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Large Majorities in US and Europe Endorse Focus on Renewable Energy

January 18, 2012

But US Support for Deemphasizing Fossil Fuels Softens

Digest of International Opinion on Energy Security
Digest of US Opinion on Energy Security
Public Opinion on Global Issues homepage
Stewart Patrick analysis

As world energy markets react to Iranian threats to close the Straits of Hormuz and the World Future Energy Summit convenes in Abu Dhabi this week, newly updated digests of American and international public opinion reveal very strong European and American public support for renewable energy development.

In the EU, majorities in all 27 member states support increasing the share of renewable energy by 20% by the year 2020. In the United States, an overwhelming nine in ten see it as important to invest in renewable energy--and eight in ten support tax incentives for this purpose. But American support has softened for the idea of emphasizing fossil fuel conservation over production of more fossil fuels.

These digests have been developed by the Council on Foreign Relations' International Institutions and Global Governance program and the Program on International Policy Attitudes. They provide comprehensive analyses of international and U.S. polls on the world's most pressing challenges -- and the institutions designed to address them. The digest of international polling on energy security can be found here and the digest of U.S. polling here. Analysis of these findings by Stewart Patrick can be found on his blog.

Eurobarometer polled all twenty-seven EU member states in November 2010 on the goal "to increase the share of renewable energy in the EU by 20 percent by 2020". Majorities in all twenty-seven countries either approved of the goal or called for it to go further. In the EU-wide average, 57 percent thought the proposed goal was "about right" and 16 percent thought it was "too modest." Just 19 percent thought it was "too ambitious".

In the United States, an overwhelming 91 percent believed "investing in renewable energy" is important for the United States to remain competitive with other countries in the global economy, with 62 percent considering this very important (Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 2010).

The same poll found strong support for tax incentives to encourage development of alternative energy sources specifically as a way to address dependence on foreign energy sources. Eight in ten (80 percent) favored such a step, 47 percent strongly. Only 17 percent were opposed.

These findings are consistent with earlier international polling. A 2008 WPO poll of 21 nations found strong support for putting greater emphasis on installing alternative energy systems. A majority in twenty of the twenty-one nations favored their country putting greater emphasis on installing solar and wind energy systems. On average, 77 percent supported more emphasis, 8 percent supported less emphasis, and 7 percent supported the same emphasis. Only in Russia did less than a clear majority (50 percent) support a great emphasis on these alternative energies.

Most also favored the government requiring utilities to use more alternative energy, such as wind and solar, even if this increases the cost of energy in the short run. In nineteen of twenty-one nations, a majority of respondents supported the proposal (WPO 2008).

In addition to support for increasing the share of renewable energy, the 2010 Eurobarometer poll found majorities in all 27 EU member states endorsing a proposed goal "to increase the energy efficiency in the EU by 20% by 2020." In the EU-wide average, 59% said this goal was "about right" and another 14% called it "too modest." Only 17% said it was "too ambitious."

In the United States, though, perhaps due to the economic downturn, there is a softening of a long-standing view that for fossil fuels, conservation matters more than increased production. Until March 2011, Gallup found consistent majority support for placing emphasis on "more conservation by consumers of existing energy sources" rather than "production of more oil, gas, and coal supplies." Whereas 61 percent favored this position in March 2008, the proportion fell, to 48 percent in March 2011. Still, this was greater than the 41 percent favoring emphasizing production.

Also, despite the downturn, Americans state they are prepared to make sacrifices to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign energy sources. CCGA in 2010 found that two thirds of Americans (65 percent) supported "requiring auto-makers to increase fuel efficiency, even if this means the price of cars would go up." Thirty-one percent were opposed.

CCGA also developed a new question, asking Americans whether they favored creating a new international institution to "monitor the worldwide energy market and predict potential shortages." Nearly two-thirds, 64 percent, favored the idea, with only 35 percent opposed.

Overall, majorities both in the United States and Europe, polled by the German Marshall Fund (GMF) in 2008, believed it likely that they would be personally affected by the threat of energy dependence over the next ten years.


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