Apologies for this very long post — things which I felt needed to be said kept occurring to me…
Mike Childs is Head of Climate at the Friends of the Earth, and Chair of FoE Europe. He writes in a blog post at the FoE site today that,
One of the reasons I joined Friends of the Earth over 20 years ago was that it was an environmental group with a strong record of joining up social justice, development and environmental issues. This position has been maintained through the years.
I like the ambiguity of the language. ‘Joining up social justice, development and environmental issues’ doesn’t mean a commitment to ‘social justice and development’. Rather, it means subordinating them to ‘environmental issues’. This has been discussed previously on this blog. One-time ‘development’ agencies such as Oxfam, for instance, have abandoned their emphasis on development, to emphasise instead that ‘pastoral society’ is the best way of life for people in the developing world. It’s ‘sustainable’, you see, whereas life in industrialised, democratic, and wealthy economies — where we’ve moved on from such proximity to nature — isn’t. Never mind what people actually want, the influential, well-funded and ethically-unimpeachable NGO ‘joins up’ the notion of ‘social justice’, ‘development’, and ‘environmental issues’, and decides for them what’s in their best interests. Instead of talking about poverty and the need for development, Oxfam now are concerned with ‘climate poverty’ and are opposed to development.
And that’s why we wanted to answer the question: can the UK shift to a low-carbon society operating within our share of a global carbon budget, in a way that doesn’t unfairly impact on poorer households?
It’s a bit late for that. As the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) admits themselves, the number of people living in ‘fuel poverty’ has more than doubled since 2004. Debate surrounds the extent to which the Climate Change Act has driven the rise in cost of fuel bills, and is thus responsible for the rise in fuel poverty. Bracket this question for the moment, I will return to it. There are two things which are, meanwhile, indubitable.
First, renewable energy is more expensive than conventional energy. This is owed in the main part to the fact that fossil fuels are energy dense, whereas ‘renewable’ sources of energy are more ‘ambient’. Therefore, renewable energy requires more machinery, and/or more human labour to turn that ambient energy into something useful. Notwithstanding that oil is ‘finite’ (and wind is too), wind can never contain as much energy as oil, even if we get better at converting wind into something useful; we can also get better at turning oil into useful energy.
Second, increasing prices puts stuff out of the reach of people with less money. Thus, higher prices — whatever the cause — ’causes’ fuel poverty. A caution here about the expression ‘fuel poverty’. I don’t believe in special terms such as this. There is no need for a term to describe the effect of rising fuel prices. If somebody does not have enough money for food, we don’t say that they are living in ‘food poverty’. If somebody cannot afford adequate housing or clothing, we do not say that they live in ‘house poverty’, or ‘clothing poverty’. So let’s be clear, rising fuel prices increases poverty.
These two truisms established, the Climate Change Act (CCA), then, is undeniably the cause of some increase in poverty. And Mike Childs, as Head of Climate at FoE, which campaigned vigorously for the CCA must take some responsibility for that problem. When the CCA was passed, FoE congratulated its members:
On the evening of Wednesday 26 November, 2008, the UK Big Ask campaign officially ended…
… and the Climate Change Act was passed into law.
The Climate Change Act is the first national law committing to legally binding annual cuts in greenhouse gases.
It should make sure the UK plays its part in keeping global temperatures below danger levels.
And it could put Britain at the forefront of international efforts to tackle climate change.
Another vital new law – The Energy Act – also received Royal Assent.
This new law includes commitments to bring in Feed-in Tariffs – boosts to renewable energy that could see you getting paid for the energy you produce at home.
Both of these fantastic victories are the result of an awesome show of people power.
It’s people like you:
Taking action on our websites
Visiting and speaking to your MP
Signing post cards
that have made this happen.
We now need to keep up the pressure on Government to:
Decarbonise the UK
Ensure emissions reductions are made in the UK – not traded abroad
Set up workable Feed-in Tariffs
Ensuring payments are high enough to make them work
But let’s pause for a second to appreciate our achievements …
Congratulations! We did it.
The FoE’s campaign for a ‘strong climate law’ was called ‘the Big Ask’. It’s inconceivable that FoE were unaware that this ‘Big Ask’ wouldn’t result in bigger energy bills, because it ran concurrent — though much lower profile — campaigns against fuel poverty:
Friends of the Earth and Help the Aged are today (Wednesday 9 April) taking the Government to court, for not doing enough to meet its legal obligation to eradicate fuel poverty. The two charities are campaigning for the Government to develop a far more effective and comprehensive programme of domestic energy efficiency, to simultaneously end suffering from fuel poverty and tackle climate change.
Despite the Government being legally bound  to eradicate fuel poverty for vulnerable households by 2010 and for all households by 2016, nearly 3 million households in England are still struggling to adequately heat their homes. The Government currently estimates that by 2010 there may still be 1.3 million vulnerable  households in fuel poverty – nearly the same number as at the time of the Government’s Fuel Poverty Strategy in 2001.
The legal action failed. Friends of the Earth had succeeded in drafting and helping a bill through parliament, but had failed to hold the government to its promises to eradicate fuel poverty. We now see nearly double the figures for fuel poverty quoted by FoE in 2008. In November that year, FoE reflected on their failure.
The High Court gave Friends of the Earth and Help the Aged permission to appeal because the case raised difficult and novel legal questions. The organisations have asked the Court of Appeal to reconsider the issues and order that the Government release previously secret fuel poverty documents. Friends of the Earth’s executive director, Andy Atkins, said:
“We believe the Government has acted unlawfully by failing in its legal commitment to end the suffering of fuel poverty. The Government must introduce a massive programme to cut energy waste, slash fuel bills and ensure that people heat their homes and not the planet.”
So FoE knew that the government were failing to meet its promises to abolish fuel poverty; they knew that levels of fuel poverty were rising, and yet they still pressed for legislation — ‘strong climate law’ which they knew would push energy bills up further. And the government knew that energy prices were rising — it was late 2008, after all — and that this would have a material effect on consumers’ bills. And they knew that this would cause an increase in energy poverty — FoE had told them.
The following year, a group of NGOs, including FoE, joined forces.
A new coalition of leading UK environmental and social justice groups, convened by Oxfam and NEF (the new economics foundation) and including Friends of the Earth and the Royal College of Nursing, says the government cannot choose between tackling poverty and climate change; it must begin to tackle these related issues together and it must take action now.
At a time of rising unemployment and economic insecurity, some people argue that we cannot afford the ‘luxury’ of protecting the environment; but the report, Tackling Climate Change, Reducing Poverty shows that tackling climate change actually offers a huge opportunity to boost the economy and tackle UK poverty at the same time.
It’s never been clear to me how NGOs have managed to make the issue of climate change and poverty ‘related’. It’s not as if there was no poverty in the UK before climate change. They are of course related insofar as climate change policies make energy (and therefore everything that requires energy) more expensive. And they are related to the extent that climate — changing or not — is a problem if you don’t have the material means to protect yourself from it. But there is no obvious connection between poverty in the UK, and climate change; you don’t need to talk about the climate in order to understand the phenomenon of poverty. The government’s energy poverty eradication programme was 8 years old by 2008, and neither it nor any of its existing or new climate policies were having any positive effect on the levels of fuel poverty. So in what respect could the issues of poverty and climate change be related? The NGOs claimed that their research showed,
One in five people in the UK still live in poverty, often without enough money to heat their homes or to eat healthily. The new report shows that the poorest people in the UK will be most affected by the effects of climate change. They tend to live in poorer housing, have poorer health, less access to home insurance, and less money to adapt to price rises. Their situation could be worsened by measures to combat climate change such as higher taxation on fossil fuels.
But the report also shows how the need to combat climate change could present a huge opportunity to tackle poverty too. Home insulation cuts fuel bills, keeps homes warm, and reduces CO2 emissions; investment in public transport provides affordable travel for all and cuts air pollution; and the move to a low-carbon economy could be a stimulus for new skilled jobs in home insulation and energy efficiency.
So the first paragraph showed that poor people were damned by climate change (though it does not explain how a warmer climate would harm people who struggled to pay their heating bills), but also by climate change policies. But, the second paragraph argued, fighting climate change and poverty together might create an ‘opportunity’.
But just as it’s not clear how climate change and poverty are ‘related’, it’s not clear how intervention to solve the issues of poverty and climate change together represent ‘opportunity’. Yes, insulating homes creates the possibility of their inhabitants using less fuel, and therefore paying less in total for energy. But that saving is absorbed by the rising cost of energy, thanks to climate change legislation. Any gain made by ‘efficiency’ is lost by the policies designed to disincentivise energy use. On top of this, the cost of insulating so many homes — the labour and materials — needs to be paid for. That’s an opportunity for the person who is contacted to insulate homes, but it’s not an overall opportunity. It doesn’t actually yield anything productive by itself; there is no value added to anything by this ‘efficiency’.
Reading the NGO coalition’s statement, however, I was reminded of something. The words looked familiar. I was sure I had written something about a ‘low carbon economy’, energy efficiency, and new jobs in the renewable sector before…
I had, in April 2009.
Apparently 400,000 new “environmental sector” jobs will be created by 2017, according to Gordon Brown, who reckoned 1.3 million people would by then be working in “green” jobs. According to Mandelson, “The huge industrial revolution that is unfolding in converting our economy to low carbon is going to present huge business and employment opportunities.”
In fact, I had written the article for the Register in March — less than 6 weeks after the NGO coalition had met and published its report. It looks as though FoE were still influencing government thinking, after all. The NGOs were calling for precisely the things the government were now promising in their ‘Green New Deal’. And funnily enough, the ‘Green New Deal’ was also the title of a project conceived in July 2008 by parter in the group of NGOs, the New Economics Foundation (NEF).
The Green New Deal will rekindle a vital sense of purpose, restoring public trust and refocusing the use of capital on public priorities and sustainability. In this way it can also help deliver a wide range of social benefits that can greatly improve quality of life in the future. The Green New Deal includes policies and novel funding mechanisms that will reduce emissions contributing to climate change and allow us to cope better with the coming energy shortages caused by peak oil.
The Labour government were taking policies directly from NGOs and green-left think tanks. They weren’t even giving these policy ‘initiatives’ new names.
And as a Wikipedia article on the ‘Green New Deal’ shows, there are many ‘Green New Deals’, throughout the world, each hoping to use the climate issue to overcome financial woe. Each promising growth, jobs, and a shiny bright happy future. NGOs and think-tanks were instrumental in pushing governments towards these policies.
The following year, the UK Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties formed a coalition government. The previous government’s ‘Green New Deal’ was forgotten altogether, and the coalition, in a stunning act of original thought, promised the UK a ‘Green Deal‘. (Obviously, a New Green New Deal would have been absurd.)
The Energy Bill introduced to Parliament on 8 December 2010 includes provision for the new ‘Green Deal’, which is intended to revolutionise the energy efficiency of British properties.
The Government is establishing a framework to enable private firms to offer consumers energy efficiency improvements to their homes, community spaces and businesses at no upfront cost, and to recoup payments through a charge in instalments on the energy bill.
I’ve discussed the identical nature of, and rhetoric surrounding the Labour Government’s ‘Green New Deal’ and the coalition’s ‘Green Deal’ here recently. Here again is Chris Huhne, announcing the policy.
Huhne’s bluster is of course as hollow as ‘his’ policy ‘initiative’, which was as hollow as the previous governments policy, which was as hollow as the ‘thinking’ of the NGOs and think-tanks which lobbied for it.
Lots of fanfare. Lots of talk about ‘revolutions’ comparable to the industrial revolution. Promises of jobs. Promises of warm homes. Lots of hope and hype about economic recovery.
The reality is, however, no economy recovery on the horizon, but concerns that things are about to get worse. Nothing resembling an industrial revolution, but, on the contrary, concerns that the UK’s energy policies will send prices up, and industry away from these shores. No sign of any jobs, but, on the contrary, over the period discussed in this blog post, unemployment has risen from 5 to 8% — equivalent to the number of jobs promised by the Green New Deal. Fuel bills have risen faster than any government scheme to insulate homes can stop their occupants falling into ‘fuel poverty’. And there’s very little chance that carbon emissions will be reduced by any meaningful measure, and even less chance that a global deal will follow this vapid posturing.
I promised to return to the question about the extent to which climate change and renewable energy policies have caused bills to rise, and will continue to cause to rise. I must say that, by now, it seems almost pointless: the UK’s climate change act and its grandiose gestures — Green New Deals, green energy revolutions, and so on — are catastrophic failures on their own terms. However, DECC and its defenders have answered criticisms of rising levels of fuel poverty by the policies of the Climate Change Act by claiming that rises in energy bills (the kind you pay for directly, not draft legislation in Parliament) are due to the market, over which they have no control.
This is perhaps true. But admitting that they have no control over the market, they must admit that their plans to mitigate the effects of rising energy prices by offering schemes to insulate homes was inadequate. They appear to have failed to anticipate rising energy costs, and thus put their environmental concerns above the ‘energy poor’. Put another way, the policies intended to prevent carbon emissions and reduce fuel poverty were in contradiction, and one enjoyed greater emphasis than the other — completely contrary to the claim that the two goals are equivalent, as FoE and co had claimed. Put another way again, the idea that ‘the market’ may beset progress in the UK’s climate reduction plan was anathema to the policy-makers and NGOs. Yet the market was able to move in such a way as to put millions of households into fuel poverty.
But, what DECC emphasise is that by 2020, ‘the market’ will have made energy prices so expensive, that the costs caused by climate and energy policies will suddenly become insignificant. Renewable energy will become nearly as cheap as conventional energy. And our insulated homes will require less energy to heat them. As Carbon Brief candidly explained,
DECC base their analysis of future energy bills on the assumption that energy efficiency measures (for example increased home insulation) will reduce household consumption of energy – so while prices go up energy bills may remain steady or even go down. While DECC predict that climate change and energy policies will cause gas prices to go up by 18% and electricity prices by 33% by 2020, they estimate (as of July 2010) that because of reductions in energy use “compared to the counterfactual scenario in which climate change and energy policies do not have an impact on energy bills, on average, domestic energy bills will be 1% higher in 2020.”
So, the government has in fact anticipated higher energy prices. It cannot blame the market for then delivering them, for its failed policies. We can say with some certainty, then, that the emphasis that the government and FoE have put on fuel poverty have been little but token gestures. FoE knew what it was asking for: for policies that would make life difficult for people, and it knew that the government wasn’t capable of, or interested in, solving the problem of fuel poverty in any meaningful way.
Perhaps I sound like I may be being too hard on Childs and FoE here. But consider this passage from his blog post:
We looked at the impact of extending the life of existing nuclear power plants but found this had little impact on emissions as they were simply competing with renewable energy.
There is a crisis now, surely, for the 5.5 million households living in fuel poverty. But meeting the demand for energy — and perhaps lowering the cost — by increasing supply without the need for capital investment is ruled out, because it makes renewable energy investment less attractive. Again, we see FoE’s priorities, which reflect the government’s, in a document in which FoE claim to consider a ‘just transition’ to a low carbon economy.
Last week, Scottish and Southern announced that they were considering pulling their 25% stake in a nuclear energy consortium, to focus instead on renewable energy. An FoE spokesman said,
Scottish and Southern’s decision to abandon nuclear and focus on renewable power is welcome news. But they have a long way to go – 88 per cent of the power they supplied last year came from coal and gas, leaving consumers with soaring fuel bills caused by our fossil fuel dependency. Sufficient investment in renewables and cutting energy waste must be a Government priority, along with measures to help households, businesses and communities to free themselves from the shackles of the Big Six energy firms by developing their own green power.
FoE are opposed to old nuclear, and they are opposed to new nuclear. The cheapest cleanest, greenest, safest, and most proven form of low-carbon energy production is ruled out, because it interferes with windmills.
When Cuadrilla Resources announced that it had found a vast reserve of shale gas, FoE announced that,
Drilling for shale gas raises serious safety concerns and risks polluting water supplies – and it could take vital funding away from the clean energy solutions we know are safe and will work. Our future power needs should come from the wind, sun and waves and using our energy more carefully – this will slash emissions and boost the economy by creating new businesses and jobs. There should be no more fracking in Britain until safety and environmental concerns have been properly addressed.
Shale gas, of course, could do much, much more than ‘renewables’ to boost the economy, create new business and jobs, and slash our emissions — if that is important — by replacing our ageing coal power stations. It would also do much to lower the cost of energy bills. So too would nuclear energy. But as immediate answers to economic problems, fuel poverty and unemployment, and intermediate answers the problem of climate change, they are unacceptable to FoE. But the point of the policies they have pushed for is not simply carbon reductions, but renewable energy… expensive renewable energy.
And the government has responded. It has invited FoE to comment, and to recommend policies. It has welcomed the ‘pressure’ it has put on the policy-making process. It enjoys the PR role that FoE serves, in ‘communicating climate change’, and giving their policies the legitimacy that only an NGO seems able to give them in today’s world.
So finally, we have an answer to the question ‘what proportion of energy price increases are caused by policies’…
All of it. Every single penny rise is the fault of the previous and coalition governments, their policies, and NGOs like FoE. Because rather than emphasising the need for energy, for cheap and abundant energy, and allowing such development to take place, the government has designed policies which emphasise renewables, rather even than low or lower carbon alternatives to coal such as gas and nuclear. They have campaigned in the UK and internationally for policies which are hostile to conventional and nuclear energy. They have promised handsome returns to energy firms who in turn promise to help them deliver on their political targets, while a fifth of all UK households struggle to afford their bills. They have created an atmosphere in which energy firms are disinclined to deliver functioning energy infrastructure, and have emphasised their desire for ‘smart grids’ that will cost tens, if not hundreds of £billions. That is why SSE are considering pulling out of the nuclear energy consortium: they sense the lack of political commitment to the idea of nuclear, and the smart money is following the easy money. And shale gas… The Guardian reported last week,
The UK’s “dash for gas” will be halted by the government because if unchecked it would break legally binding targets for carbon dioxide emissions, Chris Huhne, energy and climate change secretary, said on Monday evening. “We will not consent so much gas plant so as to endanger our carbon dioxide goals,” he told a fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrats party conference in Birmingham.
“We will not consent”, therefore, “so much gas plant so as to endanger…” reducing energy bills, and reducing energy poverty.
All of this will be lost on Mike Childs, head of climate at FoE. He still believes he is committed to ‘justice’.
We came to the conclusion that yes, it is possible for the UK to go low-carbon in a way that’s fair for everyone who lives here. But that it will take a determined effort by government, businesses and individuals to do so. It will undoubtedly require decision-makers to stand up to vested interests such as the big 6 energy companies.
So, heroic changes and a determined effort to address social justice is the order of the day. Not so different from when I joined Friends of the Earth 20 years ago.
There could be a very different discussion about energy. There could be a situation in which there is no problem of energy poverty. Whether you believe energy supply and R&D needs more or less government intervention, a different, more positive discussion could have been dominated by questions about how to get more energy to more people for less cost. That could have been the priority. That could have been the measure of a ‘just’ energy policy. Then, environmental concerns could be heard. But the value of energy is limited to the discussion about ‘keeping the lights’ on, and only then with behavioural change experts ‘nudging’ us to turn them off, anyway.
It is no use discussing the rights and wrongs of climate change and energy policies and their scientific bases when, it seems, we have lost any sense of what we want energy for. The loss of this idea — that energy creates the possibility of real opportunities for longer, more rewarding and more comfortable lives — has allowed the likes of Friends of the Earth to enter the debate with their entirely degraded notion of ‘justice’ — one completely subsumed by their commitment to an absurd ideal of ‘nature’ and life ‘in balance’ with it. This notion of justice turns out to be, much less a liberating idea, but an idea which calls for increased intervention in and control over people’s lives — especially those it claims to want to help — for behaviour change, and for policies which ignore the interests and desires of people. The better argument is about more than merely ‘keeping the lights on’.