How policy instrument choice will shape attitudes to negative emissions

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Feb 14, 2019

The Paris Agreement on climate change has set out commitments to limit the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that this is still possible, but nearly all of their scenarios assume that it will require extensive deployment of negative emissions technologies (NETs) by the end of the century. Most of these scenarios rely on one such technology called bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) to deliver the necessary levels of carbon dioxide removal.

Despite growing interest in BECCS it remains unclear how the technology might reshape existing climate policy and energy systems. One particularly understudied question concerns public perceptions of BECCS, and the role that policy instruments might play in shaping those views. This is an urgent question to address, given that BECCS presents significant challenges to dominant energy generation and climate policy regimes, and will not come forward without strong institutional support and significant new incentives for research, development, demonstration and deployment.

Our study developed a new experimental method to triangulate perceptions of BECCS in three different policy scenarios through a combination of quantitative measurement and qualitative elicitation. The motivation behind this approach was to understand how alternative policy scenarios might affect perceptions of that technology. This is a question that has largely been ignored in research on public perceptions of technology. Rather than assuming that attitudes are formed in relation to the technical characteristics of a technology, we assert that they emerge with regard to tightly coupled socio-technical systems within which those technical features are embedded.

We found that the type of policy instrument used to incentivise BECCS significantly affected perceptions of the technology itself. In particular, there was statistically significant reduced level of support for BECCS following discussion of a ‘supportive’ policy scenario. There was a great deal of opposition towards a price guarantee scheme – where governments would guarantee a higher price for producers selling energy derived from BECCS facilities. This stemmed from participants’ knowledge of the high costs being imposed on taxpayers by this mechanism in order to support new nuclear energy provision (i.e. Hinkley Point C).

On the other hand, we found a high level of support for another supportive instrument, fixed payments, which were the single highest ranked instrument in the study, owing to their ability to establish a direct link between public spending and the climate change performance of BECCS operators. We also found a high level of support for ‘coercive’ and ‘persuasion’-based policy instruments, particularly in the form of standards and lobbying. There was a high level of support for BECCS overall but this was qualified by a range of concerns, including its geographical footprint, geopolitical feasibility and relationship with alternative courses of action.

The article in Nature Communications is here:

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Rob Bellamy

Presidential Fellow, University of Manchester

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