Citizens’ engagement in energy transition in the 21st century

By Manuel Aires de Matos, Research Assistant at the Centre for Industrial Engineering and Management (CEGI).

From the bloody French revolution to the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S.A., and the fall of the Berlin Wall in the late 1980s, citizens’ engagement has always played a key role in social change. In the 21st century, everything seems stagnant in the Western world. Despite the fact that we are witnessing new social movements in the US, like Black Lives Matter, the truth is that this type of action has neither the scale nor the involvement of the great social changes of the past. 

The same is true for climate issues. Up to this day, Fridays for Future, a student movement started by Greta Thunberg in 2018 – which consists of skipping classes on Fridays to participate in protests against climate change – seems to have failed to achieve the same results as others social movements that marked the world in the past. Deeply affected by the pandemic, which started just over a year after the beginning of these initiatives, this movement tries to pick up its actions on the streets, during the possible return to normal life in the post-pandemic world. But unlike other social changes, the climate crisis seems to be a more complex issue than many try to transpire. 

From the outset, it requires international coordination and commitment to environmental policies. Unlike other movements, which seek to introduce local change – such as the end of a dictatorial regime or the change of certain laws, considered unfair or overbearing – the environmental issue is a global problem that we all must address, towards significant changes. Despite the efforts and commitment among the most developed countries – such as the EU strategy for carbon neutrality by 2050 -, climate change seems to have little relevance to certain societies that are experiencing an exponential economic growth. China, for instance: in addition to having twice the combined population of the EU and U.S.A. (about 1.5 billion vs. 780 million), over the last 10 years, the number of inhabitants in urban areas has almost doubled, now standing close to 900 million people. This rural exodus, a consequence of the spiralling growth of the eastern middle class, inevitably translates into higher consumption and, consequently, more carbon emissions, quite harmful to the environment. 

Another important aspect is the fact that the technological dimension cannot keep up with this attempt at social change. Even though a part of the population is trying to enforce the introduction of a fast decarbonisation policy, the technology associated with both renewable energy production and storage does not seem to have reached the same level of maturity and competitiveness that traditional energy sources are able to provide.  

The situation will be aggravated by the increase of electricity and natural gas prices as winter arrives to Europe. Even if some governments try to implement public policies to counteract it, consumers will inevitably suffer from aggravated energy bills. This price growth is a result of the disinvestment in traditional sources of energy production, in favour of renewable energy sources. Is Western society prepared and predisposed to all the demands that energy transition entails? Is there a clear engagement by the majority of the population in climate change issues? If so, how much are we willing to pay to make this happen? 

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