Opinion: Climate change messaging – is the government getting it right?

Environmental consultant Stephen Cirell explains the situation that the government find itself in with regards to energy as the Russia-Ukraine conflict continues, and how public engagement will be crucial to accelerate the shift to renewables. 

At the time of writing this, any of us could be forgiven for thinking that we are in crisis. The war in Ukraine is but one example of how things seem to be spinning out of control. Even before Russia invaded its neighbour, gas prices had gone through the roof, due to a number of different reasons such as supplies in Europe running low.

People had not made the connection between the price of gas on the wholesale market and the generation of electricity in the UK, but a substantial proportion of our power is generated using gas fired turbines. It became clear to OFGEM that the domestic electricity price cap had to be increased. The evidence was over 30 independent electricity supply companies going to the wall because they had not purchased electricity sufficiently far in advance to secure discounts and sharply increasing prices over a short time destroyed their business cases.

This has fuelled concerns about an increase in fuel poverty with something like 40% of the population heading towards this unenviable status. Inflation is also at its highest level for 40 years, meaning rising costs of living (over and above wages) and parallel problems to the rising costs of energy.

windmills on green field under white sky during daytime

The Government’s Position

In some ways the Government has been the author of its own misfortune. It could have spent the last ten years funding more renewable energy, meaning that the UK would be less reliant on any fossil fuel supplies, let alone Russian gas.

As soon as solar PV became commercially viable it could have included it in the contracts for difference regime and continually provided funding to develop more projects. Similarly with on shore wind, whose future was put into limbo by the objections of Conservative back benchers in the Shire counties on flimsy grounds of visual amenity. An increase in both wind and solar capacity could have gone some way to sorting the current problems.

Later on, when recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic, the Government had the right idea with the ‘build back better’ scheme and hopes were raised of a substantial housing retrofit package to both support the Climate Change Act targets, as well as stimulating economic growth and providing new jobs. But the outcome of this venture was disappointing, and no significant retrofit programme has yet emerged. This again, would have contributed significantly to reducing energy bills and improving living conditions, undermining the current problems.

What Should the Government Do Now?

The Government should be looking at how it can accelerate the green revolution and notwithstanding its hitherto slow pace, move forwards quickly. Is it going to do this?

It is, perhaps, unsurprising that instead there are renewed calls for the removal of the green levies, a return to coal fired power or increased oil and gas exploration in the UK waters of the North Sea. The Government seems intent on blaming the Ukraine crisis for the need to go backwards, albeit temporarily. This is the last thing the UK needs.

Instead, the Government should be urging people to reduce their energy usage, increase their energy efficiency and develop renewable energy where possible. Despite the fuel poverty, there are many in the ‘able to pay’ category who could fund such work themselves, but there is no clear message to them from the Government that this is what they should be doing.

A Government Communications Strategy

The Committee on Climate Change has consistently said that it is essential to get the public on board when the need for changes reaches the business end of the targets. In other words, when the easy projects have been done (i.e., changes that do not affect people) and making further emissions reductions impacts on behaviour change, it is imperative the people are behind this.

But the Government has long since stopped funding PR. This was not always the case. When the original Green Deal was launched, it was necessary to persuade people to undertake energy efficiency work the cost of which would be repaid from energy bill savings. It was pointed out then that when the analogue TV signal was turned off (meaning that anyone not switching would not be able to watch TV) the Government spent £200m on a communications campaign, with TV adverts and messages. The Green Deal was the most important infrastructure development since World War II, yet the Government allocated a PR budget of zero. Needless to say, the venture failed.

Communication is key to the achievement of the Climate Change Act targets. It has to be addressed and the current crisis outlined above gives the perfect opportunity for this to happen. It goes without saying that funding must be provided for this purpose.

We need to explain to people that the energy crisis will only get worse and they need to understand its causes. The main escape from this situation is to make the UK energy self-sufficient from within its own shores. Everyone has to play a part in this. Energy use has to be reduced, energy efficiency greatly improved, and significantly more renewable energy generated.

The work of the Citizens’ Juries around local government has shown that even sceptics can be won over when the facts are dispassionately revealed to them. People have to understand that it is not the green levies that are putting their energy bills up but the UK’s reliance on fossil fuels. There are many reports already available that show the UK can achieve its Climate Change Act targets with current technologies, even excluding nuclear power. The economy would be transformed in the meantime, jobs created, and everyone’s health and wellbeing improved.

Some people are starting to understand this, but there is much further work to do. But there is still time for the Government to get this right. People are not going to agree with changes requiring behaviour change unless they know the facts. It may well be necessary for some short-term relief (such as reductions in fuel duty) but it is the longer term that the Government should be focussing on. So the sooner it embarks on a well-structured and thought through communications strategy on energy and climate change to start this process the better. Otherwise, the UK will remain in crisis and even be in danger of going backwards to everyone’s detriment.

Photo by American Public Power Association


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