The public may be more prepared for the demanding logic of climate change than many politicians. New research in the UK confirms that most people in Britain would like to see an energy system that is clean, safe, fair and efficient.
Four out of five people are concerned about becoming too dependent on energy supplies from other nations; three out of four are concerned or very concerned about climate change, and four out of five questioned would like to reduce their overall energy use.
The UK Energy Research Centre’s report, Transforming the UK Energy System – Public Values, Attitudes and Acceptability, is based on 30 months of study and is to be debated at the Royal Society (16 July). It is the first of its kind to examine in detail public attitudes to all the wider aspects of energy sources, energy use, pollution, new technologies, carbon dioxide emissions and planetary change.
“Our participants saw the bigger picture of energy system transformation and they were overwhelmingly committed to moving away from fossil fuels towards renewable forms of energy production, and to lowering energy demand”, said Nick Pidgeon of Cardiff University, who led the research.
But the report also concludes that public trust in both energy companies and in government is low, and this in itself could hamper energy system development.
The message about fossil fuels was unequivocal: 79% want to see a reduction in their use over the coming decades; 85% support solar power and 75% are in favour of wind energy.
Nuclear power however remains an open question: although people recognised that it had a place in the mix of power sources, 54% said they would oppose the construction of a new nuclear power station in their own neighbourhood.
Ready to change
Other responses were more pragmatic. The proportion prepared to change to electric heating rose from 42% to 61% once assured that it was as good as other sources, and to 85% once it was presented as cheaper.
More than half were willing to use electric vehicles, and this proportion rose to 75% if they performed as well as conventional transport.
Two out of five people had never heard of processes such as carbon capture and storage, and when it was explained to them were not impressed: perhaps because it still committed society to fossil fuel use and seemed only a temporary solution to the emissions problem. The research was based both on carefully conducted opinion surveys and on a series of in-depth workshops that explored public response.
What impressed the researchers was that the public seemed prepared to accept that change was necessary, would inevitably take place over a long period, and should be conducted fairly.
While studies in Europe and North America of attitudes to climate change and to energy technologies are certainly not new, this is believed to be the first comprehensive survey of national public opinion on all the complexities of climate change and what must be done to address it over the coming decades.
“Our research has shown that people are more likely to accept changes that show signs of commitment to their underlying values, such as energy system components that are clean, efficient, fair and safe,” said Professor Pidgeon.
“The public is also keen for policymakers to clarify how current changes to the energy system fit with longer-term plans, and to develop an intelligible and coherent strategy for this.”