Climate Change Research: What does it mean for the renewables sector?
By Harry Gilham, Account Director, Public Policy London
There has been significant growth in the renewables sector in the UK over the past decade; the UK leads the way on offshore wind and is one of the largest producers of solar energy in the world. Yet despite this success the Conservative government in recent months has cooled on promoting the progress made in the past 12 years towards a greener, cleaner energy mix. In particular, opposition to solar panels being placed on agricultural land for reasons of food security is causing alarm in the UK solar sector. With a new leader of the Conservative Party set to be announced by the end of next week it remains to be seen what the final specific position on net zero will be. However, there is a consensus within the parliamentary party on the need to achieve net zero.
Conservative voters and party members are often polled as some of the most sceptical of the need to take climate action and resistant to wind and solar farms. However, this approach is at odds with wider public opinion on the need for more renewable energy and the view that the government bears the biggest responsibility for tackling climate change. 23% of the public think the UK government bears the biggest responsibility for tackling climate change, nearly double the percentage of those that think its up to individuals to tackle climate issues at 12%.
Given this, the renewables sector clearly has a communications challenge on its hands, at the heart of which is convincing national governments not to back away from the net zero by 2050 pledge, and local governments in charge of planning applications not to underestimate the level of support that exists for renewables schemes.
Navigating the renewables landscape
Against the backdrop of widespread public support for renewable energy and public concern about climate change the renewable sector can certainly grow rapidly over the next decade. Yet, there are still political challenges the sector needs to navigate, from “Nimbyism” to changing government priorities.
First, the renewable sector should focus on demonstrating public support for any new development, particularly in local government planning system. Whilst the planning process in the UK can be a difficult environment, where the “vocal minority” often make their views known at the public consultation stage and in the run-up to decision committee, developers should seek out supportive voices and ensure their views are known to decision makers. This can also include engaging with climate action groups who can encourage their members to write in support.
Councillors who make the decision at a local level on these schemes are always far more comfortable knowing there are just as many supportive voices out there as opposition, as these voters are the ones who return them to public office at election time. With onshore wind set to make a comeback, this will become more crucial.
For example, this year Instinctif’s local government team carried out a survey for a large solar farm application. It asked residents what their views were not just on the application, but on renewable energy in general, including solar power. The vast majority of respondents were in favour both of the application and renewable energy and agreed with the need for more renewable energy generation. These findings played a key role in convincing members of the planning committee to support the application.
At a national level the renewable sector in its conversations with Ministers should point to research like this, showing there is considerable public concern about the climate crisis and a desire for governments to address it. They can say with confidence that rather than going against the grain of public opinion governments should be doing more to support renewable electricity generation to tackle climate change.
With a rapid review into net zero currently underway now is the time to state this case more clearly than ever – there’s a business case as well as a potential electoral prize for the party that’s seen to be on the side of the renewable revolution.