Public perceptions of, and attitudes towards, energy

By Prof Derek Taylor; Honorary Professor at UoN and Former Energy Advisor to the European Commission

When I gave this lecture at Nottingham University a few weeks ago, I concluded with a remark that we should not ask people their opinion on something that they were poorly informed about. I added that this was particularly important if we planned to act on that opinion. I cannot claim that this was an original view or that I was trying to be at all prophetic, but I think that the outcome of the referendum on 23 June could well have endorsed it.

What has this to do with energy?” you may ask. Basically nothing, other than the fact that my lecture was based around the results of Eurobarometer surveys – regular and frequent polling of Public opinion in all the European Union (EU) Member States by the European Commission (EC). These surveys are based on around one thousand randomly selected people being interviewed – face to face – in every State. So recent surveys are based on close to 30,000 face to face interviews on topics selected to be of interest to European citizens. Energy has figured frequently in such surveys (since 1974) and there have also been “Special” Eurobarometer surveys when energy, or some aspect of energy, has been the only topic covered. Environment and Climate Change have also featured prominently, especially in more recent years.

When the Europeans were asked what they were most concerned about at the moment, they were given a list of a number of “problems facing the EU” and told to identify as many issues as they wished. The environment, energy supply and Climate Change were all included in the list. The results of four recent surveys (between 2010 and 2015) are shown in figure below. The increase in concerns about immigration is particularly noticeable during this period (as is the decrease in concern about economic issues) – but the environment, energy supply and Climate Change appear to be of relatively little concern relative to several others.

However, when asked specific questions about these topics elsewhere in the same surveys or in Special surveys the Public clearly has an opinion – and often a strong one! It is very important to realise that such opinions have frequently been used in the past to formulate policies or to take political decisions, in particular on subjects such as nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Many people do not realise that it was the UK – the then Prime Minister Tony Blair -  that launched the idea of a common EU energy policy (Hampton Court, 2005). This idea has, since that date, received clear support from the Member States and the general public. In surveys since 2007, there has always been a clear majority in favour of a common energy policy in all Member States with, most recently, 70% of European in favour and only 20% against.  The UK is somewhat less enthusiastic than most other States with only 56% in favour – but only 31% against (13% don’t knows).

But do people really know that much about energy to form a reasoned opinion? In a series of surveys in the 1980s and 1990s, we asked the Public which energy source would be stable in terms of price in the following 10 years. Natural gas was the clear favourite followed by Renewable energies (RES) while solid fuels and nuclear energy – surely the two most stable sources in terms of cost – scored very poorly. Natural gas and RES were also identified as being the more secure forms of supply, while solid fuels and oil came very low on the list.

When asked about the impact of carbon dioxide on Climate Change in surveys in 2008 and 2009, 31% thought it only had a marginal impact (it is, in fact, the main cause). The regional variations here were quite strong (as is often the case with Public opinion) ranging from close to 50% of the Dutch thinking it had a marginal impact to only 10% of the Bulgarians. In 2011, 67% of the Public did not know what carbon capture and storage (CCS) was and a further 18% had “heard of it” – but couldn’t say what it was either. In fact only half the people interviewed knew what CO2 was. In spite of this, when CCS was explained to them, 64% of the Public expressed concern about its possible negative effects on the environment and health and 63% were concerned about the risk of leaks while the storage site was in operation. Other concerns were over transport to the storage site (39%), drop in house prices (18%) and terrorist attack (14%). In a separate survey, the Public expressed nearly identical concerns – over the disposal of high-level radioactive waste.

Nuclear energy and, in particular, radioactive waste is probably one of the most divisive issues that the Eurobarometer has polled European opinion about. The opinion is strongly divided between those States with nuclear power plants (in favour of nuclear power) and those without (against nuclear power). The EU average is 44% in favour of nuclear with Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic generally being the more positive with Cyprus, Malta, Austria and Greece the most negative. While an overwhelming majority of the Public want a solution to the disposal of high-level radioactive waste immediately, more than three-quarters of the people think there is no safe way to do it – and close to 50% think that it is being dumped in the sea. It is clear that the public are really rather poorly informed about the subject of nuclear energy – and they know it. Only one in four thinks that they are at least “fairly well informed”. Of the remainder, 49% say “not well informed” and 25% say “not informed at all”. So we must really question the usefulness of many of the opinions expressed – both positive and negative. But, as I said earlier, these opinions are frequently used by policy makers and politicians.

This blog can only give an impression of the Public’s perception on energy issues. The Eurobarometer surveys covering these issues are a veritable mine of information. Not only are the data broken down by regions, but also by sex, age, income, habitation, level of education and occupation. There are often very significant variations from one social group to another and all this is lost is the averaging. The original data give a much clearer idea of why the Public think the way they do on the various issues – and can possibly be a guide to how to try to influence the perceptions in the future. These data are nearly all accessible through the Commission’s Eurobarometer web site.
However, as fascinating as I find the topic of Public perception and attitudes to energy, I cannot stress highly enough that great care should be taken with its interpretation and, above all, any use to which an interpretation is put.

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