A week ago, I attended a seminar organised by the European Economic and Social Committee about promoting civil society’s involvement in the 2030 framework, which the European Commission is developing for their energy and climate policies. The purpose of the event was to maintain a dialogue with civil society and present the results of a public consultation on the Green paper about the 2030 framework. Ironically, there was a remarkable lack of in-depth discussion about the role of civil society or citizens.
To give a bit of context, the key issues in relation to the energy and climate framework and the consultation were: competitiveness, security of supply and setting carbon emissions targets. The public consultation received a total of 557 replies, the largest chunk from industry associations (40%). A small proportion of stakeholders that replied to the consultation were citizens (11%). The concern is obvious: ‘we’re not really listening to what energy prices mean to households’.
When there is talk of engaging the public, the narrative seems to be mostly around empowering consumers (also see this recent Involve post about the price of energy). How the debate can go beyond energy prices and impact of energy infrastructure and production method, towards a wider dialogue of what transition to a low carbon society looks like, is not clear cut.
There is recognition of the importance of getting more voices included in the debate. The EESC says that ‘the action and efforts of grass-roots communities and sectors will be key to meeting agreed goals and commitments, so policies must reflect the interests of civil society.’ What such engagement could potentially look like is discussed in their opinion paper, which explores the needs and methods of public involvement and engagement in the energy policy field. This builds on a preparatory study carried out by Involve (commissioned by the EESC).
The paper suggests the EESC will take a lead in establishing a European Energy Dialogue: ‘a coordinated multi-level, action-oriented conversation within and across all Member States’. At the core of this concept is the notion that energy should be redefined as a social issue. Indeed, an important call for more citizen engagement in the strategic direction of major policy choices – beyond their role as energy consumers.
However, is a common framework for energy dialogues going to encourage citizen engagement with these issues across Europe? Or is it rather ambitious to think that a European Energy Dialogue will gain much traction, when we’re already struggling to get a meaningful conversation going between citizens and government on a national (and even local) level?
I think a common energy engagement framework could be beneficial in certain respects. Perhaps it can bring in a European element in our national discussions – these issues are obviously not bound by national boundaries – and governments and citizens in other countries are dealing with similar issues as the UK. Maybe it will create a space for sharing experiences between countries, regions and communities and foster mutual learning.
For this to happen though, it should be framed in a way that encourages and supports national and local debate, perhaps a light touch set of principles for having these national discussions could be useful. Key will be to build on what’s already going on.
However, the biggest challenge I see is how this will be linked to decision making processes, on national and European level. If the EC public consultation is anything to go by, there’s still a long way to go for the EC to make meaningful engagement integral part of their policymaking process.
Image by TPCOM