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.