Talking about Just Transition at GHGT-14 in Melbourne

The closing panel discussion at GHGT-14, with fellow ACT Acorn researcher Keith Whiriskey (second from right). Photo: Torund Bryhn, Gassnova

Radboud University researcher, Floris Swennenhuis, reflects on presenting his work on the ACT Acorn project at the recent GHGT-14 conference

Just over a month ago I had the amazing opportunity to visit Melbourne. While I did get to enjoy the beauty of the nature in Australia during a couple of vacation days, that was not the main reason for going there. Melbourne was the host city for the biannual greenhouse gas control technologies (GHGT) conference; the premier international conference on carbon capture and storage (CCS).

As a junior researcher, it was my first big conference, and I was thrilled that our work was accepted for an oral presentation and I was the lucky one to go there. Australia, much like Scotland, has experienced decades of economic growth on the back of mining and fossil fuels; coal and iron ore are its two biggest exports.  However, this growth is dependent on the continued operation of highly emitting industries. While the recent IPCC report clearly shows that we need to reduce emissions fast, simply closing down these industries is not very appealing to the many that benefit from them.

Our part within the ACT Acorn project focuses on the role of CCS in a “just transition”. I will not repeat too much of what has been said in a previous blog by my colleague Leslie Mabon but, very briefly, a just transition is about making sure that already marginalised people or communities are not left further behind by the transition to a more sustainable future.

For the Aberdeen region in Scotland, and similar areas that are dependent on emission-intensive industries, we are trying to see if CCS might be useful in mitigating the impact of such a transition. Essentially, we are trying to link social and economic development goals to environmental targets through CCS.

In the work I presented at GHGT-14, we compared Aberdeen with the Rotterdam industrial area in the Netherlands. We looked at whether this narrative of CCS as part of a just transition actually makes sense and if this is something we can generalise. The most interesting finding was that it can be very different.

The just transition framing fits Aberdeen quite well, but not so much in Rotterdam for a variety of reasons. Stakeholders in Scotland recognised potential for CCS to help maintain and create employment whereas, in the Netherlands, jobs weren’t seen as a major issue due to the diversity of the industry. The discussions with various stakeholders also revealed, or confirmed, several other issues that need to be addressed in order to develop CCS. Besides economic barriers that are often mentioned, communication needs to be improved and we need to build trust with the developers, largely the private sector, of CCS projects.

These themes were addressed in  presentations by the other speakers I shared the session with. There was a very interesting talk by Torund Bryhn from Gassnova on effective communication to the general public by mixing quality information with emotion. Chiyoko Suzuki from Japan CCS talked about how they built public trust by engaging people and organisations that are trusted and respected within local communities in their Tomakomai CCS demonstration project.

After the session on communication and social science, all speakers and a few people from the audience got together, and as there was too much to talk about right there, we planned a meeting. We later shared some more of our research, which turned into ideas for future work and the setting up of regular teleconference meetings for the future.

In addition to the typical networking, the week was also filled with more informal social activities during the evenings. The night before the conference started there was a welcoming drinks reception. During the week there were receptions hosted by some of the bigger organisations, and I enjoyed a dinner for all the Dutch participants hosted by CATO. It was all topped off with an incredible gala dinner at the end of the conference. The social activities were a lot of fun but, when you’re with so many people in your field, an interesting conversation on CCS or a potential new collaboration was never far off.

The last thing I want to mention is a slight change in the tone of the conference. GHGT is traditionally focused on the technology behind CCS and the vast majority of talks and posters are on specific aspects of capture. But as CCS is becoming more and more of a reality, there has been interest in the non-technical side of CCS.

This was not only reflected by an increase in presentations on topics such as policy, legal issues and public perceptions of CCS but these topics frequently came up in other sessions. The closing plenary of the conference was a panel discussion on how creating a positive narrative around CCS is needed to scale up the technology. ACT Acorn project partner Keith Whiriskey from the Bellona Foundation was one of the panelists. This change in focus really reaffirmed the idea that technology is not the limiting factor anymore.

All in all, it was an amazing conference, I learned a lot, I met many interesting people, and I had a great time. Personally, it was the culmination (and a bit of a reward) for a year’s work. The fact the non-technical issues received a lot of attention, especially considering the historical focus on technology, really reaffirms that I am working on something that is highly relevant. But mostly, I’m happy that we are finally looking at this huge task of transitioning to a low-carbon and sustainable future as something that can go hand-in-hand with social and economic development.

Floris gave a snapshot of his research on ACT Acorn during GHGT-14. Watch interview