AEBIOM recently participated in a round table entitled “Fact vs Myth – How to rewrite the bioenergy narrative”, in the framework of the 2016 Argus conference. The fact that communications issues are now under the spotlight of one of the leading sectorial business conferences, under such an evocative title, speaks volumes about the challenges ahead.
Following three mild winters, the bioenergy sector is still trying to catch its breath, while stakeholders have to deal with the concerns of the negative communication by some NGOs, seen by a majority as smear campaigns, far from on the ground realities. The timing could not be worse and this is not a coincidence. 2016 will be a pivotal year for the future of bioenergy at European level. Major regulations with potentially direct and indirect impacts will be discussed, such as the future RES directive and the bioenergy sustainability policy. Then, when it comes to influencing public decision makers, there are two main ways to proceed: the first one is to develop studies, to gather statistics, to build constructive positions based on balanced and pragmatic approaches; the second one is to opt for communications campaigns with sensationalist slogans aimed at discrediting the other party, with no regard to nuances, in order to put the strongest pressure possible on decision makers.
The problem with these kinds of one-shot campaign – which are flourishing with the growth of social media – is that it could instantly over-shadow the sector, damaging its social acceptance in the long term, with no respect to the diversity of practices and on the ground realities it embraces.
In the specific case of solid bioenergy, these campaigns could have unexpected effects. In fact, studies undertaken in different European countries have shown that end consumers who have bought a pellet stove or a boiler, for instance, are firstly driven by economic reasons, with environmental aspects being an additional benefit. On the other side, if a negative perception of woody products were to develop, it could become a primary deterrent. Organisations behind these campaigns, most of which admit that “bioenergy can have positive advantages under certain conditions”, do not take into account the long lasting effects and the side consequences that their messages could have on the entire sector, not only the uses or installations that they are campaigning against.
Bioenergy currently accounts for more than 60 percent of the renewable energy consumption in Europe and this high contribution is expected to remain to reach the 2020 and 2030 RES targets and EU 2050 decarbonisation objective. Should the campaign continue disseminating deterrence along its path, potential customers of all sizes could reconsider their move to bioenergy installations, thus remaining with traditional fossil fuel solutions becomes more attractive, what a paradox!
This is why bioenergy stakeholders in Europe are taking these communication concerns more and more seriously. We need, of course, to work on reminding everyone about the numerous advantages of bioenergy, to balance a debate that is suffering from a clear lack of nuances. However, reminding stakeholders with positive campaigns won’t be enough. First of all, communication cannot be satisfied with wishful thinking. We should develop concrete initiatives and projects to address the concerns raised against the bioenergy sector.
Communication should be considered more and more as an integrated approach. In the sense that, communication actions should be part of all new initiatives lead by bioenergy stakeholders, providing a strong back-up and increasing general awareness. Standalone institutional communication actions, whatever their number, relevance and precision, often appear as empty nutshells in the digital age. Part of the communication should also be devoted to maintain the dialogue with the many NGOs doing fieldwork with a pragmatic approach to reinforce the sustainability side. Secondly, since campaigners are acting as a wolf pack, following specific social media logics, bioenergy stakeholders should also be united in their communication. Individual communication actions are good achievements but collective reactions will have more impact.
The good news for the bioenergy sector is that platforms to develop those collective messages exist at both national and international level. AEBIOM is trying to create a fertile ground where the principles abovementioned can flourish. A brainstorming meeting will be organised very soon, in June for instance, to develop collective projects. We hope to gather a maximum number of stakeholders, it’s time to (re)act.
Text: Jean-Baptiste Boucher, Head of Communications, AEBIOM