Climate change is rapidly rising as a public concern across Europe and citizens can and must be involved in policy-making on the energy transition.
For decades, policy-making on energy and the climate remained in the hands of elites. Economists, engineers and technocrats often dominated energy debates, whether these concerned promoting market integration or deploying particular technologies.
Meanwhile, scientists’ reports of increased climate risk largely failed—until recently—to make a deep impression on citizens. Indeed, in much of the policy debate citizens remained at the margins.
This has radically changed recently. Climate concerns and energy-policy decisions have led to the mobilisation of citizens across Europe, as the #Fridays4Future marches and the gilets jaunes show.
Climate change has become an issue which shapes election outcomes, as the strong performance of the green parties during the 2019 elections to the European Parliament demonstrates.
Citizens seem to have less and less confidence in the centrist parties’ abilities to address the climate emergency in an effective and fair manner. In fact, citizens are willing to take actions themselves—risking the wrath, among others, of parents, teachers and commuters.
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This image of an active citizenship is reinforced by the proliferation of energy ‘prosumers’ and community energy projects across Europe.
Policy-makers in Brussels seem increasingly to recognise that citizens are worried and want to get involved. In fact, the European Commission launched its energy policy programme in 2015 with a vision of an ‘Energy Union with citizens at its core’. This vision included public consultations ahead of policy proposals (for instance on energy market design) and two Energy Union Tours by the commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič.
Furthermore, the Energy Union governance regulation mandates member states to organise ‘a permanent multi-level energy dialogue’, including a wide range of civil-society organisations. Europe’s house of civil society, the European Economic and Social Committee, recently demanded the establishment of a ‘permanent citizen dialogue’.
While policy-makers seem to have understood that citizens want to get involved, initiatives at EU level may fall short of expectations. Public consultations are normally time-constrained (a few months) and attract limited attention (for example, the energy market design received just 320 responses). Similarly, the debates during the Energy Union Tour were opinion snapshots and involved a limited number of participants.
Participatory policy-making on energy is not easy. Key questions revolve around the inclusiveness, fairness and impact of the process. These questions in turn give rise to others, such as the affordability of individual involvement and collective participation, transparency and accessibility, impartiality and institutional integration.
Means of participation
France ran its Grand Débat between mid-January and mid-March 2019. Organised on a national scale and managed by two ministers, the consultation brought 1.5 million French citizens to participate and express their opinions on five topics, including the ecological transition.
It provided participants with multiple means of participation: discussions in local public meetings, registers of grievances in town halls or submissions via emails and post. Participants could also answer online questionnaires. The reports were made publicly available on the debate’s website and five guarantors—chosen by the government, the Senate, the National Assembly and the French Economic and Social Committee (CES)—were charged with ensuring the independence of the consultation.
In his response to the final report, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, acknowledged the findings of the consultation, notably the urgency of climate change and a sense of injustice. He announced a number of measures, including a reform of the French CES, opening it up to citizens, and the launch of a citizens’ convention comprising 150 randomly chosen citizens, to make recommendations on how to tackle climate change.
In 2016, Ireland’s houses of the Oireachtas (parliament) launched a Citizens’ Assembly, following a similar official experiment called the Constitutional Convention (2012-15). The aim was to demonstrate the potential of participatory democracy with an assembly composed of a chairperson and 99 Irish citizens, selected to match the population as far as practicable in terms of gender, age, ethnicity, social class, regional spread and so on. Between August 2016 and May 2018, participants addressed five issues, including how to make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change.
A final report with 13 recommendations was published in June 2018 and is available on the assembly’s online platform. The recommendations of the participants were submitted to the houses of the Oireachtas. An independent expert advisory group, composed of academics and practitioners in the fields of the five issues addressed, oversaw the work of the assembly to ensure members were provided with expert advice and accurate and independent information.
Both experiments offer interesting insights into how citizens could get involved in energy policy-making in ways that meet important requirements for effective participatory governance. At the same time, the two experiments illustrate how national institutions and politics shape the governance processes, revealing barriers to deploying them elsewhere. France’s Grand Débat has been driven by Macron and should be understood—in its scale and visibility—at least partly as a reaction to the public discontent expressed in the gilets jaunes protests. In Ireland, the Citizens’ Assembly reflects the strong role of parliament in Westminster-type systems.
In addition, whether or not these experiments will result in effective policy change remains to be seen. Yet, citizens’ assemblies and multi-channel, large-scale consultations can become part of a participatory-governance toolkit, available to governments across Europe.
The Energy Union, with its impact on citizens’ everyday lives across Europe, cannot be steered by the political, economic and technocratic elites in Brussels and the national capitals alone. The citizens no longer accept this and—being situated at the frontline of the energy transition—offer unique insights into what works and what does not.
Pierre Jean Coulon is president of the European Economic and Social Committee's ‘TEN’ section—Transport, Energy, Infrastructure and Information Society. He has had a distinguished career in the French trade union movement (CFTC), the United Nations' Commission for Sustainable Development and the international NGO Droit à l'Energie SOS Futur. Claire Vandewalle assists the EESC secretariat's evaluation of EU energy and transport policies. Kristian Krieger is responsible for energy policy in the secretariat of the TEN section. He holds a PhD in environmental governance from King's College London.