Burning any kind of carbon - gas, oil, coal, waste, even wood - is bad for us. Sure, it warms us up and carries us around; it drives our machinery and produces our ‘stuff’, but it also wraps a blanket of greenhouse gases around our planet that puts our very survival at risk. As the planet warms under this ever-thickening blanket, seas rise, flooding increases, food production declines and our precious carbon reserves, built up over millions of years, deplete. Even wood is vastly dearer now than five years ago because many people switched to it as a more environmentally friendly and renewable source of fuel. The world is still deforesting faster than trees can grow back.
In Europe strict targets and rules to tackle climate change are slowly reducing the use of carbon fuels. But across the rest of the globe, carbon emissions are soaring. We drive everywhere. We need electricity for our gadgets and lights. We need materials, machines, equipment and clothes; and we waste at least half our energy in ‘leaky’ buildings. The lowest income tenants are worst hit as landlords have little incentive to reduce their bills, and tenants have few incentives to improve landlords’ property. So what can we do?
Luckily Germany, Scandinavia and pioneering people in Britain have experimented with the obvious: cutting their bills in half through energy efficiency measures. Encasing homes in better insulation is a good way of doing this. It is harder than it sounds, though, because it involves investing money upfront in order to save it further down the line - around £10,000 per home. The government’s flagship retrofit scheme, the green deal, will invest private sector cash to help do this, but to be a success it needs strong support.
We know this from the example of Germany which has made its version of the green deal work, creating 1 million new jobs retrofitting 9 million homes, achieving up to 70 per cent cuts in energy use and cancelling its expensive nuclear programme. The German economy is benefiting from this green investment. Three pillars make it work: a tight legal and financial framework with strong incentives and enforcement; a public investment bank to fund upfront costs with cheap loans; and public campaigns offering local experiments, accredited advice and enforceable standards. The UK government needs to adopt these three pillars that are transforming Germany.
The UK is legally bound to cut carbon emissions by 34 per cent by 2020. Twenty million owners and 1,000 social landlords will take part if the government uses the right persuasion, incentives and enforcement. Market forces alone won’t achieve these targets. The government needs to underwrite the credit risk of the green deal and launch public campaigns to influence behaviour change.
And we can’t just rely on hi-tech solutions. We have to throw everything at the problem, including old-fashioned remedies. Thick, lined curtains for windows and doors; newspaper or cardboard under all floor coverings; closing doors; foil behind radiators; hot water bottles to warm beds; blocking up unused fireplaces; only turning on radiators in rooms we use; no gadgets on stand-by and many other ideas. These basic measures could halve a low income tenant’s energy bill and no one needs to wait to do them.
So the green deal will only work if the government invests in it alongside the private sector. It’s far cheaper than burning carbon, or building nuclear power stations.
Anne Power is professor of social policy and deputy director of the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics