Politicians alone cannot change public attitudes to energy

OECD Observer

OECD Forum, 15th May, 2001– Sustainable Energy: Critical Factors in Energy Policy; moderator: Olivier Deleuze 

Politicians are proving unable to change people’s attitudes to energy use, and non-government organisations need to get involved if energy consumption is to become sustainable, Indian Minister of Power Shri Suresh Prabhu said on Tuesday, May 15. India is concerned about a secure energy supply as are the industrial countries, he told a session on sustainable energy at the OECD’s Forum 2001 on Sustainable Development and the New Economy. But, he said, the task before India – where the per capita consumption of electric power of a unit a day is among the lowest in the world – is somewhat more daunting than that facing OECD countries.

“For us, it’s also a quality of life issue,” said Mr Prabhu. “Many people don’t have access to electricity. We want to fix that while still preserving a healthy environment. In fact, in this way, it is a global issue,” he said.

All panellists agreed that increasing the use of renewable energy sources, such as wind or solar generated systems, is the best answer to creating sustainable energy supply.

But, said Mr Prabhu, “the politicians worldwide are unable to change the mindsets of people by definition, which is crucial, because governments are not the right agencies to bring about change of this type. That’s why I think the non-governmental agencies must get involved.”

International Energy agency executive director Robert Priddle, who also sits on a G8 task force, created last year, that is dedicated to examining renewable energy, said if one of the highest levels of government is willing to look at the issue, the message must be getting through.

“Governments have been confronted, abruptly and rudely in the last 12 months by citizens, saying they have not got the balance right. People want abundant, reasonably-priced energy,” he said. “Demonstrations against rising oil prices throughout OECD countries in the past year show that citizens are no longer complacent to fluctuating energy levels”, Mr Priddle said. In particular, Mr Priddle said that oil supply disruptions lead to economic recession, and that economic and sustainable development go hand in hand.

Mr Priddle said Wednesday’s meeting of ministers of IEA countries in Paris is crucial to putting energy security back on the international agenda.

“Overall, what ministers have to do,” said Mr Priddle, “is to reconsider the balance of the three Es: energy security, economic development and environmental protection, not forgetting the social pillar of sustainable development.”

Olivier Deleuze, Belgium’s Secretary of State for Energy and Sustainable Development, said that for many people climate change often takes a backseat to more immediate issues. “Our citizens want security of supply. And if there is the slightest problem – not even a California situation of outages, but even a UK Belgium, or European situation of some months ago, as far as the trucks are concerned,” said Mr Deleuze. “In these moments, our citizens don’t speak of climate change. They say I don’t have oil for my car.”

However, Bill Hare, of Greenpeace International, said he gives citizens themselves more credit. “If you look at public opinion polling around the world, it is clear that the public in the OECD are aware of the problem,” said Mr Hare. “In general, majorities and often large majorities want governments to take action. In some cases, including in the US, some opinion polls show that people would be prepared to pay something for that. So to my mind a lot of the problems has to do with lack of integration in governments.”

©OECD Observer May 2001

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