UCL Energy Institute


Learning from COVID-19 to understand political and societal dynamics of UK energy transition

31 March 2020

In this blog Dr Rachel Freeman and Brunilde Verrier from the O-STET project share their thoughts on how learning from COVID 19 can help understand political and societal dynamics of UK energy transition.

Aerial view of London - Photo by Tim Easley on Unsplash

The emergency situation created by COVID 19 has led to tumultuous disruptions in the political, societal and economic systems around the world. The pandemic is causing terrible hardship, grief, loss, and stress for many. Assuming that the virus will be brought under control soon, and with respect to those suffering from its effects, this blog explores how the COVID-19 situation might affect the fabric of relationships between the government and the public regarding climate change mitigation and the energy transition towards net zero emissions. 

Despite decades of scientific consensus on climate, more frequent extreme weather events, and a recent surge in public protests about climate change, the process of energy transition has so far had little effect on people’s everyday lives. There exists no strong imperative to act on climate for many parts of society, government, and industry – an imperative that could be enforced through regulation or be an intrinsic urge leading to actions taken voluntarily. The “public willingness to participate” in energy transition remains highly variable and uncertain. Some energy transition policies work well and some backfire.  

Conversely, there is a very clear imperative to act in response to the virus. In the past few weeks, based on the advice of chief scientists, few aspects of our lives have been unaffected by the virus. Businesses, households, transport, government, and the health system are either under extreme stress or have had activities strongly curtailed. Under national emergencies political capital is usually high and governments can make requests for stringent behavioural changes from the public, with high compliance rates. Regarding emissions reductions, measures that could save emissions but also affect lifestyles have shown very poor results and consumption behaviours have counteracted much of the emissions savings from energy efficiency. Yet the public’s willingness to respond to COVID-19 restrictions show that far reaching changes are possible when the need is clear, the timeline is limited, and people’s wellbeing is clearly under threat. 

The response to COVID-19 has been described as a war against the virus. Those working on climate change response sometimes talk about the need to get onto a war footing, yet this is not a good analogy since war involves one group uniting against other group(s) who are seen as the wrongdoers. Climate response is more similar to a pandemic since our own behaviours can contribute to the problem (we can be our own wrongdoers), but the analogy again is not perfect: A pandemic is immediate, but there are decades of delay between cause and effect in climate change; the evidence for action on climate is via complex science rather than seeing harm first hand; invasive behavioural policies that can be tolerated for a short period to quell a pandemic would are unlikely to be acceptable on a longer term basis to reduce emissions. New language may be needed to describe the climate change challenge that reflects these differences.   

Responding to the virus has temporarily opened the Overton window – the spectrum of acceptability of government policies. Here are five ideas about how work on energy transition could be accelerated while the window stays open.

Idea 1: Relate the threat of climate change impacts to people’s experience of living in a COVID response world. In this crisis the availability of goods and services has become uncertain, economic stability is threatened, and our choices have been restricted – some of these could also occur, but for longer, if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced enough.

Idea 2: Those of us with the luxury of not being directly affected by the virus may now be enjoying cleaner air, less air traffic and road traffic noise, and a chance to slow life down. The temporary improvement in our local environment provides a brief view of a world in which shifting baselines can improve rather than degrade. We may not have to return to poor air quality, stress, noise and traffic congestion.   

Idea 3: The experience of living under restrictions may have affected attitudes about consumption. If many of us are forced to stay local, has that broken the compulsion towards hypermobility? Has the experience of seeing so many luxury cruises turn into nightmares put anyone off going on a cruise? There may have been changes in perception of distance, time, and value, leading to the desire for a more dematerialised set of free time activities.

Idea 4: The chief scientific officer and the chief medical officer have played a critical and very public role in the epidemic response, appearing alongside the prime minister in press briefings. Perhaps the role of scientists in the virus response has increased trust in scientists in the public. This could open the door, once the epidemic is over, for climate scientists to speak directly to the public about the reasons for taking action.  

Idea 5: Globalism has brought numerous benefits and also, arguably, contributed to accelerating environmental damage. Goods and services produced cheaply in low-cost countries allow high consumption lifestyles to grow. Mass movements of people for work or leisure over long distances contribute to ever increasing transport emissions – and have contributed to the rapid global spread of COVID-19. The pandemic could be a challenge the globalisation paradigm, providing a pause in which to consider whether the benefits are worth the risks to the future.    

Business as usual may return to the UK once the virus is under control, but this period of time will certainly leave its imprint. We might see changes in relationships between government and the rest of society, with both positive and negative results. Hopefully, there will be wider understanding that a crisis first seen far from home can impact, suddenly and deeply, our everyday world. We can only hope that once the crisis is over and we have made sure that those affected are taken care of, a new sensitivity towards mankind’s precarious success in modernity will lead to more urgency in climate action, an increase in the public willingness to participate in the path to net zero, and an increase in the political capital that government can use, hopefully wisely and fairly, to achieve the net zero target. 

The authors are researchers at UCL’s Energy Institute, working on the project called O-STET. O-STET is bringing socio-technical energy transition modelling (STET) into use within real world decision-making processes that are concerned with the UK’s energy transition towards net zero. The relationships between public willingness to participate, political capital, and technological change are being explored in the model called TEMPEST. Project findings are due to be published by the end of 2020.