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Rishi Sunak should ease burden on households by kickstarting programme of home insulation and energy efficiency rather than rolling back green policies





Green Watch columnist Louise Tennekoon writes about environmental matters in Bishop’s Stortford

The signs of our changing climate are everywhere. Wildfires in Greece. Terrible floods in Libya. Extreme heat affecting millions in the US, Europe and China. Antarctic sea ice at its lowest ever level. So why would Rishi Sunak choose this moment to roll back measures which will help us slow climate change?

His argument goes something like this. We’re already doing more than anyone else. We need to “ease the burden on households”. And it’s important to be “proportionate and pragmatic”.

Let’s look at each of these in turn. It’s true that the UK has a good track record on cutting emissions. UK carbon emissions fell 47% between 1990 and 2020, mostly thanks to a decisive move away from coal in power stations. But emissions from transport and housing have not changed significantly in the last 10 years and these will have to fall if we are to hit our target to cut emissions by 68% by 2030, on track for net zero by 2050.

The policy changes announced last week – a five-year delay in the ban on new petrol and diesel cars, a weakening of the planned phase-out of gas boilers and a watering down of energy efficiency standards for private rented properties – will make it harder to deliver cuts in these areas. Rishi says we are still on track. Chris Stark, head of the independent Climate Change Committee, calls that “wishful thinking”.

When it comes to easing the burden on households, the Prime Minister talked about people being forced to “rip out their gas boilers”’ and replace them with heat pumps costing £10,000 or £15,000. But it was never the plan to force anyone to replace a boiler that’s still working.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak

More significantly, the cost of heat pumps is falling dramatically. Just last week Octopus Energy launched its Cosy 6 heat pump which has slashed the cost in half. If you get it under the government-funded Boiler Upgrade Scheme (BUS), it will cost around £3,000 (or less if your home is already well insulated). If you want to take advantage of the BUS, you need to move fast. The Government increased the amount available per household last week from £5,000 to £7,500, but they didn’t increase the overall pot of money available. So 10,000 fewer grants will now be on offer.

So the claim that it will cost £15,000 to install a heat pump by 2035 just doesn’t stack up. Basic economics tells us the best way to drive innovation, competition, efficiencies and cost saving in this market would be to increase demand through clear and consistent targets, rather than delay. It’s the same in the car market. According to Lisa Brankin, chair of Ford UK, the industry needs “ambition, commitment and consistency” from the Government to support investment. Instead, the delay in the ban on petrol and diesel cars locks people into more expensive, more polluting vehicles for longer.

What does proportionate and pragmatic mean? Presumably it means moving at a pace which supports and strengthens our economy, the fear being that going too far, too fast will cripple us economically. Rishi is right when he talks about a new industrial revolution. That is what’s coming and we need an industrial strategy to support that revolution, with the Government setting – and sticking to – clear targets that send reliable signals to the market.

Instead, what we saw last week was “the opposite of good economics” according to Professor Nicholas Stern of LSE, who first looked at the economics of climate change in 2006. “Chopping and changing will raise serious questions with businesses …will undermine investment and jeopardise growth,” he says.

What does Rishi’s green rollback mean for you? If you rent your home, it means higher fuel bills for longer. Landlords were going to have to improve the energy efficiency of rental properties, bringing them up to an energy performance rating of C by 2028 (2025 for new tenancies). Moving from an EPC band E (the current minimum standard for rentals) to a C would typically reduce bills by around £750 a year. This proposal was ditched last week, so that’s money that you won’t have in your pocket any time soon.

If you own your home and want to make it more energy efficient, it will continue to be a slow and relatively expensive process. The target to ban new gas boilers in 2035 was primarily designed to send a clear signal to the industry – installers, manufacturers, developers, housebuilders – to gear up and increase supply of alternatives, bringing prices down.

Playing fast and loose with that target sends a conflicting message to the industry. Why would you invest now in changes when you could wait another 10 years? This is particularly true for the thousands of plumbers and heating engineers who lose income if they take time out for training. It’s been estimated that we need 30,000 heat pump installers across the country, but at the moment there are only 1,500. Yes, you read that right. This situation isn’t going to change as long as there’s no incentive for people to get trained.

Louise Tennekoon says if the Government wants to ease the burden on households it should kickstart a massive programme of home insulation and energy efficiency
Louise Tennekoon says if the Government wants to ease the burden on households it should kickstart a massive programme of home insulation and energy efficiency

If the Government wants to ease the burden on households, it should kickstart a massive programme of home insulation and energy efficiency. This would stimulate investment, create local green jobs, provide work for small businesses, cut energy bills, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and gas and cut emissions. But this kind of programme is absent from the Government’s plans.

The mainstream press is so polarised about net zero that it’s easy to get caught up in the arguments and lose sight of what matters. But when you listen to the scientists, what we need to do is clear. To avoid irretrievable climate breakdown, we have to stop using fossil fuels. Anything that takes us towards that goal is a step in the right direction. Anything that takes us away from it is a retrograde step. This includes the licensing of new oil and gas fields, which won’t do anything to increase our energy security or cut our energy prices, and the watering down of net zero targets.

What can we do about all of this? It’s easy to feel powerless, but you are not. It’s up to us to put climate change on the ballot at the next election. This is the time to use your voice and to tell the Government – and those who want to be part of the next one – what you care about and what you expect.

You might write a letter to your MP. Environmental lawyers Client Earth have a letter you can use or adapt at https://act.clientearth.org/page/134739/action/1?locale=en-GB. You could sign Friends of the Earth’s petition holding the Government to account or join Greenpeace’s Project Climate Vote and get trained up to talk to your neighbours about climate change ahead of the next election.

I agree with Rishi on one thing. We do need a new kind of politics, one which puts long-term interests ahead of short-term thinking. Surely there is no greater long-term interest than a liveable future for our children and for future generations.



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