As some of you will know I have spent the past number of years advocating for the People’s Energy Charter request for comprehensive public participation in Ireland’s National Energy Transition Plan. A brief synopsis of the outcome is here and more in-depth report on my work is here.
The questions everybody asks are “What is comprehensive public participation and how do we do it?” This is my answer based on 10 years of work at community, national and international level in the transition and participation processes. The fact that I live in rural Ireland also offers real insights and experience of the challenges to participation.
Comprehensive public participation in the national energy transition plan is vital so that its implementation will be widely accepted at least and actively participated in at best. We need a collaborative national vision and implementation strategy. Working together we can create a shared vision and commitment to its success.
The national transition must be transparent and participatory. From the outset the public must be included, working on the design of the consultation, integral to the creation of the vision and co-creators of the implementation plan. The Maastricht Recommendations on Promoting Effective Public Participation in Decision-making in Environmental Matters are a great basis for how to progress our National Energy Transition Plan. A general recommendation for designing the legal framework for public participation in decision-making advises that for good practice it be created in consultation with the public – page 6. In other words the public should be involved in designing the consultation.
This proposal is one possible framework that will enable government to support a comprehensive public participation programme to ensure a national energy transition plan that cannot be invalidated in 5, 10, 15 years. It should be comprehensive enough to ensure compliance with the Aarhus convention. It endeavours to be bottom up enough that it compliments the top down steps in the hope that people feel included in the process and committed to the plan.
- Appoint Climate & Energy Transition Coordinators to work in conjunction with every Public Participation Network (PPN). They will have a coordinating role for Climate and Energy awareness, information, education and participation in planning at community and local authority level. They will facilitate community led, collaborative climate and energy plans to ensure action to mitigate and adapt to climate change. They would work in conjunction with the PPN while collaborating with the Local authority, energy agency, local media, development companies and other bodies within the area. They would be tasked with collating the public vision for how the transition should happen while empowering people to engage in the policy and decision-making as well as inspiring them to take action in their own communities. Ideally they should be independent of the local authority.
- Establish an energy forum in each local authority area. This will be a space for stakeholders – communities, council, business, industry, farmers, church, sporting bodies etc., to meet and explore climate and energy issues. This will also be the forum that discusses what needs to be represented at the National Energy Forum and Climate Dialogue. This is especially important for rural areas where infrastructure decisions have historically been made centrally without the host communities input.
- This should be done in conjunction with a national awareness-raising campaign similar to those addressing smoking and road deaths.
- Network all transition coordinators to ensure parallel practices, support, shared overarching agendas, ongoing training and policy awareness all aimed at achieving representative feedback to the national platforms and policy.
- Establish a national transition office, coordinator, website, social media and resource portal.
- To raise awareness, communicate and disseminate information in the fields of Climate Action and Energy including climate change impacts, mitigation, adaptation, policy and planning.
- To ensure a collaborative transition towards a low carbon and climate resilient economy while putting Ireland on the road to implementing EU climate and energy commitments.
- To ensure that Irelands National Energy Transition Plan is Aarhus Compliant.
- Facilitate local visioning and transition timelines that will contribute to local, regional and national plans and policy.
- To act as a conduit for feedback to government, policy consultations and other stakeholders.
The national transition must be transparent and participatory. Public participation in energy planning has been inadequate to date. Projects have mostly been industry led with some having the support of government, state agencies and strong lobby groups. This has resulted in widespread mistrust of government, state agencies and developers. Over the course of the past decade we have seen many energy project or policy opposition groups rise up including Shell to Sea, Wind Aware Ireland, Save Our Forests, Fracking Free Ireland, Turf Cutters United, Protect Our Coast and Save Our Seafront in Dublin Bay. The Right to Change movement that has emerged from the Right To Water campaign is also focused on our natural resources. I recently met with the Marine Institute who are coming up against opposition to research in renewable energy.
To ensure the broadest reach of participation it is imperative that the lowest common denominator feasible is used. Most wide-reaching organisations in the country are at village or parish level – church, Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), Tidy Towns etc. This ensures the participation and engagement of more people. The transition coordinator will work with these existing bodies to assess people’s energy vision for their area, region and ultimately, Ireland’s transition. The GAA has over 2,300 clubs nationally. There are around 700 Tidy Towns groups engaged with the national competition. There are almost 1500 catholic parishes.
If you look at the way opposition to energy plans evolve you will notice that it begins in earnest with a public meeting in the parish centre or the GAA hall. This is where proactive steps need to happen. Taking awareness raising and consultation to that level ensures that every community is included at the development stage thereby reducing the possibility of a community remaining oblivious to plans that affect them. This approach serves to alert people to the challenges ahead, engage them in the response, include them in the planning and evaluate where larger projects will be viable.
The following excerpt on Climate Change and Energy is from A Programme for a Partnership Government
“B) Public Consultation on the Future of Energy Policy
It is clear that there is a need for much better engagement with citizens and communities about the energy policy decisions that affect them. We must ensure, as part of our transition to a low carbon society, that citizens and communities are active participants in the energy transition, with robust public and stakeholder engagement in energy policy, and effective community consultation on energy infrastructure developments.
We will establish a National Dialogue on Climate Change that will involve extensive public consultation. This will incorporate the key infrastructural, land use and economic issues to be considered in our long-term transition to a new low carbon future.”
I would like to believe that this is something government could just roll out themselves but I see too many people who have and continue to be affected by the mismanagement of energy plans, policies and projects. I really think it’s best to keep our national energy transition plan as a top down, bottom up model with the bottom up being as independently facilitated as possible. They also need to have a real say and not just a token input. This is where the Maastricht recommendations come into play. We need to collaborate to design a process that takes them into consideration.
Ireland is committed to the Open Government Partnership – OGP. The consultation on the OGP 2nd National Action Plan is underway. This proposal and the entire People’s Energy Charter has considered openness, transparency, accountability and participation in decision making key to the success of any plan or policy.
There are many national and local policy aspirations to put people first, work with energy citizens, adhere to the Aarhus convention and so on but when it comes down to it are they all talk and no action? We need action. We need to work together to act and we need real leadership that heeds it’s own recommendations of working with the people, for the people. For future generations.
Just some thoughts on problems that we have encountered as a country. To date most of our energy transition has been developer and government led. There is a hierarchy when it comes to decision-making and resources supporting engagement with our transition:
- Government – high level policy agenda including EU and global commitments
- Developer – financial aspect of the transition
- State agencies – specific energy bodies such as energy agencies, SEAI
- Lobby groups – trade unions,
- NGOs – environmental, equitable and socially just aspect of transition
- Social and small-scale enterprises – Energy cooperatives Ireland, energy consultants
- Community-led energy projects and opposition groups
Over the course of the White Paper – Ireland’s Transition to a Low Carbon Energy Future process we identified a vital missing link. In the absence of a national campaign of awareness on our need to transition it has been up to NGOs, small enterprises and community catalysts to raise awareness and point people in the direction of state incentives mainly available through the SEAI, thus complementing their own advertising. It is usually one or two aware people within a community that starts a project. The more people that are aware the stronger the action group is. Therefore it is essential that more people are made aware of the challenges we face, their role in the solutions and information on what is available to support any actions they wish to undertake.
Irelands National Renewable Energy Action Plan (NREAP) was deemed to be lacking in public participation under the Aarhus Convention. However it was the EU that was found to have failed for Ireland’s lack of public participation. Now that Ireland has ratified the Aarhus Convention we are responsible to ensure it is implemented. Irish Planning News article here gives an overview. More on that ruling here.
This proposal should ensure such oversights cannot occur in the future. The UNECE Aarhus Convention protects the public’s right to access information, public participation in decision-making and justice on issues affecting their environment. All planning in our energy transition will be subject to the Aarhus Convention therefore the better the information and participation is from the outset the less likely it is that justice will be sought.
Finally, most of this proposal has evolved as a result of working with everyone involved with the People’s Energy Charter. I am now seeking collaboration to fine-tune and adopt a revised version of this as our shared vision and proposal to government for comprehensive public participation. I welcome any feedback on this so that we may ensure a solid, collaborative proposal to government.
Theresa O’Donohoe September 2016