In September 2023 the Arava Institute partnered with the Environmental Change Institute of the University of Oxford on a joint project to build resilience to climate change through citizen-led energy transition in Israel and the UK, generously supported by the British Council Wohl Clean Growth Alliance Grants.
Reducing carbon emissions requires transformations of existing energy systems. Rapid technological change is needed. Success also depends on the extent to which citizens can become active participants in these energy system changes. Through a range of activities this project will establish and foster a new transdisciplinary group of researchers, practitioners, and policymakers actively engaged in building resilient communities through participation in energy system decarbonization. Understanding how marginal communities, especially the Bedouin community, could develop and benefit from greater engagement in energy system decarbonization via the development of community projects, will impact our ability to reach carbon emission reduction goals.
This interview with Dr. Jake Barnes, lead researcher at the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University, and József Kádár from the Arava Institute’s Center for Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation, introduces the goals and plans of the project.
Please introduce yourselves.
Dr. Jake Barnes: I have been a researcher in the Energy Group of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford for the past five and half years. My interest throughout all of my academic career has been on the ways in which people participate in energy systems in their daily lives, in their households, in their businesses, how they travel – all of those aspects, and how we need to change energy systems to reduce the impact of those systems on the climate, how we tackle the climate emergency, reduce our emissions, and create more sustainable systems. Even prior to starting to my academic life I was involved with grassroots groups in Bristol in the southwest of England, where we were exploring community approaches to reducing our carbon emissions, starting off with things like energy audits of community buildings, and then suggesting little changes that could be made to those buildings, for instance installing energy saving light bulbs. We also explored community scale renewable energy solutions, such as installing photovoltaic systems on community buildings. My interest in community participation grew from there.
József Kádár: I am a researcher at the Arava Institute’s Center for Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation, where I am researching the social – economic – technological aspects of the energy transition in Israel, Jordan, and Palestine. Furthermore, I am currently completing my Ph.D. at Haifa University on citizen engagement through social innovation in the energy transition and how social innovation can catalyze the energy transition.
How did this partnership come about?
Dr. Jake Barnes: Back in the spring of 2021 József contacted Dr. Sabine Hielscher, an energy transition researcher at Sussex University. She wasn’t in a position to explore the opportutnity but as a former colleague of mine, she put József and me in touch. Given my background in community participation in energy systems, I was interested in the idea of sharing what was happening on the ground in different countries. I brought in the Bristol Energy Network, which is an umbrella organization that aims to connect energy-related activities and groups within the city of Bristol and the surrounding area.
József Kádár: I saw this as a great opportunity for the Arava Institute and our partners – especially from marginalized communities in Israel, Palestine and Jordan – to learn from the British examples on community energy, engagement, and management. The reason I was looking for a partner from the UK rather than somewhere else in Europe was the specific interest in clean growth linked to the food-water-energy nexus.
How will this idea be implemented?
József Kádár: The project will include two workshops for policy makers, representatives of academy, and entrepreneurs in Bristol, UK, and in Tel Aviv, Israel, which will also take participants on site visits to contemporary community projects. In addition, the insights from these workshops and experiences across both countries will be captured and shared widely through joint publications and blog posts. I think this can have a big impact on the work of all partners in the project. We will gain tools to better understand what community participation can be, and hopefully it can change our thinking as organizations to make our work on the ground more viable and sustainable.
Dr. Jake Barnes: I would frame it in terms of two pillars: networking and knowledge exchange. This is definitely a networking grant, it’s not so much about original research. It’s about bringing people together to facilitate knowledge exchange and the exploration of common issues and challenges.
How do you plan on translating the academic findings of the project into something that can benefit stakeholders on the community level?
Dr. Jake Barnes: This is an important point. Firstly, the delegations to both countries will be a mix of academics and practitioners. The Bristol Energy Network is also very much tied into the practical applications within the community, and the two workshops will include both theoretical discussions, and more action-oriented sessions, like site visits and meetings with local stakeholders to share experience and build understanding.
József Kádár: Yes, the workshop in Israel will also include visits to the Arava Institute’s projects in local communities. It’s very important to act on the community level, and educate the wider population. Our recent research shows that in Israel the climate change impact is not felt as an immediate threat by the majority of people, and there is a lack of accurate knowledge about renewable energies, a lack of awareness regarding national energy and climate policy, and a lack of trust from citizens about energy decision making.
Dr. Jake Barnes: I view the involvement of communities as critical. There is a lot of progress being made globally on the transition to renewable energy, but it will not be enough to get us to the Net Zero emissions future. We also need to reduce the amount of energy that’s being consumed. This means we need to start evaluating the ways in which we use energy in our daily lives to understand how to become more energy efficient. In practice this means that we need to find better ways of engaging with and including people. Experience to date suggests that if you only offer tokenistic engagement of citizens – for example consulting them but not really taking their feedback into account – there will be a lot of pushback. That’s why it’s important to make information widely available, and make sure the people on the ground understand what they can do and how they can contribute.
Why do you think the knowledge of the Arava Institute, a small academic institution in the hyper-arid desert in Israel, and the Bristol Energy Network, a community organization in a city in England, can be mutually beneficial? Don’t they deal with very different situations on the ground?
Dr. Jake Barnes: I think the basic logic transfers to different contexts but the nuance will be slightly different. It will be interesting to explore these differences, regarding both government policy making and implementation, and citizen involvement.
József Kádár: I hope that despite, or maybe because of, the differences participants will discover new things that will “open their minds”, that they will be able to implement in appropriate ways in their home communities.