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Conflicts between national climate targets and local communities jeopardize the renewable energy transition

offshore wind power. Photo.
The best way to get local communities and citizens involved is to ensure that citizens can somehow benefit from the project, either as individuals or as a community, says Henner Bush.

Offshore wind power is presented as one of the solutions to solve the energy crisis in southern Sweden. But the issue has been met with a "not in my backyard” attitude, as many municipalities say no to the government's decision. LUCSUS researcher Henner Busch, shares his thoughts on how to involve local communities and create a more just energy transition.

Earlier this autumn, the Swedish government decided to give Svenska kraftnät the task of creating offshore grid connections - an important step for the expansion of renewable energy in southern Sweden. However, several municipalities in southern Sweden want to stop the government's plans by vetoing them. According to Henner Busch, this is a common problem in the transition to a more sustainable energy system.

- There is a conflict between national and international climate targets, and local communities and municipalities' willingness to contribute to the transition, says Henner Busch, who studies the transition to low-carbon energy systems and how communities and decision makers deal with conflicts during the transition.

Should municipalities be able to use their veto to stop new energy projects decided by the government?

- I think it is important that municipalities and citizens have the opportunity to have a say in projects that concerns them, otherwise they might be even more negative towards the projects, which can lead to greater damage in the long run. But it is of course problematic when municipalities use their veto to stop investments and project that aims to advance sustainable energy transitions. The veto issue is very debated at the moment.

I think it is important that municipalities and citizens have the opportunity to have a say in projects that concerns them, otherwise they might be even more negative towards the projects, which can lead to greater damage in the long run. 

Another aspect of municipalities' self-determination is that if the decision is to be made by individual municipalities, it can lead to conflicts within the municipality. We have seen several examples of this in other energy and climate projects. For this reason, it is perhaps better that the general decision, if a project will take place, is taken elsewhere, for example by the national government.

What can be done to avoid conflicts?

It is crucial to create a just and inclusive process. This may, for example, include having an open dialogue and inviting municipalities, local communities and citizens to meetings at an early stage of the project. If people feel that they have no power, or are not listened to, there is a great risk that they feel their voices are not heard, which can lead to greater resistance and conflicts.

What is the most effective way to get the local communities involved in new energy projects?

- The best way to get local communities and citizens involved is to ensure that citizens can somehow benefit from the project, either as individuals or as a community and preferably both.

In Denmark, for example, they have built a system that supports what we call local ownership. This may mean, for example, that local residents are given the opportunity to buy shares at an affordable price through the project developers, and thus become shareholders of the wind turbines. If citizens feel ownership, and can financially benefit from the wind turbines, they become more positive towards them. This is something that governments, investors and project developers should consider.

For this to work, it is important that all local citizens have the opportunity to invest in the project, at an affordable price. Meaning that project developers have to offer local people to become shareholders in the project on the basis on very small investments.

Another possibility, which has proven to work well, is to provide forms of compensation that benefit the whole society. This may, for example, involve investments in the local community center or sport club, and activities for children and youth.

What is the government's responsibility when it comes to compensating individuals and municipalities affected by new energy projects?

- I don’t think it is the government's responsibility to provide financial support, but they have to set up regulations for new energy investments that make them more just. For example, by legislating that a certain share of the ownership should be local. In Denmark, there are laws for this, which have proven to work well, and which have contributed to less resistance to new wind turbines.

When it comes to offshore wind power, it gets more complicated since the wind turbines are placed at sea, often outside the municipal border. This makes it of course more difficult to say which municipalities or citizens are affected, and thus have the right to be compensated.

How can we create a better understanding for new energy projects, and the urgency of the climate crisis?

- It is always difficult to change people’s attitudes. Perhaps one way could be to very concretely talk to people what the future will look like if we don’t meet the climate goals. For example, explain what +3 degrees will look like, not for others in a distant part of the world, but for them, their city or community and for their future generations.  

Another incentive could also be to increase the understanding of how our investments in renewable energy can help other countries reduce their use of fossil energy, and meet their climate targets as well. The energy grid is connected to, for example, Finland and Poland. If we in Sweden increase our capacity and share of renewable energy, we can contribute to reduce the use of coal in Poland, and in this way make an impact globally.

If we in Sweden increase our capacity and share of renewable energy, we can contribute to reduce the use of coal in Poland, and in this way make an impact globally.

How is Sweden doing from an energy justice perspective?

- Southern Sweden has for many decades profited from the energy investments made in northern Sweden. Northern Sweden stands for the largest share of energy production, while southern Sweden accounts for the largest share of energy consumption. This is of course a justice aspect we should take into account when planning for new energy projects. The huge difference in electricity prices within Sweden is another problem that we must address. This is also why new energy investments in the south of Sweden, where the energy price is the highest, are so crucial.

What energy conflicts do you think we will see more of in the future?

- In addition to the expansion of wind power, the expansion of the electricity grid is a major challenge that Sweden will have to deal with within the next few years. We do not have the capacity to transport the amount of energy we will need with today's electricity grid. Expanding the electricity grid is important from a justice perspective, in order for the whole country to have the same access to energy at an affordable price. But it will require major infrastructure investments that affect both our societies and our nature.

What perspectives are missing in today's energy debate?

- The big elephant in the room is our consumption. We are constantly talking about the increased need for energy. Maybe we need to ask ourselves if this is reasonable. No one today dares to talk about the fact that we might need to reduce our consumption in order to meet the climate goals.

 

About Henner Bush

Henner Busch. Photo.

Henner Bush is a researcher at LUCSUS. His work mainly focuses on energy and climate governance.

Email: henner [dot] busch [at] LUCSUS [dot] lu [dot] se

Henner Buschs profile in Lund University research portal