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Why are people opposed to low-carbon energy technologies?

Written by Philip Boucher,

In the context of climate change, we often talk about the need to achieve public support for low-carbon energy technologies. However, new installations frequently face public opposition, and there are gaps between how regulators, developers and experts conceptualise and respond.

responding to public opposition to low-carbon energy technologies

Public acceptance of energy infrastructures goes beyond individual consumer choices. While almost all citizens make use of energy from the grid, some may object to the impacts of specific installations on their local environment, economy, sense of place, or a wide range of other factors. Opposition may also be more global, on the basis of climate change impacts. These opponents are sometimes characterised as ‘luddites’, dogmatically opposed to any kind of technology development, or as ‘NIMBYs’ (derived from ‘not in my back yard’), who want to use green energy but object to infrastructural developments in their local area. These characterisations are often found in popular discourse and, while they do provide a model for understanding opposition, they do not open many avenues for resolving disagreements.

A third characterisation suggests that opponents have misunderstood the technology or hold irrational fears of its potential impacts. This is known as the ‘knowledge deficit model’ and it is frequently found in strategies for managing the introduction of new technologies into society. Unlike luddite or NIMBY conceptualisations, the deficit model does indicate a practical means of responding to opposition and fostering public acceptance by informing citizens about the technology, particularly how it works and what benefits it can bring. For regulators, developers and other stakeholders that are eager to reap the promised social, environmental or economic benefits of technologies, it can be tempting and intuitive to adopt one of these three characterisations. The deficit model is particularly attractive when opposition is expected but there is little appetite to change the development path.

However, studies of public opposition to low-carbon energy technologies have repeatedly highlighted the inaccuracy and ineffectiveness of the luddite, NIMBY and knowledge deficit conceptualisations. They tend to misrepresent the often nuanced and sensitive concerns of citizens with simplistic or even pejorative caricatures of opposition. As a result – instead of opening paths to mutual understanding, dialogue and resolution – they are more likely to escalate tensions and lead to entrenched positions. Concepts such as ‘beyond NIMBYism’, ‘responsible research and innovation‘ and Science with and for Society have provided practical measures for understanding and responding to this opposition, usually focusing on establishing meaningful dialogues between the full range of actors involved, particularly developers and citizens, from the earliest stages of development.

STOA is organising a workshop, entitled ‘Responding to public opposition to low-carbon energy technologies’, which will provide an opportunity to discover and discuss several perspectives on understanding and responding to public opposition to low-carbon energy technologies. The workshop will also serve as the launch of a new STOA study, which reviews academic perspectives on these issues. It will open with a welcome address from STOA First Vice-Chair Paul RÜBIG (EPP, Austria), and an introduction to the workshop from the workshop’s chair and moderator Jens GEIER (S&D, Germany). This will be followed by a panel discussion, with presentations from Antonella BATTAGLINI (CEO, Renewables Grid Initiative), Sarah MANDER (Senior Researcher at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and lead author of the STOA study, Catharina SIKOW-MAGNY (Head of Unit, DG Energy, European Commission), Rosemary STEEN (Director of External Affairs, EirGrid) and Ilse TANT (Chief Public Acceptance Officer, Elia System Operator). The event will conclude with a Q&A session and debate with all participants.

Register to attend or watch the live webstream on the STOA event page.

About Scientific Foresight (STOA)

The Scientific Foresight Unit (STOA) carries out interdisciplinary research and provides strategic advice in the field of science and technology options assessment and scientific foresight. It undertakes in-depth studies and organises workshops on developments in these fields, and it hosts the European Science-Media Hub (ESMH), a platform to promote networking, training and knowledge sharing between the EP, the scientific community and the media. All this work is carried out under the guidance of the Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA), composed of 25 MEPs nominated by nine EP Committees. The STOA Panel forms an integral part of the structure of the EP.

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