Climate change: reasons for optimism

7 Apr 2022 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 7 Apr 2022

Pic: Pixabay

There’s good reason for us to be optimistic as we strive to eliminate our carbon footprint.

But if we are to do so fairly we need to develop policies to protect the less well-off from consequences which will otherwise unfairly penalise them.

This is the conclusion of Shrinking Footprints, the latest paper in the Resolution Foundation’s two year inquiry into the economic challenges we face as we enter a period of rapid change.

It identifies the three deceptively simple challenges we will need to tackle on the road to zero carbon and spells out what policy-makers will need to do to rise to them.

In doing so it is worth noting that we have come quite a long way already since 1990 the UK’s territorial CO2 footprint has practically halved, so therefore maintaining the same pace to mid-century will get us to net zero.

However whilst progress to date has not been that visible to the consumer the next phase will directly impact both what and how much we consume.

This will be very much visible, it will inevitably provoke much public debate, it will necessitate behavioural change and, most important of all because different income groups will be impacted in different ways we’re going to need measures to prevent lower-income households from unaffordable costs. Not only that but every citizen needs to feel the benefits of the transition. The poor should absolutely not be paying more whilst wealthier fellow citizens benefit.

The critical areas are: reducing emissions from residential buildings; replacing our 32 million cars with electric alternatives; reducing both meat and diary products in our diets and – at the very least – not increasing our travel by planes.

The need for increased momentum coincides with the war in Ukraine and with the UK and EU in the embarrassing position of subsidising President Putin’s war machine by buying Russian oil and gas.

Reducing and preferably eliminating that dependency is an urgent priority. So too is reducing fuel bills which are also spiking as a result of the conflict.

Bringing down home heating – already a climate priority has been given even more urgent focus in that regard.

And the challenge is formidable. Decarbonising housing is, for the vast majority of households the biggest obstacle faced on the road to net zero.

It will require emissions from residential buildings to fall by 44 per cent by 2035. This task breaks down into two components: replacing gas boilers and oil boilers predominantly with heat pumps, and insulating the 60 per cent of properties whose energy efficiency rating is below C on the EPC scale before 2035.

Government strategy to date has been on the first aspect: driving down the upfront costs of installing heat pumps. There are three elements: regulations on new homes, grants for heat pump upgrades in existing properties and banning gas and oil boiler installation after 2035. The hope is that the combination of measures will mean that a heat pump costs no more than a conventional boiler by the end of the decade.

But the most pressing challenge lies elsewhere: upgrading 60% of homes so that they get a C rating on the EPC scale.

This is where improvements make a real difference to peoples’ lives. After this month’s price jump April, a family with typical energy consumption living in an EPC E rated home (4.2 million British households) are set to face a bill £320 higher than if they lived in an EPC C rated property. Cumulatively that’s £4 billion in extra costs and wasted energy.

It is important to pause and briefly examine how this is to be paid for. Social housing providers are generally well regulated and standards for their tenants are good. The private rented sector urgently needs new regulation to enforce decent standards. That’s an imperative and we should expect appropriate regulation to bring landlords into line.

However most problematic are owner-occupier households in the bottom fifth of the income distribution. They have an average after housing costs income of around £9,100 a year and face an average upgrade costs of around £8,600, so some help with funding is essential.

One area for at least cautious optimism is transport. In the UK we are not just keeping up with, but  outpacing by two years the most optimistic projections for change.

Electric car sales now account for one in five new car purchases and the growing prevalence of leasing deals to purchase new cars mean it will be only a few years until more affordable electric cars appear en masse in the second-hand market, allowing lower-income households access to cheaper and cleaner motoring.

Challenges here are twofold: how to ensure that all get to enjoy the benefits and also to make sure that there is sufficient charging network to keep up with demand.

Currently lack of regulation leads to disparities and unfairness towards the less well-off. So whilst those with a garage or private off-street parking can charge their cars for as little as £139 at overnight tariffs the many who do not face costs of £712 per year.

Policy-makers will also need to keep a keen eye on the infrastructure. They cannot just leave it to the private sector if that is going to mean the neglect of rural and poorer areas in favour of the most wealthy. Yet that is how things are shaping up to date. Just one example. Around Westminster there is a car charger for every 44 vehicles yet in Northern Ireland last year 60% of all electric vehicle drivers were saying they were switching back to petrol or diesel because the charging network was so poor.

That leaves two final areas with very different sensitivities especially in Northern Ireland: aviation and food. 

It is predicted that by the mid-21st-century carbon footprints of the bottom half of the income distribution will be driven by food, while the upper half will have a larger contribution from aviation.

Present predictions allow for 17 per cent growth in per-person air travel between 2019 and 2050. No steps have been taken to reduce demand. If that does happen there will be a disproportionate impact on Northern Ireland where more air travel is necessary for work, attending studies or returning home to see families. This issue will need forensic examination in the years to come.

Food is an equally emotive issue in a country where agriculture contributes so much to the economy. And in any case we can expect governments to be loathe to legislate to increase taxation on meat and dairy.

Here they must rely on changing appetites. Again there are grounds for cautious optimism. Recent YouGov research shows 29% people eating less meat with similar numbers describing their diets as vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian or flexitarian (i.e. “mainly vegetarian”). And 70% agree we should either definitely or probably eat less meat.

Long term trends back this up. We now, for example, eat 70% less lamb than we did in the 1970s.

However this also needs to be balanced against the rise in poultry and meat-based ready meals we consume today.

The main point of all this is that public opinion is changing, policy objectives that once looked wildly optimistic do now look achievable, but if we are to achieve net zero equitably we must not rely on market forces but should be prepared to intervene.


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