Back in February 2012, Melanie Thompson of Get Sust! wondered what, if anything, the new chief at DECC would deliver. It took a while to build up steam, but by the end of the year Ed Davey's department was spinning busily, though possibly in the wrong direction. Is it too late for a seismic shift? A study by the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) suggests a way forward.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) declared "omnishambles" to be the UK Word of the Year 2012 externallink. First coined by the fictional spin doctor Malcolm Tucker, preceded by the requisite expletives in the satirical comedy The Thick of It, it was quickly applied by the UK media to describe all sorts of government "disasters" – from Olympic security, to a certain bicycle-toting MP's alleged gaffe (which made "pleb" a runner up in the WotY stakes). The coalition government's approach to tackling climate change and energy efficiency narrowly missed being an omnishambles too.

Back at the snow-bound start of 2012, the coalition government was still, to a certain extent, feeling its way into the job, but by February things seemed to get moving, with the appointment of Ed Davey as Secretary for Energy and Climate Change and the launch of the Energy Efficiency Deployment Office (EEDO) externallink. Despite early pronouncements on the fate of the Feed-in Tariff (FIT) and a pledge to introduce the renewable heat incentive later in 2012, Mr Davey's department seemed to go off the boil pretty quickly.

It's not unusual for the political momentum to take a dip in the summer months, but early promises regarding "the greenest government ever" were never realistically going to take centre stage when there were so many more "interesting" cuts to be wielded in these austere times. As Building magazine's review of 2012 externallink aptly put it:

"Ministers have been guilty of multiple false starts, of stumbling over the start line and of claiming to have won gold when it was painfully clear that they hadn't even turned up to the first-round heats."

Apart from an unwelcome reshuffle in September – which saw the appointment of Environment Secretary Owen Paterson and Energy Minister John Hayes, stirring up a storm of climate change sceptic and wind farm stories – things were pretty quiet. That is, until the last few weeks of the year when, as if in a rush to bury bad news while we were all doing our bit to boost the economy (i.e. out Christmas shopping or at office parties), the clouds began to gather in earnest.

Strategic wish list

First up was the launch of EEDO's Energy efficiency strategy externallink on 12 November 2012 which, though ostensibly a step in the right direction, was dubbed "too little, too late" by CIBSE, and criticized as "a wish list, not a strategy" by Andrew Warren of the Association for the Conservation of Energy (ACE).

Next, on 19 November the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) aimed to get in ahead of the publication of the Energy Bill (see below), by urging the government to plan for the long term through the publication of its position paper, Post-2020 energy scenarios and pathways to 2030 externallink. Alas, this plea was too late to have an effect on the Energy Bill, details of which emerged a few days later.

By the time the Energy Bill was introduced in the House of Commons on 29 November, ICE and a host of other industry bodies and pressure groups had lined up to express their disappointment that the Bill does not include binding targets on the reduction of carbon emissions up to 2030, which will now not be set until after 2016.

Alongside the Bill, DECC began a consultation on "electricity demand reduction" externallink, which will run until the end of January 2013.

This might sound like a whole lot of action in November, but it really just amounts to more questions than answers. And although the announcement of five End Use Energy Demand (EUED) research centres externallink hosted by UK universities is a "good thing" in terms of research, it does not disguise the fact that the carbon emissions clock is still ticking and what we really need now is concerted action on all fronts.

While these announcements were attracting modest attention at home, news from abroad highlighted the urgency of the situation.

Global warnings

Earlier in November the World Bank warned that we might see a "cascade of cataclysmic changes" by the end of the century if we do not get to grips with global temperature rises. Its report, Turn down the heat externallink, lists the direct and indirect climatic consequences under the current global path for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and concludes that all regions of the world will suffer.

A few days later, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the European Climate Foundation released The emissions gap report 2012 externallink which shows that GHG emissions are around 14% above where they need to be if we are to meet the international targets set for 2020. The report warns that our current business-as-usual approach will make more drastic and expensive cuts necessary after 2020.

Launching that report, Achim Steiner the UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP executive director said: "Not only have we not made progress, we are actively moving in the wrong direction", emphasizing that governments must not become resigned to the fact that emission targets were unachievable.

Unfortunately, his message had little impact on the representatives from nearly 200 countries that have signed up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol, who met in Doha Climate Change Conference externallink a week or two later. They failed to take on any new commitments, other than to carry on with existing plans for the time being.

DECs roll off

Perhaps the UK representatives misheard Achim Steiner's message, thinking that moving in the wrong direction was the preferred modus operandi, because by the end of the year is was clear that the coalition government is now putting a much greater emphasis on the energy market, particularly trying to keep prices low, rather than stressing the importance of energy efficiency. For example, the Better Buildings Partnership and Jones Lang LaSalle externallink reported that monitoring actual energy usage (via display energy certificates, DECs) for occupied commercial buildings, rather than relying on computer models and predictions (i.e. the energy performance certificate, EPC), would help occupants to reduce energy, but just days later Building magazine reported that the government intends to take exactly the opposite position and has decided that it will not roll out the use of DECs to private sector buildings. Instead, the government is proposing, among other things, a new supplier obligation requiring power companies to fund energy efficiency measures in the non-domestic sector, plus a commitment to increasing the use of gas for electricity generation. Construction industry leaders are warning this could lead to a second "dash for gas" to the detriment of the steadily growing renewables sector.

It appears that, once again, instead of thinking about the long-term problems of both energy supply and carbon emissions, the government is opting for quick fixes – announcing its intention to deliver up to 30 extra gas-fired power stations by 2030.

It is true that gas is, at the moment, a "cleaner" option than coal and could, in theory, be cleaner still if the government were to properly invest in research and development of carbon capture and storage technologies. But cleanliness is not the government's only concern – cost is a significant factor too, as Chancellor George Osborne underlined when he announced the gas strategy in his autumn economic statement on 5 December, saying: "We don't want British families and businesses to be left behind as gas prices tumble on the other side of the Atlantic". In the same speech he then announced tax breaks for gas developers and the creation of the Office for Unconventional Gas and Oil.

Unconventional decisions

If you think "unconventional gas and oil" sounds like a euphemism, you're spot on; what they are primarily talking about is shale oil/gas extracted from the earth using "hydraulic fracturing", whereby pressurized fluid is pumped into rocks to force out previously inaccessible hydrocarbons, typically natural gas or petroleum.

The fracking process has caused serious rumblings among environmental pressure groups, as well as actual rumblings in Lancashire, where early attempts to apply the technique to extract "gold" from Blackpool rock resulted in earth tremors.

On 13 December (which was not a Friday), Ed Davey gave energy technology company Cuadrilla Resources the go-ahead to resume fracking externallink, promising local residents that sufficient safety measure are now in place to avoid further seismic activity.

Although there are environmental and safety concerns surrounding fracking – and admittedly DECC has commissioned chief scientist David McKay to investigate the potential impact of shale gas extraction on climate change – there is a more serious question here regarding sustainability that is being overlooked. Remember the Brundtland definition of sustainable development? That it is "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs"? Ed Davey may be right that shale gas could contribute significantly to energy security, but his decision to restart the fledgling industry in the hope of tapping into a new source of wealth, as the Americans are doing, is precisely the opposite of "sustainable development".

Rather than guzzling up as much of this unconventional energy externallink as possible, surely we should first make all possible efforts to exploit the existing renewable sources that aren't going to run out – solar, wind and wave or tidal power – and save the unconventional stuff as a potential back-up for the future?

Which way now?

If Doha is anything to go by, we can't rely on international treaties to drive climate change mitigation at a sufficient pace. But here in the UK the zeitgeist is too strongly fixed on the parlous state of the economy to put energy efficiency high enough up the national agenda.

However, research published at the tail end of 2012 suggests a new way forward to achieve national and international energy-efficiency and sustainability goals ... using the well-known PR technique, rebranding.

The study, Climate change and energy security: Assessing the impact of information and its delivery on attitudes and behaviour externallink by Catherine Happer, Greg Philo and Antony Froggatt, of Chatham House and the University of Glasgow Media Group, and funded by the UKERC, involved some 100 participants in 18 one-day focus groups across Britain, with follow-up questionnaires and interviews six months later. The research team applied well-established social science techniques to set up the groups and to gather baseline opinions, but then applied a novel strategy to get the participants to engage in discussions. They created three future climate change scenarios – a mass flood in Bangladesh, the UK's worst ever flood disaster, and a gas shortage cutting power to 20 million people in the UK – and made authentic TV and radio broadcasts fronted by established news journalists.

The investigation confirmed that, in general, people do not trust politicians and, because they are the very people who are most often heard talking about climate change, coupled with the fact that the topic has fallen down the news agenda, the public are becoming increasingly disengaged with the issue. To make matters worse, the media has enormous power to spread awareness and shape public opinion, but the way this is done only leads to further confusion and mistrust of both politicians and, to a lesser extent, scientists. (The furore in January 2013 regarding the publication by the Met Office of an interim "adjustment" to climate data models is a timely, and unfortunate, example – with the Daily Mail externallink pronouncing "global warming has stalled" while the Observer externallink on 13 January highlighted a new study from the US externallink and warned that the Met Office PR debacle has done little to help the public understanding or concern about climate change.)

On the plus side, over one fifth (21%) of participants in the UKERC study rated scientists and academics most highly in terms of trust, recognizing that they provide information "straight from the horse's mouth".

More interesting, and most significant, however, were the findings in relation to the three future scenarios and what really stirred people to action and/or was well-remembered six months later. It wasn't unseasonal weather, or the need for recycling, or even the straightforward issue of cost; it was "energy security".

At the start of the study only 17% of participants had a reasonable idea of what energy security means, but the same proportion had never heard the phrase. One respondent summarized the prevailing opinion: "I thought that as long as there is money to pay for it, it'll never run out".

Overall, there was a greater increase in concern over energy security as a result of the focus group discussions than there was for climate change. In particular, participants' new knowledge about energy security as a risk factor had a dramatic impact on their attitudes to renewable energy, over the course of the study. As the report says:

"One former cynic reported that, after listening to the report, the move to renewables began to look like a 'no brainer'."

What's more, when participants were revisited six months later, it was the problem of energy security that had made a longer-lasting impact on them.

Six months isn't very long, but with the next General Election scheduled for 7 May 2015 – just over two years, and counting – that's probably all the time we have to get energy efficiency and sustainability back on the national agenda.

Back in 2007, the OED's Word of the Year was "carbon footprint". So the challenge for researchers, scientists and sustainable construction professionals for 2013 is to talk "energy security" while they think and do sustainability and energy efficiency. Hey, we may even coin a Word of the Year: "Securergy" anyone?.

This article represents the views of the author and not those of NBS/ RIBA Enterprises.