All around the world, governments’ energy policies are at a crossroads. In order to insulate themselves from dependence on Russian oil and gas, tackle rising living costs and enact sanctions against Vladimir Putin, governments are collectively clamouring to diversify their energy supplies.
The UK government is expected imminently to publish its Energy Strategy that will set out how it intends to reduce the nation’s reliance on energy imports and speed up the transition to net zero. It will be a test case for an economy still heavily hooked on fossil fuel use but with huge untapped renewable energy potential and an economic ‘levelling-up’ agenda for its regions that could benefit greatly from investment in low carbon transition.
A sustainable energy strategy
Confounding a determined fossil fuel lobby seeking to exploit this moment to prolong the use of coal, oil and gas, with impeccable timing, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has been very clear, they say that if gas prices remain high, which is very likely, the cost of achieving net zero would be a saving of 0.5% of GDP, rather than a cost.
But there are still reasons for concern. The Prime Minister has insisted that now’s the time to make “big bets” on nuclear energy, even though it will make no difference to energy supply in the upcoming period that is critical in terms of both climate and geopolitical action. Nuclear development times are long, and always longer than promised by the industry, and while renewable costs have plummeted, nuclear costs are eye-wateringly high and keep rising. There are also rumours of relaxing regulations to boost North Sea extraction, despite greater levels of production being uneconomical, doing little to dent energy bills and being completely incompatible with our commitments under the Paris Agreement and net zero target. There are also fears over what will be omitted from the strategy.
The current energy policy crossroads define the speed and depth of the UK’s transition. And the seriousness of the moment demands an all-encompassing approach which understands that, at this point in time, all policy is climate policy. With this understanding, the Rapid Transition Alliance’s alternative energy strategy cuts across energy, housing, industry and transport to deliver the scale of change and ambition this moment requires. While bold, many of these ideas and proposals already have been introduced and implemented around the world in response to the climate crisis or previous fossil fuel energy crises. We are surrounded by an abundance of evidence-based hope for what the next few years can hold and in such moments of darkness, hope is a guiding principle that can shine a light on the path ahead.
But renewable energy projects still take time to plan, construct and switch on, with a variety of potential obstacles on the way. As such, new renewable projects are unlikely to have a marked effect on energy bills come winter 2022. To have an instant impact on the UK energy landscape, and help those families feeling the squeeze, the energy strategy must focus on reducing the demand for energy through a nationwide programme of retrofitting and insulating every home, creating jobs and improving the lives of millions overnight.
There are also a variety of ‘low hanging fruit’ household behaviours that can cut bills and gas use, like turning the flow temperature of your gas boiler down to around 50 degrees, which can cut bills by between 6% to 8% a year. For added savings, it’s also recommended to bleed your radiators and plug draughts around doors and windows. To scale up these measures, the government could roll out a major public information campaign that paints these behaviours as ways of cutting waste, cutting bills and cutting our dependence on fossil fuelled despots. This will resonate with the public far more than referring to ‘energy efficiency’ or ‘demand reduction’.
There are immediate steps the government can take to cut bills and our dependence on energy imports, but to deliver cheap, secure and sustainable energy for the foreseeable, reform shouldn’t stop at the sources of primary energy – we need to open up novel models of ownership and reform distribution networks. This week Ripple Energy opened the UK’s first community-owned wind turbine in South Wales, drawing investment from 907 members of the community. Now the blades are in motion, the 900 plus investors will be getting their energy from the wind turbine, which is set to cut their bills by 25% a year for the duration of the turbine’s 25-year lifespan. This form of ownership, pioneered by Ripple Energy, has huge potential in boosting support for the transition, cutting bills and bending the emissions curve. The model’s popularity and success in Denmark, Germany and Scotland is testimony to what it can deliver for households across the UK.
Ending our reliance on all gas – not just Russian gas – will require transformations in the way we build new homes and renovate old ones. The UK’s housing stock is some of the oldest and draughtiest in Europe, with millions of families living in poor housing conditions and suffering from fuel poverty. With the energy bill hikes imminent, a total of six million British homes may slide into fuel poverty – the highest level since records began. Already today, 12,000 Brits die each year as a result of the health conditions that accompany living in a cold, draughty home. In light of rising bills and dipping living standards, this number is likely to rise during winter 2022. And to complicate matters further, 85% of UK homes use gas for cooking and heating, locking millions into continued fossil fuel use and sky-high bills.
Any attempt to decarbonise housing must start with a deep and far-reaching retrofit programme. To hit net zero by 2050, 26 million British homes need to be retrofitted. But in light of high bills and Russian aggression, there’s an imperative to go full steam ahead before winter 2022. Rapidly retrofitting UK homes would deliver a substantial jobs boost. According to NEF, an ambitious retrofit programme in the UK could create 500,000 good green jobs. Modelling also shows that the economic value generated through retrofitting far outstrips the initial capital outlay. Estimates vary, but some studies suggest that a deep retrofit programme has a net-present value of £7.5 billion by 2035. If you include the health benefits of living in warmer and more energy efficient homes, the value could be up to £47 billion. The British public are supportive of measures to improve the comfort and durability of their homes, with polling from 38 Degrees showing that 86% of the public support government grants for improving home insulation.
But, of course, who is going to do the vital work of insulating homes and installing heat pumps? The scale of action needed, and the urgency with which we must act to help those most in need before winter closes in, requires a seismic shift in the provision of green skills and training and support to building new supply and value chains. In the UK today, there are only 2,000 trained heat pump installers. By 2030, we need an army of 50,000 to hit our targets. Fortunately the UK has an abundance of heating engineers – 180,000 of them – who could be retrained in up to 5 days in heat pump installation and low temperature heating. The government could drive this mass upskilling, covering the entire costs of training for everyone of the 50,000 engineers we need by 2030 for less than £100 million spread over the next eight years. In the words of E3G, “the returns on this relatively limited investment could be enormous”.
Many of the above policies will help urban dwellers, but over ten million British people live in rural areas. In these locales, the onus must be on restoring and expanding public transport routes that were cut. These rural communities are particularly vulnerable to fossil fuel price hikes, as they often use heating oil to heat their homes and rely on cars, which can perpetuate the cost of living crisis. It’s in areas like these where the interconnected nature of policy truly matters in the face of sliding living standards and the climate crisis: transport, housing and energy are deeply interwoven for rural communities and you cannot address one without addressing the other. If we are going to transition rapidly, we need to take everyone with us for the ride.
The invasion of Ukraine, the fossil fuel energy crisis, and sliding living standards around the world, provides a snapshot of what humanity’s future could look like if we fail to rapidly move away from our dependence on fossil fuels. The benefits that would be accrued from taking instant and ambitious action across the sectors of energy, housing, industry and transport will be felt by all, through cosier homes, cleaner air and more money in our pockets at the end of each month. The urgency of tackling the climate crisis and reducing our reliance on foreign despots makes a rapid transition the only viable option: the swiftness with which we build an energy system based on resilient homegrown renewable sources, the sooner we sap the war chest and political capital of pariah states. The quicker we shift away from fossil fuels, the faster we reduce the suffering that millions of British households are staring down. Now’s the opportunity to insist – fiercely and unapologetically – that we want a rapid transition and we want the benefits to be shared by all.
Andrew Simms is Coordinator of the Rapid Transition Alliance, an author, political economist and activist. He is co-director of the NewWeather Institute, Assistant Director of Scientists for Global Responsibility, a Research Associate at the University of Sussex, and a Fellow of the New Economics Foundation (NEF). His books include The New Economics, Cancel the Apocalypse: the New Path to Prosperity, Ecological Debt and Do Good Lives Have to Cost the Earth? He tweets from @andrewsimms_uk
Freddie Daley is currently working as a researcher at the University of Sussex exploring sustainable behaviour change, supply-side policies and the political economy of the climate crisis. He is also an activist with Green New Deal UK and has published opinion pieces on UK climate policy in OpenDemocracy and Tribune, amongst others