Three seismic stories broke in the world of energy last week: the International Energy Agency (IEA) released figures showing global energy-related emissions of carbon dioxide rose to their highest ever level last year, fuel prices in the UK hit record levels, and the US and UK banned the import of Russian oil. The first, although deeply alarming, could have been predicted six months ago. The second and third would not have been predicted just weeks ago.

With policymakers and the public acutely attuned to the energy sector in a way not seen for decades, communicators need to recalibrate messaging to protect and enhance reputation, while playing their part to help with the net zero transition.

Rebalancing the Energy Trilemma

In the run-up to COP26 it was sustainability and the singular question “how can we reach net zero”, that dominated the minds of policymakers and the industry. Today, encapsulated by the three stories of the week, the Energy Trilemma – the need for balance between security, affordability, and sustainability in how we access and use energy in our daily lives – is back at the top of policymaker’s minds.

Kwasi Kwarteng, UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, published a nine-part Twitter thread on energy security which provides a clear window into his thinking. The minister pledged continued support for North Sea Gas, calling the idea of turning off domestic sources as “complete madness” and placing a renewed emphasis on nuclear.  In mainland Europe, the German government rowed back plans to phase out coal by 2030 and Italy’s Prime Minister, Mario Draghi, set out plans to re-start domestic production of natural gas.

The industry knows it as well. Speaking at industry conference CERAWeek in Houston on Monday, TotalEnergies CEO Patrick Pouyanne said, “What is happening today in Europe is a big wake-up call to a lot of policymakers if they are serious about security of supply, affordability and of course climate change compatibility.”

Communicators need to react. Messaging that solely focuses on net zero will come across as tone deaf to under-pressure policymakers and the increasingly cash-strapped public alike. This doesn’t mean ditching sustainability as a core theme; narratives need to adopt a “Net Zero +” framing that balances all three elements of the trilemma.

Net zero, but at what cost?

Having spent decades barely thinking about energy, public audiences across the Western World have been shaken awake to the reality of soaring home energy bills and high prices at the pump. The juxtaposition between the current cost of living crisis and pledges to invest billions to reach net zero – estimated by McKinsey to require US$275 trillion by 2050 – is being noticed and quickly becoming fertile political ground. Nigel Farage, the lead Brexit campaigner, has seized the moment to call for a referendum on the UK’s plans to hit net zero emissions by 2050.

Although an oversimplification, the debate about pushing forward with investment in renewables or turning back to fossil fuels will continue to heat up. For energy communicators, public concern and the politicisation of net zero carries risk. Campaigners will be looking for examples of corporate excess, and value for money from government investment will be heavily scrutinised. Transparency and sensitivity are both needed to avoid reputation damage.

An opening for new ideas

As the pharmaceutical industry experienced during the pandemic, society is turning to the energy sector for solutions to this challenge. For communicators, this presents a golden opportunity to tell an innovation story and share thought leadership. For nascent, or marginalised industries such as Hydrogen, Hydropower, Nuclear,  Carbon Capture and Direct Air Capture there is a window of opportunity to be seen as a part of the short, medium and long-term solution.