There are likely to be increased tensions between public opinion in rural and coastal areas in the UK and developers and advocates of new energy infrastructure, as climate and energy targets become more urgent, and as the UK’s planning system becomes more centralized for major infrastructure projects under the 2008 Planning Act. If the UK seeks to decarbonize not only the power and heat sectors but also transport, with electric and hydrogen options for the latter gaining prominence (Palmer, 2009), then these conflicts will only intensify.
There will inevitably be ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in this situation; the least that rural and coastal residents are owed is more explicit indication of the extent of new infrastructure that their locality may be required to support (Upham and Shackley, 2006a). While this may be as likely to provoke concern as to mitigate it, it would at least let people know where they stand. Acceptance of place disruption may also be mitigated through a clearer explanation of the limits to other potential components of a low carbon energy mix, notably demand reduction, fossil CCS (carbon capture and storage) and nuclear power (the latter referred to by objectors in the Winkleigh case as obviating the need for new renewable energy). However, there remain real differences in opinion regarding the relative roles of the different energy options. For example, a further theme raised in the Winkleigh focus groups was that of energy wastage through excess commercial lighting (i. e. shops and offices being lit throughout the night): people objected to being asked to bear what they regarded as significant disruption for the purpose of meeting excessive demand. Such contextual issues, including the specific issue of whether it is justifiable to use renewable energy supply to meet additional demand in societies that are already relatively affluent, are not incidental to energy siting controversy – but they have as yet received relatively little research attention. Value judgements run through this field: arguably the ethical case for requiring local acceptance of new energy infrastructure is weakened without concomitant, significant action on emissions reduction elsewhere in the economy.
Fully understanding local objections to renewable energy developments requires a relatively eclectic approach to the literatures, so as to address the different dimensions and levels of the problem. In the case discussed here, an understanding of siting controversy is aided by the application of literatures on place attachment, the influence of context on pro-environmental attitudes, as well as literatures on institutional trust. Of these, the contingent and contextual nature of attitudes is probably the least researched and merits closer attention.
The chapter also calls for a more locally explicit debate of the implications of national energy policy. Such calls inevitably seem somewhat idealistic and are readily open to challenge (Owens and Driffil, 2006). This critique is particularly understandable as we head towards breaching greenhouse gas concentration thresholds that are consistent with avoiding ‘dangerous’ climate change (Anderson and Bows, 2008). Moreover, planning policy trends are potentially moving away from local decision-making in the UK. As a reaction to planning delays in the UK (ironically, in some cases, to infrastructure that would increase GHG emissions, such as new airport capacity), under the new Planning Act (2008) an Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) will determine applications for ‘significant infrastructure projects’.
Yet local debate need not, and should not, imply abandonment of national targets. Moreover, without wider and more coherent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions nationally and internationally, objectors are likely to continue to perceive that they are being asked to accept a reduced quality of life unilaterally, while others continue their high rates of consumption and emission. It may be naive to call for policy integration from competing government departments, but if UK climate change policy is genuinely to move from statute to implementation, then significant action across all sectors is urgently needed. The role of local public participation in energy infrastructure siting will always be vexed, but the least that rural and coastal communities deserve, in return for hosting additional energy infrastructure, is the knowledge that other people and sectors are also playing their part in emissions reduction.