How does the British public feel about paying for the energy transition?

Under the UK Climate Change Act 2008, the government has committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 relative to 1990 levels (Climate Change Act, 2008). This will require a large shift in the UK’s energy system, ranging from energy production, across transmission to consumption.

The public are implicated in the transition process as energy users, increasingly also as energy producers and as active members of society who might support or oppose energy projects and policies. Previous research (Demski et al., 2015; Parkhill et al., 2013) has shown that there is widespread public support for transitioning to a low-carbon, affordable and reliable energy system – however, this change is associated with costs and it remains to be seen how these costs will be covered.

This research explores the views of the British public on how the energy transition should be financed. Drawing on a survey of 3,150 respondents and focus groups in four locations across Great Britain, it investigates what responsibility members of the public assign to government, energy companies and the general public for financing energy system change.

Research findings

The results highlight widespread support for an energy system that ensures affordability, reliability and low carbon energy sources. Energy companies and the government were assigned primary responsibility for contributing financially to energy transition, as they were seen to have the structural power and financial means to implement necessary changes. Respondents also indicated that the general public ought to contribute as well, although the public was perceived to be paying over the odds already (through bills to the energy companies and levies to the government). Nonetheless, research participants expressed willingness to accept between 9-13% of their energy bills going towards environmental and social levies.

Distrust in energy companies and government

Willingness to contribute financially towards the energy transition was also found to be dependent on the perception that energy companies and government are contributing financially and showing real commitment to energy system change. It was also notable that this condition was not currently thought to be met; distrust in this regard was particularly evident in focus group discussions.

Distrust in companies: People believe that the majority of energy companies are driven primarily by profit motives leading to inadequate commitments with regards to energy transition goals such as investing in low-carbon energy and ensuring energy affordability.

Distrust in government: The government, and politicians in particular, are seen as too closely connected to the energy industry, leading to inadequate and ineffective regulation of energy companies and their opaque practices.

Examining what underlies people’s distrust, it is evident that the public has a number of justice and fairness concerns that need to be addressed. In particular, beliefs concerning distributive justice (i.e. how costs are distributed across society) and procedural justice (i.e. respectful treatment, transparent practices and decision-making) are important for public acceptance of responsibility and costs.

Key recommendations

Addressing the issues underlying the trust deficit will be challenging, but this is nonetheless important if we are to ensure that there is to be broad societal consent and engagement with the low-carbon energy transition. To begin this process, the briefing includes the following recommendations:

  1. Government and energy industry must show strong and clear commitments to low-carbon energy system change
  2. Greater transparency and accountability regarding costs, decision-making and practices in relation to financing energy transitions
  3. Greater clarity and justification for how money is spent by government and energy companies
  4. Innovative thinking on how to distribute current and future costs in a fair manner across society
  5. Finding ways to credibly show that energy companies are not driven by profits alone
  6. Robust and consistent evidence of clearer separation between government and the energy industry