Published on December 11, 2012

Towards a low carbon future: local energy issues

By Ingrid Prikken

Ingrid Prikken is Project Manager at Involve. Her work is focused on project design and management, facilitation and research. Her research covers embedding public engagement in government and citizen participation in challenging issues.

The City of Munich has an ambitious energy strategy: it strives to have an electricity supply using 100% renewable sources by 2025. One of the pillars of this strategy is an Alliance for Climate Protection, a platform for collaboration between the City Council and over a hundred local actors, including businesses, municipal utilities, urban planners, housing associations and NGOs. The sheer variety of backgrounds and interests mean there are differences and sometimes even conflict. However, progress is being made, because the Council has a vision that acts as a common reference for action in the various sectors.

The Munich case is one of the many inspiring examples of how local collaboration can be a powerful means towards reduction of carbon emissions from the IMAGINE seminar I attended last week.

The IMAGINE initiative was set up to provide a platform for collaboration and exchange, aimed at building low-energy and high-quality of life in cities. The main message that stuck with me was that the local level is key in transitioning towards a low carbon future. Through sharing ideas and experiences about local energy roadmaps with a group of fifty participants from different backgrounds, the urgency and importance of such initiatives was reiterated, as well as the need to involve stakeholders – including citizens.

This is the first in a series of three blog posts inspired by the IMAGINE seminar and sets out the context in which these European cities are moving towards a low-energy future. In the next piece I will share some of my thoughts around citizen engagement with energy futures and climate change. Finally, I will explore the use of visioning tools in engagement with decision making on these issues.

Ambitious targets

Creating a low carbon future will involve major structural changes to the way we live, work and travel. European member states have set ambitious targets. For 2020, the EU has committed to cutting its emissions to 20% below 1990 levels, implemented through a binding package of legislation. For 2050, EU leaders have endorsed the objective of reducing Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95% compared to 1990 levels, as set out in the Roadmap for moving to a low-carbon economy in 2050.

Different member states are taking different pathways towards transition and these are far from smooth. For example, Germany has an ambitious policy to cut carbon emissions with renewable energy, coined the ‘Energiewende’. The Germans are exploring a mix of top-down and bottom-up approaches; however this is not without a fight. Conflict of regional interests, struggles between centralised and decentralised powers, and a public energy debate reduced to prices, have left critics saying that it’s ‘one big mess’. A recent article in the Economist gives a flavour of the controversy. However, there is still optimism; in a recent speech the Secretary General of the German Council on Sustainable Development said energy transformation is helping to open up options and inviting ordinary people to be part of it, and offers green technology solutions that are linked to appealing lifestyles.

In the UK, energy transition is mostly focussed on energy produced by wind and nuclear power to meet the emissions reduction. The ‘blueprint’ for future UK power generation is set out in the recently introduced Energy Bill, yet conflict within government over the future direction of energy policy has not ended with the publication of the Bill. In a recent blog post, Nicholas Stern observed that over recent months the coalition has appeared unclear about the direction of energy policy and its commitment to low-carbon electricity, which may put off investors, thereby potentially throwing up difficulties for accessing affordable and secure sources of clean electricity.

Meanwhile in France, a six-month public debate on energy policy has been launched just two weeks ago, allowing the French to help shape the energy transition law in 2013. That could become a sharp debate with nuclear power at the heart of it.

These three examples demonstrate that achieving energy transition and adaptation at the pace and scale required will not be easy. Yet, European and national governments have an important role to play in leading the transition to low energy futures. Unfortunately, there is no ‘master plan’ for this transformation and it is heavily dependent on the national and sometimes even local context. To make sure the transition goes as smoothly as possible, governments will need to work together with stakeholders and citizens to build a shared vision of sustainable futures.

Local engagement

In a way, discussing these issues from the local perspective helped to bring the major challenges that come with mitigation and adaptation to climate change back to more realistic proportions, particularly in the current context of the global economic crisis and difficult international negotiations at the COP 18 UN Climate Change conference in Doha.

Participation on energy futures can be powerful in agreeing and implementing local, but also national and regional, objectives. In a recent study  we carried out for the EESC (publication forthcoming), we found that extensive and diverse energy futures participation initiatives are emerging at local, regional, national and even pan-European level.

The cities that are part of the IMAGINE initiative all have inspiring examples of how they engage stakeholders and citizens. Moreover, there are more than 4,500 municipalities signed up to the Covenant of Mayors, voluntarily committing themselves to the European targets. The representatives from these towns seem convinced of the benefits engagement can bring; for them involving stakeholders and citizens isn’t optional.

However, engagement comes with challenges, both strategic and practical. How do you empower local actors? How can you maintain engagement with local actors? How do you link that involvement to policy and decision making? Do we need to reinvent (local) governance? In the next post I will explore some of these questions when I discuss the benefits and barriers to citizen engagement with energy futures and climate change.

Image by N A I T


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