Energy efficiency isn’t sexy

There is nothing sexy about energy efficiency, opined former Chair of the Energy and Climate Change Committee and Conservative MP Tim Yeo to explain the past failures of successive governments to address the UK’s leaky housing stock. He was arguing that energy efficiency fails to capture the public imagination or inspire MPs to act, to address this pernicious and prevalent infrastructure problem that leads to fuel poverty, excessive carbon emissions and tedious blog posts (well at least one).  

Implicit in his statement is that other infrastructure investments are sexy; whose heart doesn’t flutter at the idea of HS2? Whose irises fail to dilate by the mere thought of superfast broadband? And has there ever been such a powerful aphrodisiac as whispering Hinkley Point C? No there hasn’t.    

With a plethora of bodacious projects on offer it is perhaps unsurprising that this Conservative Government has failed to make energy efficiency an infrastructure priority. In October 2015 the Chancellor announced the establishment of the National Infrastructure Commission (previously seen in Labour’s Manifesto) to enable long term ‘strategic thinking’ on the UK’s infrastructure priorities. Alas, energy efficiency does not feature among the NIC’s areas of consideration.

The failure to recognise energy efficiency as an infrastructure priority, and act as such, is a failure to the 4.5 million homes in the UK currently living in fuel poverty. Fuel poverty campaigners estimate that in the winter of 2014 15,000 people died unnecessarily between December and March due to people living in cold homes.

In 2013 David Cameron pledged to make the UK “the most energy efficient country in Europe”. Two years later in July 2015, with the Government one Liberal Democrat Party lighter, the Tories announced it was scrapping plans, originally put in place by Gordon Brown, to make all new homes carbon neutral by 2016. 

The Prime Minister often cites the need for the UK to live within our means economically, to not burden future generations with debt. Buildings are responsible for 37% of all carbon emissions in the UK, so if we are to meet our legally binding target of an 80% reduction of carbon emissions by 2050, new builds will need to be retrofitted at a greater cost. We are currently burdening future generations with this task.  

Research by Frontier Economics published in September 2015 found that a national energy efficiency programme could deliver £8.7bn of benefits to the UK, comparing favourable to ‘sexier’ projects like HS2 (Phase 1) (around £7.5bn) or Crossrail (£7.2bn). This benefit is without quantifying the key social benefits of energy efficiency in improving the health and wellbeing of some of the most vulnerable groups in society.

In Opposition Labour must hold the hold the Government to account for their record on energy efficiency, and pledge to make it a national infrastructure priority as part of Labour’s pitch to govern in 2020.  A roll out on a national scale, can reduce energy usage, improve the UK’s energy security, reduce the cost of bills, and create and sustain jobs in every constituency.

The UK has one of the highest percentages of households living in fuel poverty in the EU. Of the countries that collect the data only Ireland and Slovenia currently perform worse. Thirteen countries are currently performing better, countries including Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, France, Germany, and the Netherlands among others. This desperately needs to be addressed.

Tim Yeo is right to say energy efficiency isn’t sexy. Labour should make it a national infrastructure priority because it will help people, not because it will seduce them.  

Richard Arnold is a Young Fabians member

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