But as the weather begins to change and winter finally arrives, a different concern returns, one that doesn’t always get the coverage it deserves: the 4 million UK households in fuel poverty.
Fuel poverty is defined as existing when a household needs to spend more than 10% of its income on heating, in order to keep adequately warm. Due to rising fuel prices and the economic downturn the number of households in fuel poverty has been increasing rapidly, and shows every indication of continuing to do so. An amazing one in five UK households is now classed as being in fuel poverty, with almost half of those affected aged 60 or over.
The result of people being unable to keep adequately warm is an additional 26,000 deaths in which the cold weather pays a part over the winter. These deaths arise from respiratory problems and also from heart attacks and strokes resulting from the thickening of the blood and associated rise in blood pressure that occurs when we are cold.
Our energy policies are not only failing future generations due to climate change, but also failing many struggling households in our current generation too !
The problem is that these issues are often played off against each other.
Many of the critics of wind farms and feed in tariffs etc argue that they ‘further add to the fuel bills of those in hardship’, and while I sometimes question how genuinely these concerns are felt by those voicing them, there’s no denying it is a issue that needs addressing.
Unfortunately those seeking to defend subsidies for renewable energy sometimes appear unsympathetic to the plight of those in fuel poverty – simply pointing out that the additional cost of these schemes to average energy bills are in fact very low (which indeed they are). This risks missing the real point – that it’s difficult to make a just case why cold pensioners, fearful of turning on their heating over the winter, should pay more for their energy bills – regardless of the amount involved.
Environmentalists who only talk about melting ice sheets and polar bears, can easily appear dismissive of those facing real hardship. Framing the debate as either green energy or warm pensioners avoids the critical issue – both problems are real and urgently require a solution.
What is needed is a system that achieves the necessary decarbonisation of the economy, while allowing vulnerable people to keep warm in their own homes. Environmental issues are almost always social justice issues too.
Of course things are complex.
Real world solutions will need be a mix of price protection and support for those in most hardship, cost incentives to reduce the energy use of those with the ability to pay, grants for insulation, subsidies or tax benefits for energy companies to become more efficient, and, of course, subsidies and incentives to encourage the development of more renewable energy sources.
Government is at least engaging with some of these issues via its proposed Green Deal.
We’ll all have to wait and see if the detail of what’s being proposed lives up to expectations.
Photo by Clearly Ambiguous via Flickr