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New global survey reveals that everyone loves green energy — especially the Chinese

Also everyone hates coal.

China Daily Life
Gee, wonder why the Chinese are so keen on clean energy...
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

I have written many times about the high levels of public support in the US for renewable energy — support that has been strikingly consistent over the years, despite the lack of similar enthusiasm among policymakers.

Now the Danish green energy company Ørsted (which used to be called Dong, back before it got out of the oil and gas business) has commissioned the largest-ever global survey of opinion on the subject, the Green Energy Barometer.

Partnering with the research consultancy Edelman Intelligence, Ørsted surveyed a whopping 26,000 people across 13 countries in late July, ensuring that at least 2,000 demographically representative respondents were reached per country.

Long story short: The whole world wants more green energy (and less coal).

This was the main question on the survey: “How important do you think it is to create a world fully powered by renewable energy (by this we mean energy is produced in a way where there is limited or no impact on the climate)?”

Across 13 of the world’s wealthiest countries, 82 percent of respondents deemed that goal important.

green energy barometer (Ørsted)

Strikingly, support for green energy held up across demographic categories. While results were mildly divided by ideology, they were fairly close even there.

green energy barometer (Ørsted)

(I suspect, though the survey does not say, that ideological polarization on this issue is sharper in the US than anywhere else, though I’d love to see the raw numbers.)

Of course, that’s a pretty softball question. It’s easy to say on a survey that things are important. I think lots of things are important! So I don’t know how much this can really tell us about how people will behave in actual political settings. In the end, it’s an online survey about green energy from a green energy company, so the absolute numbers should be taken with a grain of salt.

But the relative numbers — that is, how countries and issues compare with one another — can be illuminating.

For instance, here’s how people rank global threats:

green energy barometer (Ørsted)

(People are wrong about this — the suffering from climate change promises to be many orders of magnitude greater than even the worst predictions about terrorism — but it goes to show that threats with faces will always scare people more than, e.g., bad weather.)

Another interesting comparison: Here’s how people feel about various forms of energy.

green energy barometer (Ørsted)

Everyone loves renewable energy! And lordy, everyone hates coal. (Nuclear’s not doing too well in the popularity game either.)

And here’s some more bad news for coal:

everyone hates coal (Ørsted)

It’s bad enough for the coal industry that large majorities in every country want to be rid of it. What’s worse is that its biggest customer, China, is the most eager to escape.

In large part, that’s because China’s big cities are choked with coal smog, a growing health crisis that has the government going after coal with increasing intensity.

But it’s also because China is a rising power, increasingly confident in its geopolitical role over the course of the coming century. The Chinese rank highest among those who think a fully renewable world is important:

green energy barometer (Ørsted)

And, strikingly, the Chinese are also the most eager for their own country to drive that energy transition:

(What up, Netherlands?)

So if you’re keeping track, China is No. 1 on seeing the importance of clean energy, No. 1 in wanting its government to be ambitious on clean energy, and No. 1 in wanting to phase out coal.

It’s almost like there’s a pattern: The Chinese people are gripped by the importance and necessity of the energy transition. Their collective investments reflect that.

The US federal government, meanwhile, is ignoring the popular will and retrenching, clinging to coal as it swirls down the drain.

Interestingly, of all the surveyed reasons to invest in a green energy transition, the one that polled highest (average 75 percent across countries) was pride. Specifically: “I will be proud if my country invests time and money to become a global leader in green energy.”

In second place (average 72 percent) was a tie between “boost economic growth” and “create new jobs.” Third place was “positive impact on the environment” at 64 percent; fourth was “reduction in health issues due to pollution” at 53 percent.

It’s odd that pollution scores so low (though, predictably, it’s highest in China, at 65 percent). Objectively speaking, the heath gains from lower particulate pollution will probably be the biggest and most visible impacts of a green energy transition, especially in the short term. I guess that news hasn’t really gotten out.

As a final tidbit, here’s a look at who the global public thinks should be responsible for various aspects of the energy transition:

Reasonably enough, people mainly look to national governments. But energy companies are on the hook too. Take note, utilities!

Like I said, surveys like this can only tell us so much. After all, nice-sounding things poll well. Running the world on green energy sounds nice. Being a leader in green energy sounds nice. Such things will inevitably garner positive responses on surveys. The real question is how people will prioritize their various goals — whether there’s any intensity behind green energy. It’s intensity, not abstract “support,” that drives politics.

Along those lines, the fact that green energy seems to be tied closely to national pride and economic development is a positive sign. Environmental and (oddly) health concerns seem to wax and wane with economic and security circumstances. But national pride and jobs are always prime motivators, even in difficult times.

That’s one reason I think Trump’s attempts to pump up the coal industry are going nowhere. It’s not just that economic reality is moving the other way. It’s that nobody really likes coal, not enough to want to stick with it if there are alternatives. And everybody loves renewable energy.

If anything, tying its fate to Trump’s will only hasten US coal’s decline. It is on the wrong side of global opinion and the wrong side of history.

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