Short-termism, ideology and spin in UK Heat Policy

An experienced Secretary of State who gets climate change science, a supportive Prime Minister and a manifesto that supported cutting carbon and meeting climate change targets. You could be forgiven for thinking that actually things weren’t looking too bad for the UK’s energy policy. How things have changed just 10 weeks after the election.

To put things in to perspective, if the UK is to meet its climate change targets which by the way, are supposedly supported by the Tories, the UK must transform the way it produces and uses heat. The current reliance on gas, oil and coal for over 95% of our domestic heat demand must eliminated and all of our heat needs to come from renewable and low carbon sources such as biomass boilers and heat pumps, challenging but possible. Alongside these new heating systems, the amount of energy used in UK homes (some of the leakiest and most energy hungry in Europe) must reduce significantly. The other imperative for making this change is the fact that the UK is increasingly dependent on imported gas which has associated security risks as well as price risks alongside.

It was a shock to all the energy professionals I know when the Government announced that it was scrapping the Zero Carbon Homes policy, a policy set to ensure that from 2016, all new homes would be thermally efficient and all of their energy use would be covered by low carbon sources. This policy began development almost 10 years ago and had the buy in of the energy and building industry. As a result, the industry has been undermined, consumers will be paying more for bills than they otherwise would and we’re locked-in to carbon emitting houses. All because the upfront cost of these homes is very slightly higher even though these costs are easily offset in the long-term.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the rumours now are that the Green Deal Home Improvement Fund, a fund which supports the installation of energy efficiency measures which save consumers money will be scrapped along with the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) policy. The RHI is the only policy which the Government has to increase the levels of renewable heat in the country and which had been largely successful in supporting the industry. Without this, it’s impossible to see how we’ll meet our 2020 EU renewable energy targets or indeed or national carbon targets.

So how can this be explained? Well firstly energy is an area where short-termism doesn’t work and with parliamentary cycles, policy changes can be made which have little impact at the time yet over the longer term can have significant consequences. This is an issue for many sustainability issues including climate change. Who will we hold to account in 50 years time when the impacts of decisions made years before are felt and therefore what is the short term political incentive to act?

There is also an ideological rationale behind these decisions. The modern Conservatives stand for low-tax and low Government spending, cutting regulation, personal freedom and belief in the ‘free’ market. But energy is not an area which can be aligned with this ideology. Like it or not, energy requires regulation, planning, subsidy and often intrusive changes. The UK’s liberalised energy market has historically under-invested and under-innovated and it was only after the final years of the Labour Government and the Lib-Con coalition that we began to see some challenge to this belief in the free-market. That challenge now appears to be going into reverse gear.

There is also a darker side to these policy changes in that these go specifically against Conservative manifesto commitments which support reducing carbon emissions and helping people to insulate their homes. With a small majority in Parliament and only just over a third of the UK’s votes, the conservatives are playing a dangerous game of spin, going not just against their own manifesto commitments but also against public opinion in general.

It’s time the Government rose above the short termism and spin, looked at the evidence and started making sensible decisions. The UK can reduce costs, develop industries and reduce carbon emissions all of which help the tax-payer to be warm and healthy.

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