bias, associative memory and so forth. All these concepts have strong applicability in understanding how people perceive the threat of climate change. They also apply to the public’s perception of possible solutions to climate change, and CCS is not an exception.
Internship Work at CRED
This summer, I am fortunate enough to be able to apply what we learned in previous semesters to a new research frontier: the social dimensions of CCS byproducts. My internship focuses primarily on the various byproducts produced through CCS, rather than the technology itself.
I am interning at the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) at the Earth Institute. CRED is an interdisciplinary center that studies decision-making under climate uncertainty and environmental risk. Researchers at CRED seek to comprehend and confront the gap between society’s recognition of climate change and its frequent failure to act on the economic analyses and technological solutions that address it.
The internship also involves collaborating with the Sabin Center for Law and Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy, creating a lively and rich internship experience as each center offers a unique set of intellectual perspectives that complement each other in unexpected ways.
CCS Byproducts and our Intuitional Biases
CCS technology is designed to prevent carbon dioxide (CO2) produced from the burning of fossil fuels from entering the atmosphere and exacerbating climate change. This is achieved either by reacting away the CO2 from the smokestacks of conventional power stations with an amine solution, or by burning the fuel in special ways to produce purer streams of CO2 that can then be directed piped out. The CO2 may be stored in deep geological sites or used for other industries such as making carbonated drinks. According to the International Energy Agency, CCS can provide 20 percent of the carbon cuts needed by 2050.
CCS technology often produces byproducts on top of the separated CO2. These include alkanolamines, carbonates, nitrous and sulfurous oxides. However, it is often hard to find public perception specific to the byproducts themselves, as people who talk about it usually dismiss the entire concept of CCS, claiming that it is unproven and unsafe.
This is an example of the halo effect. As Kahneman says, “this is the tendency to like or dislike everything about something — including things you have not observed.”
The public has also often cited catastrophic gas leaks and even the unrelated Chenobyl incident as reasons why safety is a major concern for CCS. This demonstrates the associative memory possibly the availability cascade at work, like how a recent plane crash can make us think that air travel is more dangerous than driving a car.
Yet all the elements of CCS have been separately proven and deployed successfully in various fields of commercial activity. In fact, around 1 million tonnes of CO2 has been stored each year at the Sleipner project since it started operating in 1996.
Nonetheless, there have been recent protests in 2012 by locals in Norway on the announcement of building a new CCS facility. The alleged reason was that amines used in some types of CCS can also form compounds that, under certain conditions, degrade into carcinogens. This is in spite of research conducted at the Lenfest Center that shows that the risk of amine poisioning seems to be predominantly enclosed within the working environment of a potential CO2 capturing facility. There have not been any case of amine pollution by CCS so far.
Those very concerned about amines degrading into carcinogens should in fact avoid the barbeque this summer, as it is widely reported that carcinogenic amines form when meat is cooked at more than 150°C.
As Baruch Fischoff writes in his now-classic 1978 paper on risk-benefit analysis, the public accepts risk very differently for voluntary activities (e.g. skiing) compared to involuntary activities (e.g. having a CCS plant built in one’s vicinity).
Instead of blaming the public and telling them what they should do, however, this internship and the C+S program in general has taught me how to better understand public perception and apply it to make action against climate change politically and socially more palatable.
From Internship to Future Career
Although my immediate career option would be to venture into the education sector to become a teacher, the skills and knowledge I am gathering from this research internship have been equally pertinent and relevant in informing my role as an educator. Understanding the way people think is the first step towards bridging of ideas and understanding and becoming a more effective communicator.
The internship has also exposed me to my own potentially deficient mental modes and subjectivity. At the start of the internship, I was one of those skeptical about CCS, thinking that renewables should be given greater priority and that more research had to be done before CCS could gain widespread applicability. It didn’t take long, however, to recall the fall semester classes and realize the various heuristics that were at work. The niche understanding that I have gained through this internship will definitely inform my future teaching and beliefs.