Climate change: exploring a citizen-centric paradigm
09 January 2018
Ireland's energy landscape is facing a significant transformation. Paul O’Brien writes that the challenge for the Irish Government is to implement policy mechanisms to drive positive behaviours by rewarding energy citizens
Political discourse acknowledges that climate change is real and the government has tasked the citizens’ assembly with devising strategies for making Ireland a leader in tackling climate change. As consumers, our choices and behaviours can influence energy demand and carbon emissions. This article explores attitudes, opinions and behaviours relating to climate change, renewable energy and citizen engagement in Ireland.
The following discussion is informed by quantitative survey data from 455 participants, seven semi-structured interviews with industry thought leaders, and social media research. This three-pronged approach provides valuable insight in terms of perceptions toward climate change and energy behaviour.
Energy policy is geared toward substantially decarbonising the Irish economy by 2050 to mitigate the effects of climate change. An energy transformation is required to achieve policy-led targets for renewable energy, energy efficiency and carbon emissions. The societal challenges associated with such a broad transformation will be significant, and Government has made some incremental efforts to involve the public.
The concept of an ‘energy citizen’ and ‘prosumer’ have been introduced in recent policy papers. With the exception of the recently formed citizens’ assembly, public participation in climate change and energy policy discourse has been negligible.
Encouragingly, the study finds that over 85% of respondents agree that Ireland needs to do more to fight climate change. It is evident that citizens acknowledge their role, but expect Government to show climate leadership.
Figure 1 illustrates that the majority believe “government and policy makers” are the most important stakeholder in taking on that challenge.
A common theme throughout the study indicates that participants, in general, appear disinterested and disengaged in energy and climate change matters. Lack of awareness and understanding may be a contributory factor to this inertia.
Over 60% of respondents consider their knowledge of climate, energy, or the environment, to be just average or below. This study established that a lack of information and time are significant barriers to getting more participation from citizens.
This study reveals that information on climate and energy is currently acquired through television, daily newspapers, radio and the internet, as illustrated in Figure 2.
While television and newspapers are the primary information sources, citizens are becoming more likely to depend on social media, with 68% of participants using social media daily. Participants were also asked what social media sites they currently have an account with. Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter were the most common sites used with 345 (77.88%); 307 (69.30%) and 237 (53.50%) participants respectively.
Currently, only one out of every five respondents are likely to use social media as an information source or discussion platform for climate matters. Notwithstanding, over 70% of survey respondents signal positive agreement that “online social networks can influence public attitudes and perceptions in relation to climate and energy matters”.
The changing dynamic of digital communications and the influence of social media presents an opportunity to reach a wide audience and inform the climate change debate. Significant time pressures in modern society demand information to be relevant, efficient and easy for the public to consume.
Failure to effectively engage the citizen on energy is a common theme throughout the study. This research asserts that society will benefit from more educational programs about climate change and the role of renewable energy in mitigating the impact. Government should explore opportunities to enhance societal understanding, but it is not clear if the public are interested in learning or engaging with these issues.
To date, public participation in energy policy discourse has not progressed beyond aspirational. The data reveals very little appetite from participants to engage in energy matters apart from receiving information.
Figure 3 summarises the percentage of respondents that indicate a positive interest, by responding that they would be “very interested” or “extremely interested” in attending forums, sharing views or receiving information.
Findings indicate that just under half of respondents are interested in receiving information on climate and energy matters. It emerged that only one in five respondents would be interested in attending energy forums, and even less are willing to share their views publicly.
The Citizens Assembly is the first step taken by government to engage the public in policy development. Advocates of participatory democracy may suggest this is an important mechanism to empower society and should ultimately lead to improved policy design.
One of Ireland’s foremost thought-leaders on community energy and engagement maintains: “The objective of participatory democracy is not to convince those that do not want to participate to get involved, but, to demonstrate that citizens are being represented. Thereby, providing a greater sense of trust and transparency in the system.
“If people observe other members of their community engaging on energy matters and coming up with solutions to Ireland’s energy challenges, they are more likely to be accepting of the outcome.”
Conversely, a survey respondent argues that participatory processes are “driving down the level of decision making to those least qualified to make the best decisions”.
These contradictory findings demonstrate that the notion of public participation and most effective strategy for engaging the citizen in the debate on energy and climate is unlikely to be unanimous.
The energy citizen
The Government White Paper asserts that “every citizen has a role to play in energy transition” and attempts to encourage a citizen-centric approach. Neologisms such as the ‘energy citizen’ have been introduced into policy discourse, but its significance is unclear. It is implicit of a citizen that is engaged in energy and makes sustainable energy choices, but this study seeks to better understand people’s perception.
An open-ended survey question gave participants the opportunity to put forward thoughts on what the ‘energy citizen’ represents from their perspective. Sentiment was generally positive and the following call-outs provide a sample of remarks, both positive and negative:
Over 70% of survey respondents react positively to the concept of the ‘energy citizen’ in the context of energy policy discourse. From a policy perspective, the broadly positive sentiment towards the ‘energy citizen’ is promising. The challenge now is for government to make it relevant for the public to allow them embrace the concept of the ‘energy citizen’.
Content analysis reveals the words most commonly associated with the energy citizen neologism include green (n=37), sustainable (n=15), aware (n=38), conscious (n=37) and responsible (n=38).
The qualitative aspect of this study provided an opportunity to explore the concept of the ‘energy citizen’ in-depth, with a view to bringing a significance to the concept in a practical sense. It is notable that most interviewees provided little insight on the ‘energy citizen’, signalling a lack of recognition for the term.
One industry leading expert provided this definition: “An energy citizen is someone who lives in a house that is decreasing its energy use and its carbon emissions. They drive an electric car or are thinking about it; they invest in community renewables if they can and have PV panels on their roof, or are thinking about them. Their energy-related investments go to the ones that matter, the ones that are low carbon.”
Encouragingly, almost 90% of participants agree that “as citizens, we must do more to combat climate change”. Unfortunately, this is not reflected in individual behaviours. Sourcing ‘green’ energy is not a priority for participants when choosing an electricity supplier and fewer than 20% of respondents have renewable energy sources in the home.
The aim of the research was to understand public attitudes and opinions, to further our understanding of societal challenges such as citizen-centric policy.
A common thread throughout indicates a failure to effectively engage the citizen on energy and climate change. The need for enhanced communication and greater citizen engagement were apparent. A critical success factor for any communication initiative is the trustworthiness of the source of the information.
This research indicates that trust in the government is low, compared to other industry stakeholders. As a result, it is recommended that any initiative aimed at engaging the citizen, although supported by Government, must be spearheaded by other organisations who rank higher in terms of trust. The study finds that over 80% of survey respondents are likely to trust “researchers and academics”.
Measures must be implemented to increase public awareness and knowledge, leveraging social media platforms, as well as traditional communication mechanisms. Some of the recommendations outlined in this report provide practical initiatives aimed at engaging citizens, such as:
- Develop a national communication strategy to raise awareness of climate change, backed by a multi-stakeholder strategic alliance. This could leverage a genuine appetite amongst senior industry leaders for greater cross-industry collaboration to ensure consistency when communicating with the public on matters related to energy and climate change;
- This citizen-centric campaign should focus on identifying and embedding core values associated with an energy citizen, such as those identified in this empirical research: sustainable, responsible, aware;
- National communication initiatives must be supplemented by targeted initiatives aimed at communities and individuals, to encourage sustainable behaviour. The behaviour of an energy citizen should align with the core values under a central theme of empowered citizenship.
The energy landscape in Ireland is undoubtedly facing a significant transformation. Energy policy is geared toward substantially decarbonising the Irish economy by 2050 and the nature of the energy transition requires a new, citizen centric paradigm.
Budget 2018 introduces marginal measures targeting climate change and incentivising sustainable behaviours, but is unlikely to generate the paradigm shift required to make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change.
From a policy perspective, the broadly positive sentiment towards the ‘energy citizen’ is encouraging. The challenge now is for the Irish Government to implement the policy mechanisms to drive behaviours by rewarding the energy citizen.
Paul O’Brien, a chartered engineer with multidisciplinary expertise, has been involved in the energy sector since 2005. He works in asset management at Gas Networks Ireland and holds a primary degree in Structural Engineering and a Masters in Business from Cork Institute of Technology (CIT).
Research was supervised by Dr Angela Wright, as part of the Masters of Business at the Department of OPD, School of Business, CIT.