E3G report reveals how public investment in domestic energy efficiency has slumped 58 per cent since 2012
In a quirk of meteorological fate, the latest report on the UK's domestic energy efficiency from environmental think tank E3G was released this week against a backdrop of the coldest winter snap in five years. As National Grid called on industrial firms to limit gas consumption in response to fears soaring demand could lead to nationwide gas shortages, green campaigners provided a painful reminder of how the government has slashed spending on domestic energy efficiency measures that could both help people stay warm and bolster UK energy security.
The E3G report detailed how the rate of home insulation across the UK has crashed 90 per cent since 2012 and the peak years of the coalition government's domestic energy efficiency programmes.
It added that public investment in home energy efficiency improvements has been cut 58 per cent in England since 2012. As a result Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, where the devolved administrations run separate energy efficiency programmes, now spend respectively two, three and four times as much per citizen on home energy efficiency programmes than is spent in England.
The report also detailed how the UK has the second worst rate of cold weather-related deaths in Europe.
"In the last five years there were an average of 32,000 excess winter deaths in the UK, with 9,700 each year estimated to be linked to living in cold homes," E3G states. "The UK's appalling record - on what is a preventable cold homes public health epidemic - is mostly due to the poor energy efficiency of its housing stock."
The government maintains recent reforms to energy efficiency schemes mean funding is better targeted at the most fuel poor households.
But critics counter that the Cameron government ended taxpayer funded energy efficiency schemes, cut the obligation on energy firms to deliver efficiency improvements, and axed zero carbon home standards. The current government has also been accused of watering down new rules that require landlords to ensure properties meet minimum efficiency standards.
"The government has obliterated home insulation in England, which has left millions of people freezing in their homes," said E3G's Pedro Guertler. "Other nations have done far more to help their citizens."
He added that the Cameron government's decision to cut the Energy Company Obligation (ECO) scheme, which required large energy companies to fund domestic efficiency improvements through a levy on bills "is now widely considered by experts as a massive mistake".
"The asserted £30 saving on energy bills from Cameron's cuts were soon cancelled out by energy price increases, while the energy efficiency programme was cut back to the bone," he said. "Today's average annual household energy bill is £500 lower as a result of the UK's energy efficiency programmes since 2004. What the Cameron government regarded as 'green crap' is now increasingly seen as 'green gold'."
The latest data, coupled with the warnings from National Grid about gas supply risks, prompted fresh calls from E3G and others for the government to make energy efficiency a national infrastructure priority and fund home improvements from general taxation.
"Making our buildings energy efficient is the most cost-effective means of decarbonising our energy infrastructure, it protects from the health risks of cold homes and keeps our energy bills down," said Guertler. "The priority for our infrastructure programme should be to make our homes warm whilst slashing energy demand and bills."
His comments were echoed by Greenpeace's UK head of energy Hannah Martin, who warned "today's gas crunch is more than just a blip - it's the symptom of an underlying problem that's been festering for years".
"Successive governments have completely failed to tackle the issue of Britain's leaky and wasteful homes so now we're having to use much more gas than we'd otherwise need to," she said. "The solution is not to increase our dependence on gas, but to reduce it. Better home insulation brings the triple benefit of lower bills, lower carbon emissions and a lower risk of energy shortages. Ministers should waste no time to roll out a national programme that gives Britain the warmer homes it deserves."
Dr Jonathan Marshall, energy analyst at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), similarly argued the gas supply crunch required a long term and co-ordinated response.
"Behind today's gas deficit warning is a 'perfect storm' of unrelated short-term issues - freezing conditions, diminished Dutch gas production due to earthquake concerns, weather-related issues curbing imports from Europe, and a global LNG market in which supplies are being pulled to Asia by higher prices," he said. "But underlying it is another set of issues that speak to a failure by successive governments to map out a secure gas future in the way that they have done so successfully for electricity. Allowing Centrica to close the UK's only big long-term gas store without consideration for supply during cold snaps, failing to develop a coherent plan for low-carbon heating, and above all a head-in-the-sand approach to improving energy efficiency in homes have all put households and businesses at risk of shortages and price spikes."
He added that the gas crunch and E3G's report confirmed there was "an urgent need for Greg Clark and Sajid Javid to work out jointly exactly what they're going to do about Britain's cold, energy-wasteful housing stock - because doing nothing clearly isn't an option".
However, supporters of the fledgling UK shale gas industry drew a different lesson from this week's gas shortages.
"The UK is worryingly dependent on gas imports and this is forecast to increase to 80 per cent by 2035," said Ken Cronin, chief executive of UK Onshore Oil and Gas. "Given that nearly 50 per cent of our electricity is produced by gas and 84 per cent of our homes are heated with it, the need to ensure we have our own homegrown source of gas rather than pursuing this continued over-reliance on imports has today become very evident. We believe that the right way forward is to produce British natural gas from shale onshore and we are working hard to achieve this goal."
A government spokesperson said steps were being taken to improve domestic energy efficiency. "The government is committed to tackling fuel poverty," they said. "The Warm Home Discount provides two million low income households with £140 off their winter energy bills and the safeguard tariff cap is to be extended to a further one million customers - so over five million customers will be protected for the first time this winter."
Energy efficiency programmes do remain in place across the UK. But until the government delivers a more ambitious, comprehensive, and adequately funded domestic energy efficiency programme it can expect to face plenty more criticism from green groups and plenty more questions about UK energy security from businesses, whatever the weather.
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