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Could ‘nimbyism’ threaten the transition to Net Zero? A lesson from Switzerland

14 September 2021

By Beth Park, Account Director

The result of the Chesham and Amersham by-election – hailed as a victory for ‘nimbyism’ in the home counties – will still be fresh in the minds of developers looking to build homes, councils concerned about meeting their targets, and a government figuring out how best to fix a broken planning system. But when it comes to the impact on the transition to Net Zero, there’s reason to look a little further afield.

In another sobering week for planet earth that has only highlighted the need for urgent action, an article in the Financial Times has revealed how Switzerland risks taking a step back in its approach to renewables. It is a country which has long had a positive reputation for clean energy generation, in particular from hydropower, but which is bound by a complex regulatory system and the growing influence of local objections. Sound familiar?

The conundrum being faced in Switzerland is one that we should pay attention to. The Swiss government has committed to closing the country’s nuclear power stations but has no clear way forward to make up the significant shortfall that will leave. In addition, there are reportedly growing concerns about it being severed from the EU’s electricity grid as a result of diplomatic tensions. This presents potential difficulties for energy security in winter months, when rivers freeze and dependence on energy imports grows.

As is often the case here too in the UK, whilst most people wholeheartedly agree with principle of delivering more renewable energy infrastructure, the reality is often different if that infrastructure is coming to a patch near you. Four years ago, voters in Switzerland opted strongly in favour of approving the government’s energy goals for 2050 as part of a referendum on the issue. This was effectively an endorsement for 850 new wind turbines being built over the next three decades.

At present, less than 5 per cent of that number have been built – and residents of small villages such as Kulmerau-Kirchleerau, where four turbines were recently proposed, are putting their foot down with impact.

Similar patterns are evident in our own work supporting developers to navigate the planning system, and ensuring communities are properly and meaningfully consulted with as part of the process. It is clear from the feedback we receive that the environment and sustainability are massively important to most people, but that equally there is a concern that renewable energy development in and of itself poses a threat to wildlife, landscape and, ultimately, an unchanged and undisturbed way of life for those that live in rural areas with space to accommodate it.

It is a challenge that we need to work together within the sector, with local and national government, and with local communities, to address - and one that needs to be resolved at speed.

There are all too many comparisons we can make with Switzerland here. But with COP26 just a few months away, and the climate crisis looming large, we cannot afford to remain neutral. Difficult decisions will need to be made, and all of us will likely need to accept some level of change in our own backyard. Effective communication and consultation will certainly have a big role to play.