Carbon capture and storage: can a transdisciplinary framework for environmental impact assessment deliver a fair and equitable net-zero carbon future?

The UK’s energy system is evolving. It is widely recognised that to meet our future energy needs whilst tackling the increasing threat of climate change, an energy strategy that integrates a broad range of low carbon energy technologies is required. Cutting carbon emissions, maintaining secure energy supplies and providing affordable energy remain high on the political agenda, but there is increasing recognition that to accelerate decarbonisation of the economy more widely, transition pathways will need to include significant deployment of climate change mitigation technologies like carbon capture and storage (CCS). The UK Government has recently committed to delivering an extensive CCS (and usage) programme as part of its Net Zero Strategy (2021). Four CCS clusters will be funded through its £1 billion CCS Infrastructure Fund and developed by 2030. However, the Committee on Climate Change suggest that much wider deployment is required if emission targets are to be reached (CCC December 2020).

Despite widespread societal support of a net zero future, technologies such as CCS that could enable such a transition are often contested. This was true of the Barendrecht CCS project in the Netherlands, which was derailed through failure to obtain a ‘social licence to operate’ (Brunsting et al., 2011). Public acceptance is therefore recognised as an essential component of these developments (Leiss and Larkin, 2019). As with other energy-transition infrastructure (such as radioactive waste disposal, wind-farms and fracking), public acceptance is shaped by many factors, but particularly: trust, senses of place, and perceptions of risks and uncertainties commonly associated with the implementation of novel, untried or unknown engineering and technology systems (Dickie et al., 2020).

The proposed ‘systems approach’ for achieving net zero outlined in the strategy acknowledges that the environment, society, and economy are interconnected components of the system, and that their interdependencies must be navigated carefully. Yet despite extensive research that provides us with a good understanding of the societal contestations affecting the CCS industry (see e.g. Nielsen et al., 2022) little effort has gone into aligning these findings with existing mechanisms used to inform the decision-making processes.

Environmental impact assessments (EIA) are one of the key regulatory tools used to assess a project’s impact during all phases of development. Whilst socio-economic impacts are included in traditional EIAs, it is argued that these are often inadequate at representing the complexities in socio-environmental research. In response to this, transdisciplinary approaches to EIAs have been argued to be more effective at integrating the natural and social domains (e.g. Ortiz and Climent-Gil, 2020). Done effectively, the EIA therefore should be a mechanism that provides transparency and trust by addressing public and other stakeholder concerns around risks and uncertainties of a development and provide individuals with more agency in the decision-making process of projects.

This PhD studentship is a collaboration between The University of Stirling, The University of Edinburgh and the British Geological Survey (BGS), bringing together geoscience, environmental science, energy geographies, and science communication expertise. Through collaborative, transdisciplinary approaches, this project will investigate how EIAs can be used more effectively to alleviate concerns around environmental and social risks and uncertainties, and to build public confidence, trust and transparency in CCS projects.

This project would best suit a candidate with a geosciences or energy background with an interest in societal challenges and building a transdisciplinary skillset.


This transdisciplinary project will integrate geoscience, energy geographies and geo-communication research. The project will adopt a mixed methods approach, combining research design and theories from both the natural & social sciences to explore how societal engagement with the CCS industry, and the science that underpins it, may impact their deployment and contribution to the UK’s future energy system. The project research will be based in the UK and take a case studies approach informed by current BGS research programmes on CCS and other related projects.

The student will work closely with BGS scientists and communication experts to gain an in-depth understanding of CCS technologies and their risks, benefits and uncertainties. Data collection methods will be co-designed with the project partners and will involve both quantitative techniques such as evidence-based scenario development and the quantification of risk, and a range of creative and engaging qualitative approaches that will be informed by CCS science. It is envisioned that these will include: a national scale questionnaire to provide a current understanding of public perceptions of CCS due to the pace of change in the energy sector; stakeholder workshops using a suite of tools to identify gaps in knowledge, trade-offs and develop consensus building; and scenarios, underpinned by scientific data, to be used in workshops to explore how EIAs can integrate expert and non-expert knowledge and be reconfigured to facilitate public confidence in CCS technologies.

Key research questions:

1. How are carbon capture and storage technologies understood, perceived and valued by different UK publics?
2. How do perceptions of risks and uncertainties associated with CCS technologies vary across different expert and non-expert stakeholder groups?
3. To what extent are traditional EIAs fit for purpose in the context of CCS? Can better alignment of scientific evidence lead to greater transparency, trust and public participation.
4. What opportunities does a re-imagined EIA afford that could lead to wider positive outcomes and greater societal acceptance of CCS.

Project Timeline

Year 1

“Understanding CCS and related sub-surface technologies” Following a critical review of the literature (CCS & EIAs, months: 0-6), the student will engage with CCS experts at BGS, to build an understanding of the technologies, identify benefits and challenges and co-design data collection methods.

Year 2

“Attitudes to CCS technologies and perceptions of risk and uncertainty” In this phase the student will design, deliver and analyse an online questionnaire to understand the current climate of public acceptance of CCS and design a suite of tools based on these findings to identify gaps in knowledge, trade-offs and develop consensus building around stakeholder perceptions of risk and uncertainty in CCS. During year 2, the initial quantitative risk analysis and development of the evidence-based scenarios will be undertaken in preparation for year 3’s work.

Year 3

“Re-imagining environmental impact assessments” The student will use scenarios and other participatory approaches (informed by previous data collection) in stakeholder workshops to critique traditional EIAs in the context of CCS and explore how different approaches to EIAs may instil greater public confidence in CCS technologies.

Year 3.5

The overlapping data collection phases of the project will take 34 months to complete, with the remaining time being allocated to writing the thesis & papers for publication, attending conferences & networking with stakeholders.

& Skills

This studentship will provide a platform to build a transdisciplinary research career in energy studies, geoscience and geocommunication. The student will develop broad expertise in the natural sciences, quantification of risk, and evidence-based scenario building, together with skills in the social sciences, communication & transdisciplinary engagement techniques. Training offered will depend on the background of the applicant although initially the student would be invited to attend a 2-day internal induction training workshop at the BGS headquarters in Keyworth, which would introduce them to the range of BGS science, its management structure and support that is available to students.

In addition to the training available through the IAPETUS programme, other courses that would be available to the student include; Introduction to Geology, Accessing BGS Information, First Aid for fieldworkers, GDPR training, Building personal resilience and Developing your management skills. The student would also receive some on the job training to ensure that they have the opportunity to develop an understanding of the geological aspects involved in the chosen case study projects and energy technologies.

References & further reading

Climate Change Committee. 2020. The Sixth Carbon Budget—The UK’s path to Net Zero [online]. Available at https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/ sixth-carbon-budget/. Last updated 9 December 2020; accessed September 2022.

Dickie, Jennifer; Watson, Eilidh; Napier, Hazel. 2020. Evaluating the relationship between public perception, engagement and attitudes towards underground energy technologies. Nottingham, UK, British Geological Survey, p47. (OR/20/056).

HM Government. 2021. Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/net-zero-strategy. Last updated
5 April 2022. Accessed September 2022.

Nielsen, J. A. E., Stavrianakis, K., Morrison, Z. (2022) Community acceptance and social impacts of carbon capture, utilization and storage projects: A systematic meta-narrative literature review. PLoS One. 17(8):e0272409.

Ortiz, G. and Climent-Gil, E. (2020) A transdisciplinary framework for environmental impact assessment: Opportunities and resistances among practitioners in Spain, Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 81, 106339. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eiar.2019.106339.

Thomas, M. et al. (2017) ‘Deliberating the perceived risks, benefits, and societal implications of shale gas and oil extraction by hydraulic fracturing in the US and UK’, Nature Energy, 2(5), p. 17054.

Whitmarsh, L., Xenias, D. and Jones, C. R. (2019) ‘Framing effects on public support for carbon capture and storage’, Palgrave Communications, 5(1), p. 17.

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