Fuel poverty, fuel affluence and carbon reduction

October 28, 2013 § 8 Comments

Fuel poverty, along with fuel price increases, has been much in the news. But is it fuel poverty or fuel affluence that we should really be concerned about – the fuel poor or the fuel rich?

There is no doubt that fuel poverty is a serious problem. To be fuel poor is to suffer. Cold affects health. Respiratory problems, mobility problems and cardiovascular problems are all made worse. Worries about whether it’s OK to turn the heating on and whether bills can be paid are a recurrent, debilitating anxiety for many of society’s most vulnerable people.

Tackling fuel poverty doesn’t reduce emissions

But why are fuel poverty and carbon reduction so often spoken of in the same breath? Why is tackling fuel poverty suggested as part of the solution to climate change? The truth is that tackling fuel poverty makes little difference to carbon emissions. Poor people, living in substandard housing (rated E, F or G) generally have a fixed budget for their heating, rarely enough to keep their home warm. Through necessity, they under-heat their homes. When their homes are thermally upgraded, they spend the same amount of money. The difference is that they are now able to live at a temperature that offers them a decent quality of life. One study found that fuel use amongst the poor actually increased slightly following upgrades, possibly because people could feel more confident in a well-insulated house that keeping the heating on for a little longer would not actually break the bank.

The hidden problem of the fuel rich

So if dealing with substandard housing – which must be done – does not reduce carbon emissions amongst poor people, why is it treated as if it does? We might suspect that something else is going on: responsibility is being deflected from a problem that powerful people would prefer not to face. The problem is the fuel rich.

There are two categories of the fuel rich we might consider. Those who live in large, un-insulated houses but who can afford they bills they incur, and keep themselves snugly comfortable by pumping extraordinary quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere. And those who own many of the houses lived in by the fuel poor – the landlord, rentier class who achieve their carbon-polluting lifestyles on the backs of their vulnerable tenants.

If the fuel rich insulated their own homes, there would a genuine drop in carbon emissions. They could keep their homes just as cosy at a fraction of the carbon pollution. But mostly, they don’t. Ask any architect or engineer who has proposed even the most ordinary energy-saving measures to a wealthy client, refurbishing an existing dwelling. For every one who agrees, there are a dozen who don’t. They can’t be bothered. The additional cost will add to the price of the job. The marble worktops, gold-plated taps and £50,000 kitchen units are essential. The insulation – and the environment – can go hang.

And the landlord class who own many of the properties lived in by the fuel poor? Despite tax breaks (Landlords Energy Saving Allowance) and the inducements of the Green Deal – which bizarrely would see tenants paying through bills for the improvements – most landlords do not act. Why? Greed, selfishness, stupidity and a disregard for the lives of others are all candidates.

Deflecting attention from the real carbon polluters

Psychologically we are in familiar territory. David Cameron can wring his hands. George Osborne can offer an extra jumper. The rich simultaneously affect concern while deflecting attention from their own culpability.

So what should a concerned environmentalist do? If you want to campaign for carbon reduction make your target the fuel rich, not the fuel poor. Alleviating fuel poverty is a noble aim but it does not, in itself, reduce carbon emissions. Focus your sights on those who are the cause of the problem.

Genuine carbon reduction is almost always a question of social justice. Whether we are looking at the relationship of wealthy countries like the UK to poor ones like Tanzania, or the relationship between the affluent and the disadvantaged in the UK, then the rich must reduce their impact so that the poor can achieve a decent, human standard of living.




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§ 8 Responses to Fuel poverty, fuel affluence and carbon reduction

  • Louisa Radice says:

    For the record, not all members of the “landlord class” are rich. I’ve been left worse off since renting out the only property I own in order to move to another party of the country for a new job – after I lost the said job I only then discovered that I was ineligible for any means-tested benefits.

    I’d love to make the property more energy-efficient, but I don’t want to go to the expense of forking out £80 just for someone to tell me “there’s nothing you can do”. For the record, it’s a flat in a building without cavity walls.

  • rorandall2 says:

    Hi Louisa
    As ever, the reality is more complex than my rant – people become landlords for all kinds of complicated reasons and your story is a hard one. Sadly buildings and their maintenance are expensive and climate change adds further demands and anxieties. Solid walls can usually be insulated on the inside if external insulation can’t be agreed for the whole block of flats. Neither option is cheap but if you are unemployed you may be eligible for help through the ECO element of the Green Deal. Sometimes there is other community based help available locally.

  • Louisa Radice says:

    Trouble is, I don’t live in the locality of my flat. I’m currently based 254km away, so there’d be travel costs in addition to the fee for a Green Deal assessment. I’ve tried asking for advice from the Transition group local to the flat, but they’re not particularly active on the energy front.

  • lowwintersun says:

    Great post, part of the same dilemma we’ve been facing at Carbon Co-op when looking who to target resources to first.

    Is there room for a discussion around re-distributive environmental justice ie should the rich fund improvements for the poor? Isn’t that linked to the debate on ECO funding that the Torries seem increasingly keen to remove?

  • Wilson Catchpole says:

    I think it’s a generalisation in the extreme to suggest that the ‘fuel rich’ are enjoying £50,000 kitchens and gold plated taps in a country house that has no insulation and is freezing cold as soon as the heating goes off. Either the heating is on 24/7 therefore or if it goes off at night it will be extremely deteremental to the fabric of their property. Either way that’s not a pleasant way to live and obviously it’s also a very expensive way to live. The ‘rich’ didn’t get rich by being that wasteful with their money.
    Yes there a good number of large older houses occupied by the fuel rich and yes their bills are sure to be higher than the average but our research for our Green Deal work has found that ownwers of the larger country houses are very keen to do something about the fuel efficiency of their homes and are especially keen on renewables since their properties tend to lend themselves to panels, biomass, heat pumps or domestic wind. The fuel rich are sure to be an important component of the Green Deal/retrofit market and as you point out, particularly in regard to carbon reduction.

    p.s. Irony of the tyre squealing BMW ad on the bottom of this page is not lost!

  • Andy Brown says:

    Hi Wilson
    I would be interested to see the research. My experience of discussions about the Green Deal with wealthy clients is that they are not bothered. Too much hassle and they have better sources of finance. Also, experience is also that faced with choosing between more insulation or a more expensive floor, four times out of five they will choose the fancy floor (only).
    I did not know that this site carried adverts. I would suggest you check out //adblockplus.org, and of course the BMW is generated from your profile not Ro’s!
    Cheers, Andy

  • Louisa Radice says:

    Slightly O/T, but last Saturday I attended a “GreenerHOMEevent” organised by the London Borough of Camden. One of the exhibitors was Eco Action Games (http://www.ecoactiongames.org.uk) who were demonstrating energy-efficiency-themed versions of Snakes & Ladders and Top Trumps. Obviously aimed at children, yet at the same event the talks on eco-home improvements were attended primarily by middle-aged (if not retired) people. I was reminded of Ro’s earlier caveat about teaching children about climate change. Judging by the average age of a first-time buyer in London now, today’s children playing Eco Action Games will have to wait 40 years to put what they’ve learnt into practice!

  • rorandall2 says:

    Interesting – points to the way the property market is so skewed.
    But the replies to this post have also made me reflect on how we understand wealth. Few people think of themselves as wealthy, even when they are. It’s very common to feel that one is under pressure, at risk of having the little one has taken away, discriminated against by others who have more and so on. People tend to compare themseslves with those who have more than they do, rather than with those who have less and so frequently experience themselves as lacking. Psychologically we may be in the territory of sibling rivalry and competition, always seeing others as somehow being more privileged and more favoured. Even millionaires sometimes claim that they are not really rich and wealthy people make themselves feel poor by spending beyond their munificent means.
    There’s a useful piece from the Guardian about 18 months ago called Household Incomes: how do you compare? – with an interactive feature that lets you plot your position amongst other UK households. According to this I am in the top 20% of UK incomes and am well-off. Although I knew this at some level I find it uncomfortable and find myself offering justifications such as that I’ll be poor when I retire, that I’ve worked hard all my life, that lots of people I know earn even more etc etc etc. I think this realisation of my own position makes me very aware of all the subtle and not so subtle ways rich people duck the reality of their wealth. I think we have to find ways of making them face it and spend their money usefully.
    Take a look at the Guardian’s calculator – you might be surprised!

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