Could Mixed Public Discourse Limit the Deployment of BECCS Technology?

27 Jun 2023

By Caspar Donnison, Karolina Trdlicova, Alison Mohr and Gail Taylor.

A green industrial revolution is required to transition the UK economy to net-zero emissions by 2050, associated with significant technology innovation. This transition must also be equitable and address the major social and political challenges associated with the adoption of new technologies and practices. Although scientific research and development can identify new technological approaches, it is ultimately society which will decide if and where new technologies and energy projects are deployed.

In a newly released paper in Energy Research and Social Science (ERSS) we explore the social challenges associated with a novel technology at the heart of global and UK scenarios for net-zero emissions: bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). BECCS has not yet been deployed in the UK, though Drax intend to convert their bioenergy power station in Yorkshire to use the technology, and the UK could see multiple further BECCS power plants on the road to net-zero. Public discourse, such as in the news media, performs an important role in determining the social legitimacy of new energy projects such as BECCS. We analysed the language used in national and regional newspapers to frame and give meaning to BECCS. This was distilled into the ‘storyline’: a powerful discursive tool which is used by actors as they vie for dominance in the public debate.

We identified four main storylines which supported BECCS: a Necessary mitigation tool, Keeping the lights on, an Anchor for transition, and a Revolutionary technology. The dominant actors of the pro-BECCS coalition are Drax, local politicians and business figures in Yorkshire, the UK government, and IPCC scientists. In the Necessary mitigation tool storyline BECCS is described as “vital” for meeting climate goals by Drax, and the UK government declared that “BECCS is the only sustainable way to continue with biomass”. The Anchor for transition storyline shows how storyline resonance is determined by context; to industrial regions such as the Humber, responsible for the greatest concentration of emissions in the UK, BECCS is seen as a lifeline which can support jobs and the region’s cultural heritage through the transition to net-zero.

Figure 1: The public debate on BECCS is represented by one coalition of actors advancing pro-BECCS storylines and one coalition advancing critical storylines. Source: Donnison et al (2023).

The pro-BECCS coalition was challenged by an anti-BECCS coalition of actors led by NGOs critical of bioenergy and BECCS, national politicians, and scientists. We identified the following major BECCS storylines: Worse than coal, No silver bullet, an Environmental disaster, and a Distraction. The Worse than coal storyline was the most frequently occurring storyline in 2022, finding its way into a BBC Panorama documentary on Drax and a House of Commons debate. It reflects a hotly contested debate in the popular press over whether bioenergy is a low-carbon energy source; while the carbon claims of the Worse than coal storyline have been correctly challenged by scientists in peer-review science, we did not see these voices in the news media. The No silver bullet storyline cautions that BECCS cannot be a substitute for deep and immediate emission cuts and that the scale at which it is currently envisaged in climate scenarios is infeasible and ‘fantasy’.

BECCS can be deployed in multiple different ways besides the approach advanced by Drax and it is uncertain how public debate on the technology will develop when further plans are brought forward. This includes the balance between use of domestic biomass feedstocks and of imports. Our study shows the contours of the public debate at this relatively immature stage of BECCS development. The UK government Biomass Strategy is due shortly; any successful BECCS policy will require community engagement to identify those locations best placed to integrate this technology, limiting trade-offs, and delivering socio-economic and environmental co-benefits.