New horizons for the North Sea: a fresh approach to discussing CCS with society

Leslie Mabon with members of the focus group at The W O R M in Aberdeen last week

Twitter made interesting reading this morning. 250 job losses in the North Sea. Exploration very low – but efficiency improving. Someone at a business breakfast Tweeting a picture of a pastry and reporting an air of optimism. It is clear there are a range of views on what comes next for the North Sea, but whatever comes next will happen in a place – north-east Scotland - and have an effect on the people who live and work there.

It is against this backdrop that we have recently started our social science research as part of the ACT Acorn Project. The purpose of this work is to consider what a Just Transition might mean for north-east Scotland (more about that in a second), and what role, if any, there might be for carbon capture and storage (CCS) in making this happen. To this end, over the next few months, myself and my colleagues at Robert Gordon University will be undertaking interviews and discussion groups across Scotland, with parallel work going on in the Netherlands under the direction of Radboud University and in Norway with Bellona’s cooperation. The hope is that by autumn time, we will have a rich and contextualised picture of what some of the pathways from now into the future might be for the North Sea’s carbon-intensive regions, and a sense of how CCS might help put these pathways into action.

With that in mind, our research got underway in earnest last weekend with the first discussion group in Aberdeen. Before I launch into that, though, I should explain a bit about what a Just Transition means and why it is relevant to Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire. At a global level, the idea of a Just Transition is a broad-ranging set of thoughts circling the basic principle that the move to a low-carbon and/or more sustainable society should not disproportionately disadvantage those who are already worse-off. That is, the course of action we take should be ‘just’ in terms of promoting fairness and equity across all sections of society. Of course, there is the whole question of who gets to define what “just” means – and how we know when we’ve got there – which I’m not going to go into here.

At a regional level, though, one prominent subset of Just Transitions thinking is the argument that cities and regions which have contributed significantly to society thus far through emissions-intensive activity (not only oil, gas and coal, but also activities such as petrochemicals refining and steelworks) must not be left behind as we renew our energy systems and imagine more efficient means of production. This applies in particular to the people working in such industries, which is why the idea of Just Transitions has gathered so much traction with trade unions. This is especially the case in oil- and mining regions in the Canadian and Australian contexts, but it is noteworthy that a number of trade unions in Scotland are starting to get on board with the question of what a Just Transition means for the North Sea and its many workers. Indeed, the Scottish Government has committed to set up a Just Transition Commission, which I shall be watching with interest.

And so I came to have a small but enthusiastic group of citizens gathered round a table with me in The W O R M at the bottom end of Union Street in Aberdeen on Saturday afternoon, Post-It notes and flipchart paper scattered across the table in between the paper coffee cups and trays of biscuits. For this project, I’ve decided I want to talk about the energy and environmental future of the North Sea differently. Rather than starting with the “expert” presentation of what the greenhouse effect is, where our carbon dioxide emissions come from, and what the technologies might be that will solve these problems, I opened with a short talk on two former coal-mining districts in Japan. We looked at old photos of coal mines, images of modern-day street scenes, and illustrations of the infrastructure left in these locations. In short, I set the session up with a discussion on what the renewal of our energy and manufacturing systems means for daily living in a location like Aberdeen – not just what people do from 9-5 Monday to Friday, but how they live their lives, who they see themselves as being, and how this acts back on the physical environment in which they live. I think there were 5 slides maximum on “low-carbon” technologies in there.

Now, this may seem like a risky way to start a discussion and, having used the tried-and-tested format of the climate mitigation narrative for many years, I was a little apprehensive. But I needn’t have worried. I’d prepared a series of questions to guide the discussion over the following 90 minutes, but after a couple of technical questions the participants were off on a wide-ranging yet entirely relevant discussion, which facilitated itself with only minimal input from me.

I can’t summarise everything we discussed as I still need to listen back to and transcribe the full recording, but I will flag up a few of the salient points that came out of the conversation. The first of these pertains to the need for a strong vision of what Aberdeen and the north-east wants to be – and that this vision has to arise from citizens and local-level decision-makers themselves. The consensus round the table was that this vision is lacking at present, and that once we have this sorted, the understanding of what technologies and industries are “appropriate” for the north-east’s managed transition will fall into place. This was an interesting argument for me to hear, not least because it chimes with one of the points I heard time and time again when I was doing fieldwork around the Tomakomai CCS Demonstration Project in northern Japan earlier this year. Specifically, that whilst CCS might not bring large-scale employment to the Tomakomai area it does fit with the municipality’s wider vision to imagine their city as a site for climate change action and low-carbon innovation, sitting alongside and supporting their interest in mega-solar, biomass and hydrogen. So perhaps a Just Transition for the north-east has to be supported with a stronger vision of what we ultimately hope to achieve.

The second interesting point that came out of the discussion was the scale at which people expect action on a Just Transition to be taken. Back in 2014 and 2015 when myself and Chris Littlecott did some work on CO2-Enhanced Oil Recovery, what came across very strongly was the expectation that it should be “the government” who leads on CO2 storage and decarbonisation more generally. What I heard at the weekend refined this somewhat, in that it was the municipal government – i.e. the council – who were expected to drive the vision for a Just Transition forwards. Now this may seem challenging for relatively large-scale pieces of infrastructure, which have thus far been discussed largely in the context of national-level policy, but it suggests that there is value in engaging with decision-makers at a regional level if technologies like CCS are to find their way into a Just Transition pathway. Indeed, just the other week I was presenting at the IPCC’s [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] first-ever Cities and Climate Change Science Conference in Edmonton in Alberta, Canada. Alberta might not seem like the best location to be talking about climate change action, yet that is precisely why we were there – Edmonton’s Mayor, Don Ivesen, is acutely aware that his city’s sustainability actions come against a wider regional context of reliance on the oil and gas industries, and that there is as a result a pressing need to have some of the trickier conversations locally about what a low-carbon society means in a carbon-intensive region. The reason I tell you all that is not to brag, rather to illustrate that there is a real need for cities and regions like Aberdeen and the north-east themselves to take the lead in shaping an appropriate transition, and to engage with different sectors, levels of governance and technologies to make that happen. This also needs local governments to be a bit braver in broaching some of the tougher questions about what comes next and how long current economic arrangements can be sustained for.

There is so much more I could write about: whether there are tensions between a “sustainable” future and a “low-carbon” future, whether our current governance systems are up to handling the complexity inherent in a Just Transition, and much more. In that regard, I’m especially grateful to my PhD student, Yi-Chen Huang, who not only helped out massively to facilitate the discussion but also told us lots about how Taipei in her native Taiwan is governed under a mayoral system, which allows quick and decisive action on sustainability. I will, however, finish with one point about the spaces and sectors in which we talk about low-carbon transitions. I held this discussion in The W OR M, which is an arts space open for a breadth of events, and with an appetite for engaging on energy and climate issues. We projected the slides onto a wall either side of two soft sculptures, and held the flipchart paper on a paint-covered easel. Tea and coffee were served out of mis-matching cups. And the discussion was all the better for it. Talking about a transition that is just for all sectors of society perhaps requires us to come out of the formats and spaces we have become used to, and think differently about the bigger picture within which CCS and technologies like it may add value to society.

Dr Leslie Mabon is Senior Lecturer and Research Lead for the School of Applied Social Studies at Robert Gordon University. His research interests include justice and ethical aspects of environmental governance, managed transitions for regions dependent on high-emission industries, and interdisciplinary research processes for environmental issues.