Post carbon communities: Linking climate change and energy use

Policy should not assume that people directly link climate change to household energy use, according to new research. The GILDED project’s analysis of five EU countries indicates that the public view climate change as part of a wider concern about sustainability, and individuals believe their own actions can have little impact. Advice on energy use needs to be clear and provide feedback on the impact of collective action.

Public understanding of climate change has been a popular area of research and, on the whole, results have recommended an improvement in education. However, awareness campaigns should not just fill the knowledge gap with information. If policy is aiming to lower carbon emissions, it must be based on a better comprehension of public views on climate change.

The GILDED project is using an innovative combination of methods in the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Germany, Hungary and the Czech Republic across both urban and rural areas. These include a survey of governance and infrastructure across the case study areas, semi-structured interviews with both key stakeholders and members of the public, a questionnaire survey incorporating the first carbon calculator to be devised for use across multiple EU countries (which will be used to assess the effectiveness of asking an experimental group to commit to reducing household energy use), and agent-based modelling of community energy demand based on the data collected.

The project is due to finish in 2011. Currently it has findings from 200 in-depth interviews, analysing public opinion on the link between energy consumption and climate change. Alongside this are preliminary results from an analysis of energy policy structure in the five countries and 75 interviews from key local stakeholders such as local authorities, energy providers and environmental protection agencies. Analysis of over 2,000 questionnaire responses has now begun.

Several policy-relevant themes have emerged:

  • Many respondents defined climate change differently from how it is portrayed in the media and did not always have an accurate perception. Policy cannot assume a level of public knowledge, for example when using concepts such as ‘carbon footprint’. Stakeholders involved in energy tend to hold the view that education has an important role but it needs to include clear cost-effective suggestions for changing consumption patterns, for example turning down the thermostat by 1°C could cut heating bills by up to 10%, using energy saving light bulbs, investing in home insulation, washing clothes at a lower temperature, and not leaving appliances on standby etc. In all countries and areas, the study indicated there was a range of funding sources for energy-saving behaviour but that the diversity often resulted in confusion. Better and more co-ordinated funding could improve energy saving behaviour.
  • People tend to think about climate change as part of a bigger picture of sustainability, alongside other issues such as water, air pollution and waste management. Whilst not overly concerned about climate change as a single issue, they often expressed worry over the unsustainable way of living in their countries. This indicates it may be easier to instigate energy saving by relating to concepts like sustainability and energy efficiency. Some stakeholders suggested that external factors might provide an opportunity for change, for example the global recession and rises in fuel prices.
  • Although 40 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions come from private households, most respondents see the link between climate change and their home energy consumption as indirect (see figure 1). Many respondents view climate change as a global issue and feel their individual actions are inconsequential. They believe the government has the most important role in addressing climate change and that a top-down approach will ensure policies impact everyone fairly and eliminate ‘free-riders’. The countries varied in their energy policy and each had strengths and weaknesses with no clear winner. However, it was suggested that legislation at the national level needs to provide both incentives (feed-in tariffs for renewables, grants for home insulation) as well as disincentives (e.g. taxes on fossil fuels) if local government and individuals are to bring about change in energy consumption.

 Figure 1

  • Interestingly, although the public showed concern about sustainable use of resources, respondents from four of the countries were not concerned about energy security, suggesting a weak link between wasting resources and running out of energy. Only in Scotland was there a concern about energy security, probably because its economy is highly dependent on the oil industry, making the energy security issue more prominent. Apart from energy security the emerging themes were similar across the five countries and across urban and rural areas. This suggests that the findings are reflecting European public opinions rather than national ones.

On the basis of the results so far, researchers form GILDED had three broad policy recommendations:

  • Clear, consistent and easy-to-access advice is needed on energy saving in the home alongside feedback on the impact of collective action. For example, consumers show considerable interest in energy-efficient appliances: information about which kinds of appliances use most energy (consumers tend to estimate simply by their size), and clear and well-publicised labelling schemes for such appliances are important. If there are subsidies available for buying such equipment, or for insulation of the home, they need to be promoted, and advice on applying for them needs to be easy to find, online and in the appropriate retail outlets.
  • Sufficient funds are required to ensure engagement by householders, communities and stakeholders in changing their behaviours.
  • Examples of good practice by public body and stakeholder partnerships should be developed to demonstrate the benefits of CO2 reduction. These could be in the areas of infrastructure, transport and energy planning. For example, in the Netherlands, the responsibility for cycling policies is mainly down to municipalities. Assen has many projects that are focussed on improving cycling conditions, including targets for achieving high quality corridors to and from the city, attractive recreational cycling routes and good storage facilities for bicycles at public spaces. There are two organisations that have a strong focus on improving cycling quality in the city: the environmental federation Drenthe and the cyclists union of Assen. In total, Assen has 108 km of cycling tracks as well as many neighbourhood streets which are used as part of a cycling route. There are on average 100 movements per day per 100 inhabitants by bike, which accounts for one third of all trips in the city. Compared to similar cities, the share of trips by bicycle is significantly higher in Assen.

The GILDED project has other research strands in development. These include a detailed evaluation of an initiative to encourage lower household energy consumption and a model that will simulate the interactions between people and groups to assess the overall impact of energy saving initiatives.

GILDED – Governance, Infrastructure, Lifestyle, Dynamics and Energy Demand: European Post-Carbon Communities (duration: 1/12/2008 – 31/12/2011) was a Specific Targeted Research Project funded under the 7th Framework Programme for Research of the European Union, Thematic Priority 2 – Combining economic, social and environmental objectives in a European perspective.

See: http://www.gildedeu.org

Contact: Nick Gotts, n.gotts@macaulay.ac.uk; Lee-Ann Sutherland,l.sutherland@macaulay.ac.uk