Energy is a crucial part of the climate change debate. How we have used energy to generate power over the past 200 years is the reason we are faced with the threat of runaway climate change today and the decisions we make now about where we get that energy from will determine whether or not we will be able to stop runaway climate change in the future.
James Watt wasn’t to know when he invented his steam engine in 1769 that this miracle source of energy had a draw back. Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere that has not been in the atmosphere for millions of years. As it turns out, this is bad news for us because CO2 is a greenhouse gas, increasing greenhouse gases causes global average temperature to rise, which in turn causes many knock on effects including heat-waves, melting ice caps, mega-floods, mega-droughts, forest fires, and species extinction.
So obviously we have a huge motivation to stop burning fossil fuels as soon as possible. The stakes could not be higher. Aside from the need to stop pumping massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (over 500 million tonnes in the UK alone last year) there are other reasons to move away from our reliance on fossil fuels. Firstly, the days of cheap oil and gas are over. People don’t need reminding of that when they are filling up their cars or heating their homes. Secondly, we’re interested in security of energy supply. In the uncertain world of the future, we don’t want to be dependent on foreign supplies of oil or gas.
What are the means by which fossil fuels can be reduced and eventually phased out? The first priority, everybody agrees, must go to energy efficiency. The second priority is massive investment in renewable energies. The Energy Bill 2011 is the Government’s attempt to help improve energy efficiency in homes and businesses, and to deliver low carbon energy supplies. The centre-piece of the Bill is legislation to bring in the Green Deal. This aims to encourage households to make energy efficiency improvements, such as loft and cavity wall insulation, by providing low-interest up-front capital for homeowners, funded by a charge on energy bills at a later date. The scheme is designed so that estimated savings on bills will always equal or exceed the cost of the work.
In addition to the need to dramatically reduce our carbon footprint (homes account for 27% of UK carbon emissions), there are a large number of people living in fuel poverty due to poorly insulated properties. A household is defined as being in fuel poverty when it needs to spend more than 10% of its income in order to keep warm. There are believed to be over 4.5 million people in the UK living in freezing conditions through self-rationing and disconnection – with private tenants among those at highest risk of fuel poverty. In the very worst insulated and poorly heated rented homes (just under 700,000 rented homes in England have an Energy Efficiency Rating of F and G) over 40% of households live in fuel poverty. It costs the NHS in England an estimated £145m annually to treat people made ill by living in these dangerously cold homes.
Birmingham FOE have been campaigning hard since the end of last year to ensure that Birmingham’s MPs support amendments to the Bill that will lay the foundation for the green overhaul the UK desperately needs. We met with half of them and held a public meeting with Selly Oak MP Stuart McCabe in June, in partnership with the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition.
The Bill completed its Committee Stage a couple of weeks ago when it was scrutinised in detail and amendments were made. We are campaigning for every council to do its bit with local carbon budgets. We called for a legal minimum standard of energy efficiency for rented accommodation by 2016. The Government agreed to this, but have stated that the regulation could not start until 2018 (why do we have to wait seven years?!) and there were a number of loopholes. We are also campaigning to make it an offence to market F and G rated properties to let and to protect tenants who make energy efficiency requests to landlords from eviction. Friends of the Earth nationally have been doing a great job, working with a broad coalition of organisations, and the shadow cabinet to ensure the Bill is fit for purpose.
Hard on the heels of the Energy Bill, on 12 July 2011, the Government published ‘Planning our electric future: a White Paper for secure, affordable and low-carbon electricity’. The report states that “with a quarter of the UK’s generating capacity shutting down over the next ten years as old coal and nuclear power stations close, more than £110bn in investment is needed to build the equivalent of 20 large power stations and upgrade the grid.”
So energy will be high on the agenda in 2012 when Parliament puts flesh on the bones of the Electricity Market Reform white paper with another energy bill, this time dealing with how we generate our electricity in the UK. Friends of the Earth want to make sure that we are able to present the case for renewables as forcefully as possible. In order to do this we are doing some research!
This summer Birmingham FOE will be interviewing and building alliances with people involved in local renewable energy projects for the Big Energy Conversation. We will be scoping out potential institutions that might want renewables but haven’t got them yet. We would like to hear the views of local businesses that supply or work in renewable energy; to pick the brains of local organisations that currently benefit from renewables; and to speak to individuals to root out the best examples of green energy projects in and around the city.
The best/most interesting examples we find will be made into case studies that will help Friends of the Earth develop a big new campaign on renewable energy in the autumn. If you work in or use renewable energy we would like to hear from you.
Make no mistake, the scale of the challenge is immense. The Government has committed the UK to the target of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions by 80% by the middle of the century. If we are to have any chance of achieving this goal it is crucial for all of us, especially young people, to get involved. It’s easy to set targets. It’s up to us to make sure our politicians deliver on their promises. Our grandchildren will thank us for it.