Anyone out there know how to deliver a low carbon energy system? How can we approach the challenge and, crucially, where do we as citizens fit in?

Wind turbines at sunset

Professor Karen Turner
Director, Centre for Energy Policy 

15 May 2017

In January 2017, the Scottish Government published a consultation document on the over-arching Scottish Energy Strategy, with the aim of supporting delivery of the Climate Change Plan (published the week before). It linked to various other policy consultation documents and plans, including, for example, the Scottish Energy Efficiency Plan (published on the same day).

At the time, I published a blog post entitled ‘The Scottish Energy Strategy: the need to focus on people if plans are to become executable’. There I argued that there is a fundamental problem challenging the delivery of long term energy and climate goals, which is that a lot people need to be mobilised and it is not clear how this can be done. Changing how we use energy requires that millions of individuals, as well as thousands of private firms, ‘buy into’ and participate in progress towards what are ultimately a set of wider (in the case of climate change, even global) societal benefits.

However, these benefits may not be perceived as delivering commensurate returns to individual household and companies. This is particularly problematic when private returns are limited and take time to be realised – for example, I did an Energy Saving Trust ‘home energy check’ on a 1970s property much like my own and found that for a £10k energy investment now, I’d save around £12 a week in 15 years’ time!

Public / private collaboration

The Scottish Government are clearly aware of the need for public/private collaboration and that the discussion around the development of our Energy Strategy going forward must not be limited simply to technological potential and possibilities. That is, if the strategy is to become an executable plan, it must focus on the behavioural side of the issue, and the public policy and political challenges that brings.

However, in studying the draft energy strategy consultation document, it is not clear that the scale or nature of the challenge has been properly recognised, particularly with regard to securing the ‘buy in’ of the wider public. For example, on p.71, in a box entitled ‘The 2050 vision’ the document states that “The public will be informed [emphasis mine], helping to deliver and shape Scotland’s energy future”. This sounds like a very ‘top-down’ process. The final sub-section of Chapter 6 (Delivery, monitoring and engagement), entitled ‘Deepening Public Engagement’ (starting on p.72) makes more practical noises, in terms of, for example, in supporting “local conversations”. However, the timing seems to be out relative to how the strategy is to be developed.

Too top-down?

For example, paragraph 211 (p.72) notes that “The consultation on this draft Energy Strategy will include new approaches to public participation and engagement, as we finalise the priorities for Scotland’s energy system” (again the emphasis is mine). Paragraph 213 (p.73) states that “The Scottish Government is committed to developing an engagement plan and will publish this plan as part of the final Strategy”.

Moreover, while the statement (paragraph 212) of the objective to “improve the design of programmes and initiatives through sharing ideas and listening to and feeding in the views of the public in designing policy” is indeed what Government should be looking to do, the following discussion around “Information sharing and awareness raising” is both vague in terms of how this may be achieved and, again, reflects a tone that is somewhat ‘top down’.  

The citizen and citizen-consumer ‘voice’

For me, the crucial problem is that, while there may be a need for some top-down policy-making when important societal goals are to be achieved, if there is no bottom-up public ‘voice’, there is a real risk - as recent electoral experiences around the world have shown – of political ‘kick back’ and a rejection of government actions and agendas. Moreover, where public consultation does not involve discussion of tangible policy options (which are not detailed in the draft energy strategy for any of the ambitions set out), the danger may not be revealed until later in the process. That is, people may respond positively with their ‘public citizen’ hats on; however, when the potential costs to them are presented, they switch to considering them in ‘private citizen / consumer’ mode.

The Edinburgh congestion charge experience

Take for example, the experience of the proposed Edinburgh congestion charge just over 10 years ago. While initial research and consultation had suggested that the public may welcome the benefits of reduced pollution, congestion etc., the policy itself (involving a £ cost to motorists) was overwhelmingly rejected in a 2005 referendum. One could argue that, given the extent of the societal problem at hand, that the public should not have been polled on the issue (this was the first time in Britain where people were given the chance to vote directly on whether to accept congestion charges in order to protect the environment). However, politicians were no doubt well aware that the rejection of the policy may then have been communicated indirectly via reaction to party manifestos more generally in subsequent city, regional and/or national elections.

The problem, which we at the Centre for Energy Policy aim to investigate via our final ‘Energy Conversation’ during the current phase of consultation on the draft Scottish Energy Strategy, is no doubt a complex one. However, my argument is that we need to address as early as possible in the process the problematic issue of how people feel about policy actions and ambitions aimed at addressing energy system challenges and climate change (bearing in mind that the latter is ultimately a global problem where each individual citizen, and indeed Scotland as a whole, may be argued to have a relatively small impact).

Government responsibility for a bottom-up, participative process?

My own collaborative research in this area has pointed to the danger of ‘governance traps’ where the public perceive responsibility for addressing and paying for climate actions being inappropriately transferred to them by Government. This can result in a lack of required action by all/any parties. If such a situation is to be avoided (and it must be here if the ambitions set out in our Climate Change Plan and draft Energy Strategy are to be realised), do policymakers need to rethink how they engage with the public? Should the formation of energy and climate policy in Scotland be a more bottom-up, participative process that consults on the type of society in which people want to live? Is this not the most appropriate basis for setting out Scotland’s ambitions and policies, informing, educating and raising awareness among the public, rather than trying to persuade people to accept and act upon already developed ambitions and policies set by Government?  

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