The 23rd wave of the Energy and Climate Change Public Attitudes Tracker (PAT), published last week, showed that 21% of respondents thought that climate change was within the top three challenges facing Britain today, and 13% thought that energy supply was. However, a high proportion of UK society does not have a full understanding of alternative energy sources, with 86% claiming to know little or nothing about nuclear energy, whilst 65% know little or are unaware of what shale gas extraction entails.

Sustainability has been a hot topic this year.

The year began with the UK facing considerable fines from the EU commission for breaching the annual EU pollution quota for London within the first week of January. A recent report published by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research stated that governments had significantly underestimated methane emissions from natural gas, and would be required to phase out all fossil fuel, coal and oil by 2035 in order to keep within Paris climate targets to limit global warming to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels. In July the Government proposed new taxes on diesel cars in 2020, and to ban them completely in 2040. And this month’s UN climate change convention saw the global shift away from coal gain momentum, with over 25 states (including the UK) pledging to phase out all coal-fired power plants and energy generation by 2030.

This blog outlines the public’s attitudes towards renewables, ‘fracking’ and nuclear energy, whilst highlighting where you can find more information on some of the most likely energy sources of the near future.

Greenhouse gases, pollution and renewables

The Energy and Climate Change Public Attitudes Survey was designed by the government’s British Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) department, was circulated to 2,105 people via a random location quota sampling method, and conducted through face-to-face at home interviews.

Statistics show that the public’s favoured alternative energy source is renewables. Renewable energy includes energy from a source that is not depleted when used, and is naturally replenished.

82% of the population supported renewables

The PAT survey, which was conducted at the end of September 2017, showed that 82% of the population either support or strongly support the use of renewable energy for providing electricity, fuel and heat, whilst 4% opposed it. The chart below shows that level has been relatively consistent over the past 5 years, being maintained at between 75 and 82 per cent.

Change over time

Solar power proved most popular with 84% support; offshore, wave and tidal had 79%; onshore 74%; and biomass 69%. However, renewables are unlikely to be an alternative to current energy sources in totality in the near future.

Support for solar, wave and tidal, off-shore wind, on-shore wind and biomass

Unconventional gas extraction

Whilst a fully renewables powered future might lie some way off, Malcolm Brinded, Executive Director of Upstream International Royal Dutch Shell plc, has suggested that generating electricity from natural gas is cleaner than coal fired generation, and that more gas could help bridge the gap to cleaner renewables or an increase in nuclear generation. Recent years have seen an increased focus on unconventional (shale) gas extraction, more commonly known as ‘fracking’.

78% of survey respondents said they were aware of shale gas extraction, after a sharp increase between waves 2 and 8 (2012-13) from 42 to 70%. Of these, 13% claimed to have detailed knowledge, 47% knew little, and 18% were aware of it but didn’t know what it was.

When asked whether they supported fracking 48% neither did nor didn’t, 36% were in opposition and 13% were in support. Reasons for support were utilising all available energy sources (32%), jobs and investment (28%), cheaper bills (26%) and reducing UK reliance on other countries (24%). Those in opposition were concerned about destruction of the natural environment (64%), risk and uncertainty (30%), contaminated water supplies (28%) and risk of earthquakes (23%).

48% knew a little about fracking

There are concerns that unconventional gas may in fact release more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional gas, although in 2012 the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering concluded that the health, safety and environmental risks of shale gas extraction could be effectively managed in the UK by implementing and enforcing best operational practice.

Our House of Commons Shale gas and fracking briefing paper provides more information on the various recommendations made regarding shale gas.

Nuclear energy

Nuclear fission provides much more energy than renewables such as solar, wind and tidal resources. It provides another alternative to fuel, coal and oil, and involves the fission, or splitting, of uranium atoms inside a reactor. The heat from the fission is used to create steam, which in turn spins a turbine to generate electricity. Nuclear energy produces far less emissions than fossil fuel plants, but produces radioactive waste.

When asked whether or not they supported the utilisation of nuclear energy, 40% of respondents answered neutrally. Another 33% said they supported the prospect, and 25% opposed it. Men (40%), those with an income of £50,000 or more (42%), and over 65s (42%) were the most likely to support the use of nuclear energy.

The government handles nuclear waste through its Geological Disposal Facilities (GDFs), which involves isolating radioactive waste “deep inside a suitable rock volume to ensure that no harmful quantities of radioactivity ever reach the surface environment”.

86% of people in the survey knew either not very much or nothing about the UK management of radioactive waste, and 46% knew about GDFs. Of this 46%, 23% didn’t really know, 20% knew little and 4% knew a lot.

86% knew either not very much or nothing about the GDF

More information on alternative energy sources including a 2017 report can be found at Energy UK, a body which represents over 100 members of Britain’s energy industry and includes energy firms, suppliers and generators.

Picture Credit: Lambrigg Wind Farm by Steve OliverAttribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)