People’s fear must be taken seriously

Published: 28.02.24

In a small Danish port, a group of citizens are opposed to the possibility of CO2 being stored in the underground where they live. Ultimately, they are afraid they might die. Power-to-X projects may face similar local resistance. Mette Marie Vad Karsten, Ph.D and Lead Anthropologist at DBI, explains the best ways to deal with public perception.

“If this seeps up in a concentration of more than 10%, we'll die.”

"In the extreme, it's like attaching a hose to your car’s exhaust pipe and putting the other end into the car. If I start the engine, I can die, and that’s what I’m ultimately afraid of."

“If the CO₂ comes up and settles like a duvet here and the first two children on their way to school have dropped in their tracks, then it’s too late.”

These quotes are from an article in the Danish daily newspaper ‘Berlingske Tidende’, where citizens of the small Danish port, Havnsø, have voiced their resistance to and fear of the potential long-term storage of CO2 in the 435 square kilometre so-called Havnsø structure. It is just one of five areas in Denmark that the Danish Energy Agency has identified as possible CO₂ storage areas in Denmark, and a number of companies have applied to carry out test drilling in the Havnsø structure, for example, in order to explore the possibilities further. According to the article, geologists clearly expect that the CO2 will remain in the sandstone layer 1,500–2,000 metres below ground, where it will be pumped down and sealed by a thick layer of clay above.

Existential fear

However, this information does not reassure citizens. Not at all, actually. The article even refers to an existential fear. And what do you do as a company and/or authority when citizens’ resistance to a project that does not yet exist is so fundamental? When it’s not just about a wind farm spoiling the view or a new pig farm with a bad odour?

This question is relevant because Power-to-X projects will be able to face similar resistance. Mette Marie Vad Karsten has therefore addressed the problem. She has a Ph.D and is Lead Anthropologist at DBI and works with Power-to-X projects.

"First and foremost, when project owners and authorities encounter this type of resistance, they must acknowledge that citizens are afraid. If they don't, and rather try to sweep away concerns that there’s nothing to be afraid of, they risk people feeling belittled," says Mette Marie Vad Karsten, and continues:

"And when, at the same time, local resistance is fundamentally often about people feeling that their opinions do not matter as much as others; that it is those with power and money who have the right to define where things should be; that the processes are not transparent, that they do not feel they have been consulted – all of that will lead to a poisonous cocktail for a new project.

"Furthermore, project owners and developers must understand that technology and technological solutions always have an effect on people. Engineers generally tend to believe that technology can be neutral. In Havnsø, where the potential project is primarily about something that needs to be underground, you could even believe that when it is out of sight, it should also be out of mind. But that is never the case. People google, people worry, people talk to each other, and this creates a ripple effect in a local community," says Mette Marie Vad Karsten.

Citizens sacrifice something

She points out one other thing that project owners, developers and authorities should be very aware of:

"When someone comes from the outside and does something in a local community, citizens feel that they are sacrificing something, for example part of their local area. And when they do this, they expect to get something in return. A geographical location is not just a place – it is always linked to values, stories, narratives, cultural identity and much more. The big picture that CO2 storage, for example, can help reduce global warming is therefore not enough. There have been various projects where citizens have been given a bag of money, but it does not always work as intended because people do not feel that it compensates sufficiently for what they are sacrificing, which is much more than 'just' a given area," says Mette Marie Vad Karsten.

She does not have a suggestion for what could compensate citizens in the specific case in Havnsø, where they are not only concerned about amenity and property value, but ultimately also their lives. However, Mette Marie Vad Karsten does know that there is only one way that project owners can find out:

"Through dialogue. You need to get the citizens involved – as early as possible. It’s about asking citizens what they need and listening to their concerns. It’s about taking them seriously, but not necessarily literally. In addition, it's about finding out how to potentially accommodate them in the project and what else could compensate the local community and thus the citizens," says Mette Marie Vad Karsten, and continues:

"All too often we see project owners and municipalities meeting without involving citizens, because they want to try to control the narrative and only start the dialogue when they can answer all the questions that may arise in relation to the project. It may be with the best intention, but it risks backfiring because rumours, doubts and stories have meanwhile been given a life of their own in the local community, so you meet a wall of resistance when you finally open up for dialogue and are ready to tell about the project.

Informal coffee meetings

According to Mette Marie Vad Karsten, the early dialogue is not about holding actual public meetings, because the lack of concrete answers can create frustration.

"Instead, you can start the dialogue on an informal level. Often, a local community has some key people – for example, the well-loved child-minder, the chairman of the gymnastics association or the busy grocer – whom you can reach out to and invite for a cup of coffee. Not to make them ambassadors for the project, but to listen to the opinions bubbling up in the local community and understand their views and needs, says Mette Marie Vad Karsten, and adds:

"Of course, as a project owner, you risk that such informal meetings in themselves can create ripples in the water in the local community, but after all, it is better to create them yourself rather than your opponents.

Transparency and honesty

When it comes to dealing with fear like in Havnsø, information is the only way forward. Even though detailed knowledge of safety measures, etc. will never reassure everyone.

"Transparency, honesty and factual information are important. Explain things as they are, tell the citizens what they need to know, and try to be as honest as possible about things that you don't know yet. In addition, it can be a good idea to also invite engineers to public meetings so that people can get answers to all types of questions. However, citizens can perceive external experts as part of what they are up against," says Mette Marie Vad Karsten, and elaborates:

"As a project owner, you can therefore try to ally yourself with local experts and leading authorities to explain the situation. For example, this could be the emergency manager, who is both a local guarantor for safety and 'the guy from the sports club'. It creates trust and can make people lower their guard and listen.

Read also: Research project to tackle public resistance to Power-to-X

Read more

Power-to-X and DBI

Power-to-X is about converting electricity into other forms of energy such as chemicals that can be stored and used as fuel – the so-called electrofuels. This is done by using electricity from wind turbines or solar cells for electrolysis to produce oxygen and hydrogen. The hydrogen can then be used in fuel cells (such as in a hydrogen car) or to produce methane, methanol, ammonia or other chemicals that can eventually be used in ships or heavy road transport (buses and trucks), for example. This can reduce or even eliminate CO2 emissions.

However, there is a significant safety aspect that should have much more focus. DBI wants to ensure fire safety in the area and has thus obtained support for the work in connection with the current performance contract with the Ministry of Higher Education and Science, which runs until 2024.


Mette Marie V. Karsten
Lead Anthropologist (PhD)
+45 50 80 65 19