Social factors determine whether we move to scale up underground CO2 storage

Date of news: 8 March 2023

Injecting carbon dioxide into the deep underground: so far an unpopular measure to combat climate change. Yet it is necessary to reduce emissions to the atmosphere in the short term, say researchers Vincent de Gooyert, Heleen de Coninck, and Floris Swennenhuis. At the invitation of the scientific journal Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, they and six other scientists wrote a status report on the risks and opportunities of large-scale CO2 storage. Conclusion? Technically, there are no major obstacles. Instead, it is social factors that determine whether or not to scale up. 'It is necessary to broaden the social and political debate on large-scale underground CO2 storage to more groups in society,' says De Gooyert.

Vincent de GooyertFor the review article, De Gooyert, De Coninck, and Swennenhuis studied public support as a social factor for the success or failure of CO2 storage. They observe that citizens and experts have different perceptions of the risks. De Gooyert: 'Citizens are particularly afraid of CO2 leaking from the underground reservoir; the idea of storing 'junk' underground evokes fear of danger. Experts nuance this perception. Because CO2 has the ability to petrify underground, the risk of leaks from the reservoir is small. Risks of leaks would actually lie more in the transport to it, according to experts, although those risks would also be small. In short: you see that risks are assessed differently by laypeople than by experts. And so exchange of correct information is badly needed.'

Actions and choices for a sustainable energy future have been delayed for a long time, De Gooyert mentions. Therefore, the opportunity to combat climate change without CO2 storage would have been lost by now. De Gooyert: 'Of course, storing CO2 in the ground is not a pleasant idea in itself, but it concerns cleaning up the waste from the use of oil, coal, and gas, so to speak. Storing CO2 should not be an excuse to delay the phasing out of oil, coal, and gas. We have now got so out of hand that we will have to do both to stop dangerous climate change: both phasing out fossil fuels as soon as possible, and large-scale storage of CO2 where we still use fossil fuels.'

Experts calculate that by 2050 some 100 to 300 times more CO2 will need to be stored worldwide than now. Currently, companies in Norway and Canada, for instance, store some 40 million tonnes of CO2 annually. Starting point for the expected global scale-up of CO2 storage are the reports of the UN climate panel IPCC, on which Heleen de Coninck previously collaborated as lead author. In its reports, the IPCC outlines large-scale CO2 storage as almost necessary to limit warming to one and a half or two degrees by 2100.

De Coninck: 'Climate policy is based on model calculations that conclude that the climate goals without large-scale CO2 storage are hard to achieve. Policymakers realise this, but count on large-scale CO2 storage in the short term, while the public debate on this is still insufficient. CO2 storage is only feasible with a public mandate, with support. So let's not wait any longer to have that public debate. If it turns out that society ultimately sees it as undesirable after all, we will have to put more effort into other measures now, which will have to be much more radical'.

You can read the entire article on underground carbon dioxide in the Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, which also focuses on underground hydrogen storage, here.