Guest Post: Energy Knowledges in Transition, Examples from France and Spain
Gabriel Bonnamy, 14th July 2023
Gabriel Bonnamy is an Economics and Geography student at the University of St Andrews and is a former undergraduate representative for the Energy Geographies Research Group. This blog post is the result of research conducted with funding from the University of St Andrews’ Rector’s Fund (£500). If you would like to contribute a blog post for our website, or if you would like to become an undergraduate representative, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please note: This is a guest post contributed by an external author. The views and opinions expressed in this post are not those of the Energy Geographies Research Group.
Spreading knowledge about climate and energy issues is widely considered to be the first step towards effective climate action. In recent years, France has seen rapid growth in pedagogical tools devised to help individuals and businesses understand the causes and consequences of climate change. Awareness of climate change is rapidly increasing, especially with the spread of the internationally successful workshop The Climate Fresk, which has been rolled out for many grandes écoles (prestigious French universities') students .
Indeed, French climate education stands out internationally due to the thematic diversity of courses which have adopted the Climate Fresk’s structure. Lasting 2-3 hours for a handful of participants, these collaborative workshops derived from the IPCC’s latest reports are led by trained facilitators. Instead of a top-down transmission of knowledge, they call on a group’s collective intelligence to gain a systemic understanding of the causes and consequences of climate change. Similar workshops now focus on issues such as biodiversity, transportation, waste, nutrition, energy, circular economy, water, individual carbon footprint calculations, and so forth . French leadership in the area is also marked by the French Agency for the Ecological Transition’s creation of the “bilan carbone” in 2002, a carbon footprint measurement which kickstarted the private provision of such analyses.
Although still insufficient, the growing interest for climate awareness in France was reasserted in 2022 with the Macron Government’s participation in a short course taught by Valerie Masson-Delmotte, co-chair of the IPCC’s working group I . This initiative was strengthened by the establishment of state-certified training agencies such as Koncilio, whose mandate is the education of public servants and local elected officials .
In the summer of 2021, I travelled the length of France and, to a lesser degree, Spain, by bike and train, stopping en-route to visit a series of diverse energy infrastructures at the heart of both countries’ climate change debates (including a dam, new photovoltaic installation, a decommissioned power plant, and an international nuclear fusion research centre), interviewing elected officials who were intimately involved with the country’s carbon reduction initiatives . My aim was to learn about energy initiatives at the local scale, from local public servants themselves, and provide an alternative perspective to the intense national political debates currently being conducted around energy and climate change in France. Interviewees for the project were selected on the basis of their geographical proximity to, and political involvement within, the diverse energy infrastructures mentioned above.
In this blog post, I describe some of my experiences from this trip, and summarise the findings of my interviews with these elected officials. It is split into three sections. In its first part, I discuss my field observations, namely the barriers to thinking about climate change and energy among elected officials. The second part of the post then strives to explain the status quo by assessing the compatibility of economic growth with climate action as policy objectives. The final section lays out potential actions of awareness-raising going forward.
Barriers to Thinking about Climate Change
Energy is inherently linked with issues of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. Of the two countries I had the opportunity to travel to, Spain is a textbook case of these causal relationships, with more than 70% of the country’s primary energy originating from fossil fuels . Even in France, where close to half of the country’s primary energy consumption is provided by fossil fuels, hydrocarbon dependence is etched upon the landscape (see, for example, figure 1) . In this section, I address three recurring barriers to thinking about climate change.
Figure 1: Hydrocarbon pipeline warning, Gard, France [Gabriel Bonnamy, 2022]
1. Energy is still frequently equated with electricity.
In essence, energy use delineates our ability as humans to transform the world that surrounds us. Therefore, the existing confusion between energy and electricity and what both notions entail conceals an extensive chunk of human communities’ capacity to alter their environment. As a result of energy’s reduction to electricity in the minds of my interlocutors, energy transition policies are absorbed by the transition of electricity production on one hand and sterile debates such as ‘nuclear versus renewables’ on the other hand.
This representation of energy is profoundly damaging to the implementation of effective emissions reductions policies at the local level. Interestingly however, the interviewed elected officials were not aware of the specific energy mixes of their own local authorities, even though energy use is responsible for 73.2% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions . The fixation on the electricity used by local populations highlighted the absence of other emissive sectors such as transportation (30% of French emissions), heating, industry or imported emissions in my interviewees’ mental representations of energy.
2. Certain topics sometimes led to the adoption of techno-solutionist standpoints.
This refers to the belief that solving climate change can be achieved by relying solely on innovation and the promise of future technological advancement. While it is true that progress in the fields of carbon capture or nuclear fusion (for example) is required, putting one’s faith in them as the only solution to curbing carbon emissions within the limits set by the Paris accords is insufficient. Such discourses also divert attention away from the urgency of climate change mitigation which must be addressed in the present; for instance, Greenpeace finds that carbon capture and storage will not be developed at scale before 2030 .
Nuclear fusion epitomises such widespread beliefs that innovation will act as a panacea regarding future energy challenges. Located in Saint-Paul-lès-Durance, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is the world’s largest and most ambitious nuclear fusion research initiative (see Figures 2 and 3). This project focuses upon experimentally demonstrating the possibility to sustainably generate more energy from fusion than the initial energy used to heat the hydrogen fuel, brought to plasma state. Considering that fusion is at its early experimental phases, that ITER’s first test trial will take place in 2035, and that most OECD countries have pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, banking on nuclear fusion in the short term is more akin to wishful thinking than pragmatic and meaningful climate action.
Figure 2: Inside ITER project, Bouches-du-Rhône, France [Gabriel Bonnamy, 2022]
Figure 3: Outside ITER project, Bouches-du-Rhône, France [Gabriel Bonnamy, 2022]
3. Distrust of media and an education crisis among elected officials.
There was one occasion when the mayor of a village, which hosts a large dam (see Figure 4), refused to answer any questions relating to energy. On the issue of climate however, they justified their point of view by asserting that climate change did not affect their village.
Figure 4: Arch-gravity dam, Castilla y León, Spain. Gabriel Bonnamy
In the mayor’s own words, until now the village had been “spared” these dire consequences. This was contrasted by their acknowledgement that the region was increasingly suffering from water stress and heatwaves. This interview echoed the findings of Buys, Miller and van Megen (2011), which described a disconnect between how climate change is thought of at a local level and how it is conceptualised as a global issue .
These conversations revealed a common characteristic among interviewees: a general distrust of all media, from official news networks to scientists and social media. On issues such as energy and climate change, I was often told that, as elected officials, knowing who to turn to for reliable and comprehensive sources of information was an arduous task.
In this context, I was surprised to learn that civil servants do not receive continuing education in accordance with their local responsibilities. In many cases, the interviewees regretted their lack of knowledge on certain relevant questions relating to the ever-changing subject of sustainability. The bleak consensus among my interviewees was that the lack of clear climate education along with the politicization of ecology led to unambitious local policymaking, public disinterest and detrimental levels of local ignorance, paving the way for irrational scepticism and dogmatic beliefs. For this reason, I was fascinated by my internship with Koncilio (see introduction) the following year, whose mandate is to develop environmentally-focused courses specifically for local elected officials. During this experience, one of my tasks included using the annual business fair called France’s Mayors’ Congress as a canvassing opportunity to incentivise mayors to take courses on environmental topics starting with climate change.
Environmental Governance and Economic Growth Discourses
Even when finances do not hinder the implementation of positive measures, there remains a certain degree of political unwillingness to invest heavily in genuine sustainability. Furthermore, decision-makers often refrain from meaningful, yet cheaper in the long-term, investments in the present, preferring unambitious policies. There is a clear mismatch in timescales when it comes to effective climate governance: from short-term economic concerns to building sustainability over time. Furthermore, local economic impacts of environmental decisions taken by the national government (such as the decommissioning of coal power plants shown in Figure 5) sow dissatisfaction with local authorities, leading to a radicalisation of local political discourses away from sustainability.
The influence of the national government on local policymaking was also visible when it came to discourses questioning unrelenting economic growth. I was told on many occasions that the unutterable alternative of degrowth remains extremely taboo, even in the smallest of municipalities. On the community scale, mayors interpret their mandate exclusively as improving the wellbeing of their constituents: “if this approach can take into account environmental factors, that’s great...but no elected official in his [sic] right mind would ever run on a degrowth agenda!”.
Some municipal workers even recognised that their own town or village actively practiced greenwashing by flaunting an abundance of dynamic environmental projects in appearance only. Like them, I remain puzzled by politicians’ incapability to take heed of the impossibility to maintain a rising GDP (with the current value system) and decreasing levels of CO2 emissions . As one elected official noted towards the end of the interview: “They can’t tell us that climate action isn’t as bold as it should be because of budget constraints. We’ve seen with COVID that, in times of crisis, it doesn’t take much for billions of euros to flood the economy. Where there is a will there is a way. Why are they waiting for all our forests to go up in smoke when they could be preparing for the climate crises ahead?!”.
Figure 5: Decommissioned coal power plant, Bouches-du-Rhône, France. Gabriel Bonnamy
In contrast, the national government can sometimes be a force for decisive action against climate change. A recent example of this is the French ‘tertiary decree’ of 2019 which compels all service sector buildings to reduce their consumption of final energy by set proportions every few years, depending on individual circumstances . While there was some palpable resentment towards this new legislation in some of the places I visited, most elected officials considered it a proactive measure. Furthermore, the “recent” context of the war in Ukraine entrenched local populations’ adoption of measures of energy sufficiency, although not primarily for climate reasons.
Potential Actions of Awareness-Raising Among Citizens.
When addressing society’s relationship with energy and climate, the leitmotiv of every conversation I had with local officials was that their populations’ concerns were purely economic and seldom environmental. Despite efforts to arouse curiosity around sustainable development or climate change, council-led events and workshops do not attract as many participants as organisers would hope: one of the larger cities I visited prided itself on drawing 160 people a day during their ‘sustainable development week’, for a total population of over 50 000. Promoting sensitisation efforts is a whole other issue which proves to be as, if not more, complex than raising awareness.
Larger cities aside, from a voter perspective, energy and climate topics are far down the list of local preoccupations. In the communities I visited, they remain important campaign issues at the regional and national level but fail to prove themselves on the local scale. One deputy shared their disappointment with the population’s lack of interest to the extent where they felt ashamed of some local behaviours. A mild translation of what they told me would be: “I shouldn’t be saying this out loud but other than talking to them about their pay checks and benefits, when it comes to community life, the message we [the city council] get is: “we don’t care”.”
The alternative to incoherent public concerns were local environmental wake-up calls stemming from outcries against large industrial projects. In one particularly energy-relevant case, I was informed of an ongoing expansion project a local uranium enrichment plant. Worried activists and locals had reportedly established two NGOs opposing the project, even though, according to the French agency for nuclear safety, the decades- old plant presents no particular pollution history or contamination threats .
When there was evidence for a certain degree of awareness concerning the local dangers of climate change, there appeared to be no individual will to act responsibly and in solidarity with others. According to one group of interviewees, a majority of locals surveyed on the issue of coastal erosion responded by saying that erosion was a matter of public responsibility as opposed to individual land-use planning decisions. In other words, in the event of continued sea-level rise, it is up to the local government to protect waterfront property. Another interviewee shared the related issue of a growing social distance between constituents and their local council in a small village of 800 people. They denounced cases of “violent individualism” whereby civil servants fall victim to harassment and harbour hostility towards community life and civic engagement. The village even struggles to allocate its 150,000€ annual budget for citizen-led initiatives.
Although most situations regarding public involvement were disheartening, they are nuanced by a common, wider socio-economic context which explains public disinterest in environmental sustainability: the local authorities I visited were all rural, with high unemployment rates and ageing populations. Geography plays a strong role in explaining differentiated levels of involvement regarding environmentally responsibility, with the North of France having a reputation for more progressive attitudes and an openness to change. According to the evidence I gathered, energy remains an abstract idea in people’s perceptions of ecology in rural Southern France and Spain.
If there is one conclusion to draw from my travels, it is that elected officials of all levels, and municipal workers, have a genuine thirst for knowledge. Kickstarting a widespread and general movement of knowledges in transition starts with the assumption of responsibilities at the highest levels of government. It is the duty of central governments to take the lead with providing universal and depoliticised access to continuing education for local elected officials on technical issues of energy and climate. In the absence of such training, local authorities fall victim to greenwashing and incoherent measures of pseudo-sustainability. Fostering trust in local communities and revitalising democracy starts with awareness-raising and sharing the same set of facts.
My ambition with this trip was to witness the local energy debates that France and, to a lesser degree, Spain have to offer. My expedition also allowed me to get an up-close look at solar, nuclear, coal, gas, offshore wind, biomass, and also hydraulic infrastructures.
Travelling by bike was an opportunity to take the necessary time to appreciate both landscapes and the humans that shape them. The further we travel, the greater the necessity for less environmentally friendly technologies which is why improving the financial and physical accessibility of trains and cycling is key. Changing the way we experience space, distance and exoticism seems more important than ever, especially in a world characterised by energy scarcity.
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5 This trip was kindly funded by the University of St Andrews’ Rector’s Fund.
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