Moving Away from Fossil Fuels

The latest climate change report by Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that unprecedented levels of greenhouse gases emissions require an urgent shift to the use of zero- and low-carbon energies. The IPCC is the most authoritative figure when it comes to climate science and has provided solid scientific basis to confront and convince policymakers.

Nevertheless, the difficulties of adopting the IPCC’s recommendations lie not only in political will but also public perception, which demands a different kind of dialogue and consensus-building.

China provides an insightful example where the political will to move away from the use of coal stems from a long battle with heavy air pollution in the northern provinces, including its capital city of Beijing.

The persistent air pollution problem, mostly a consequence of coal burning, has resulted in a large number of premature deaths and the damage on food supply, local businesses and workforce, and tourism are incalculable. At the highest political level, the State Council has announced a detailed action plan, supported by a US$1.65 billion fund, to cut air pollution by setting ambitious timelines for key cities, limiting coal consumption in key economic areas, and banning the approval of new conventional coal-fired power plants.

Globally, the biggest hurdle and arguably the slowest stakeholder to change is the general public. The IPCC report recommends that renewables, nuclear energy, and fossil energy or bioenergy with carbon dioxide capture and storage in the energy mix should be increased. Public support is needed for this energy transition, which has proven to be difficult to gather in the past. High profile examples of resistance include protests against a carbon dioxide capture and storage project in the Netherlands and against wind farms in Ireland.

Frequent disagreements persist between experts and the public on the risks associated with the recommended energy options. While the public overall does not ignore the experts’ predictions, they take into consideration more factors in determining the level of risk. Examples of such factors include: voluntariness, personal control,latency period of effects, trust in risk management authorities, perceived benefits, familiarity,availability of comparisons, previous experiences, perceived causes, and distance from risk. These factors explain the seemingly “irrational” fear expressed by the public, as viewed by the experts, who continue to produce well-researched results that are overlooked or distrusted.

In finding a way forward, the IPCC recommendations ought to be accompanied by adequate (risk) communication which would help prevent unnecessary conflicts and reach constructive agreements between different interest groups (for example, local communities, project developers, municipal and national governments) on the development of zero- and low-carbon energy projects. Research has identified several ways that will make communication more effective, including:

  • The involvement of credible and knowledgeable organizations as information sources;
  • Active and targeted upstream engagement with the public before they have formed entrenched attitudes on the issue;
  • The provision of balanced, qualitative, and dialectical information that contains the scientific uncertainties in lay language and a focus both on relevant facts as well as values;
  • The benefits of using a variety of instructional and interactive media and channels.

While the important global deal on climate change will be signed by states in Paris in December 2015, relevant bodies already need to think about how to communicate to different stakeholders the practical outcomes of the agreement in order to reduce confusion and unnecessary disagreements and to ensure a more consensus-based and effective implementation from 2020 onwards.

Policy-makers may be convinced by findings that climate change is real and caused by human activities, and that mitigation will only result in a median of 0.06 percent reduction of consumption growth annually (not taking into account economic benefits of reduced climate change). For the public though, the impacts of adopting zero- and low-carbon energy options will be understood more in terms of health, economic opportunities, and the value of property among other proximate concerns, which science alone will not be able to address and persuade.

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