By Professor Andreas Busch, School of Energy, Geoscience, Infrastructure and Society, Heriot-Watt University
Photo: Suzanne Hangx at Utrecht University
We are just making our way out of difficult times. The Covid-19 pandemic has hit us hard, and we’ve had to accept many restrictions; restrictions which are partly guided by virologists, epidemiologists, aerosol physicists or general health experts but of course implemented by our elected representatives.
We were unprepared and had to take rapid actions, often without questioning the consequences. These consequences will become visible in the future and we can only hope that we took the right measures. What we learned, though, is that the majority is willing to adapt within a global crisis.
This raises the obvious question: why is an urgently needed crisis mode not in place for climate change? Why did it take so long until scientists were heard by politicians, essentially predicting temperature and sea level rise over decades? Why did it require the courage of a young Swedish woman and a youth movement to focus on net zero targets and accept that the way we are exploiting the planet will more than likely result in a disaster if we continue the way we are living today? Well, climate change is different to a pandemic as it is happening at a relatively slow pace. Humans can adapt to a certain extent and the prospect of a Scottish summer of up to 30°C could also be quite nice, right?
Will the pandemic create positive momentum in that it can help to gain support for fighting climate change? In the pandemic, scientists and non-scientists alike got used to and appreciated listening to scientists in podcasts, radio, or on television. We like listening to them because we get fed with facts and information in a digestible way and tone. This needs to be expanded into further relevant areas, including climate change, and including measures to fight climate change.
Why? Because we suddenly realise that scientists who are able to communicate with the public can make a real difference. So, what have we learned and what should we not do? Scientists are often too “science-led” when communicating to the public. They want to sound smart, being on top of things, guiding the way. Or they simply never learned how to explain their research and what it means to society.
In addition, scientists are often quite dogmatic when defending their research. This can be problematic because we need to develop a broad view and acceptance of an even wider range of technologies available to combat climate change.
Some 15 years ago, a group of visionary scientists founded SCCS to focus on an industrial application to counter climate change. The aim was to provide a broad view on CCS to support its relevance and to gain a wide acceptance among government, industry and the public. Since then, many more experts have supported this initiative and we can now see that it is finally paying off. New CCS projects are being announced on an almost monthly basis across the UK or wider European continent.
With these new CCS projects coming up, we will need to explain to the public why we are using this technology in the face of various concerns. These include its cost, support for the continued use of fossil fuels in some applications and the potential for leakage and harm to the environment. Explaining the technology in a dogmatic way will only lead to where we were 15 to 20 years ago: no public acceptance and no political support.
CCS is expensive but it is also safe and proven and helps in bridging towards more sustainable, affordable and more accepted technologies. It is currently one of the best options we have to achieve net zero carbon for relevant parts of the industry by mid-century. This is how we should see it, and this is also how the virologists or epidemiologists handled the pandemic – they advised for measures that seemed most suitable at a given moment in time.
From the pandemic we learned that recommendations made today might not be valid tomorrow. The circumstances or the knowledge may change and sticking to past “best practices” will limit or even eliminate future progress. We need to accept this, and we need to be willing to adapt. WE as scientists and WE as politicians and of course also, WE as non-experts.
Happy Birthday SCCS – You’ve done a great job thus far and surely you will lead the CCS show in the future!
Photo: Suzanne Hangx at Utrecht University